A professor’s unlikely quest for busts of Alexander Pope.
“Fame and Friendship: Pope, Roubiliac, and the Portrait Bust in Eighteen-Century Britain,” recently on view at the Yale Center for British Art, tells a curious tale of Alexander Pope’s legacy, focusing on the strange fervor that continues to surround busts and portraits of him. Pope, whose birthday was earlier this week, was a household name, at least in one sector of British society. He was the first English poet to publish two volumes of his own collected works while living—and with the publication of the first volume, he also became the first English author to sustain himself entirely on the proceeds of his work. And he didn’t lead a meager existence. Pope was able to lease a sizable villa near Richmond, a painting of which was on view in Yale’s exhibition.
For any writer, these achievements would’ve been no small feat, but they’re especially impressive in light of Pope’s many obstacles. He was a Catholic at a time when Catholics weren’t allowed to live within ten miles of London or Westminster or to attend university; and he was beset with health problems that led to a visible hunchback and permanently stunted his height. Even so, Pope became a celebrated member of the British literary canon—someone whose very image evoked intellectual achievement.
Paintings and busts of Pope were commissioned for wealthy families and artistic friends—they conferred status among men of letters. According to Joseph Roach, Sterling Professor of Theater and English at Yale, when Voltaire visited England in 1727, he marveled that he saw Pope’s portrait in “twenty noblemen’s houses.” The placement of these busts was telling of the poet’s reputation; he was displayed with such notable British intellectuals as Laurence Sterne and Isaac Newton.
“Fame and Friendship” assembled an intriguing array of these busts, made of stately marble or—in the case of a petite, mass-produced work—porcelain. At the center of the collection are eight busts of Pope by French émigré sculptor Louis François Roubiliac, created between 1738 and 1760. Though they were made over the course of twenty-two years, they carry certain hallmarks: a telltale droop beneath Pope’s eyes, a marked thinness in his cheeks, an inquisitive gaze, and a slender nose. In Roubiliac’s skillful hands, the signs of Pope’s infirmity are presented instead as characteristics befitting a poetic countenance, with all the sensitivity that poetry implies.
More than two hundred years later, these distinctive sculptures captured the imagination of W. K. Wimsatt, a professor of English at Yale. In the early twentieth century, Wimsatt embarked on a twenty-five-year research project, hoping to gather all the Roubiliac busts of Pope. This meant writing Britain’s oldest families and trekking out to county manors in search of the droopy-eyed poet—an ambitious project, and seemingly a labor of love, as it was extracurricular to Wimsatt’s main research interests. After all, it was Wimsatt who wrote, with Monroe Beardsley, one of the foundational texts of the New Criticism: “The Intentional Fallacy,” a 1946 essay that called for critical objectivity, with a particular disregard of authorial intention or biography. And yet in 1961, a few decades after publishing “The Intentional Fallacy,” Wimsatt proudly mounted an exhibition of six of Roubiliac’s busts of Pope at the National Gallery of Art in London, later accompanied by a monograph, The Portraits of Alexander Pope. Wimsatt even named his son Alexander.
How to reconcile this disparity between theory and practice? At a conference organized around the opening of “Fame and Friendship,” Roach said,
If you want to avoid ending up in poetic biography, impressionism, and relativism, then surely the last thing that you would think of undertaking is an exhaustive study of portraits of the poet, iconic or otherwise … I think Wimsatt himself acknowledges this paradox wittily when he breaks off his narration of all the trouble he went to [in order to find the busts] with the sentence: “But the writing of the book is a story that ought not to appear in the book itself.”
Roach pointed to a kind of loophole, a crucial space Wimsatt left for the author outside the realm of theory: though New Criticism rejects the author specifically in critical readings of text, he said, the study of the author as a separate endeavor is not only a worthy project, but a rewarding one.
Whether or not that’s a satisfying argument, the exhibition speaks to the power of Wimsatt’s impulse to collect—the Pope busts, taken together, are a fascinating record of the poet and his time, and of the peculiarities attendant to his celebrity.
Lilly Lampe is a writer and art critic based in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in Art in America, ArtAsiaPacific, Art Papers, Artforum.com, and Modern Painters, among others.