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Posts Tagged ‘Alexander Pope’

The Inquisitive Fallacy

May 23, 2014 | by

A professor’s unlikely quest for busts of Alexander Pope.

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Unknown photographer, William Kurtz Wimsatt, circa 1961, © National Portrait Gallery, London

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Louis François Roubiliac, Alexander Pope, c. 1760, marble, Rothschild Foundation

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Louis François Roubiliac, Alexander Pope, 1741, marble, Yale Center for British Art, Gift of Paul Mellon in memory of the British art historian Basil Taylor (1922-1975)

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Louis François Roubiliac, Alexander Pope, c. 1738, terracotta, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

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Louis François Roubiliac, Alexander Pope, c. 1760, plaster, The Trustees of the British Museum

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Louis François Roubiliac, Alexander Pope, 1738, marble, Temple Newsam House, Leeds

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Joseph Nickolls, Pope’s Villa, Twickenham, c. 1755, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

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Adrien Carpentiers, Louis François Roubiliac Modelling His Monument to Shakespeare, between 1760 and 1761, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

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Studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller, Alexander Pope Profile, Crowned with Ivy, c. 1721, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Gift of Margaret Wimsatt in memory of William Kurtz Wimsatt Jr.

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Alexander Pope, The works of Mr. Alexander Pope, Vol I (London: Printed by W. Bowyer, for Bernard Lintot between the Temple-Gates, 1717), title page, frontispiece of Pope by Vertue after Jervas, inside front cover, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

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. Read More »

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Underground

May 21, 2014 | by

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A sketch of Pope’s grotto.

Today marks the day of Alexander Pope’s birth, in 1688. We remember Pope as a poet, essayist, satirist, translator, and one of the most quotable men in English. He’s responsible for, among many other aphoristic gems: “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” “What Reason weaves, by Passion is undone.” “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” And, yes, the phrase “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.”

In his time, he was also known for his amazing home, a Palladian villa at Twickenham surrounded by elaborate gardens and grottoes. Pope’s wealthy family was ostracized for its Catholicism, and his numerous health problems—he suffered from Pott’s disease, which stunted his growth to only four foot six—somewhat limited his social life. His home seems to have been a refuge, as well as a definitive indicator of his success.

The house, a Classical mansion surrounded by vast grounds, was grand enough, but it was the Homeric grotto that really got Pope’s heart racing. As he wrote at the time of its construction,

I have put the last hand to my works … happily finishing the subterraneous Way and Grotto: I then found a spring of the clearest water, which falls in a perpetual Rill, that echoes thru’ the Cavern day and night …When you shut the Doors of this Grotto, it becomes on the instant, from a luminous Room, a Camera Obscura, on the walls of which all the objects of the River, Hills, Woods, and Boats, are forming a moving Picture … And when you have a mind to light it up, it affords you a very different Scene: it is finished with Shells interspersed with Pieces of Looking-glass in angular Forms…at which when a Lamp…is hung in the Middle, a thousand pointed Rays glitter and are reflected over the place.

Later, he added, “Were it to have nymphs as well—it would be complete in everything.” Read More »

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Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”

January 26, 2012 | by

I have a weakness for the heroic couplet, and anything comical. Here, for example, is Alexander Pope on coffee, in that part of “The Rape of the Lock” where the Baron gets a new idea about how to gain access to Belinda’s follicles.

For lo! the Board with Cups and Spoons is crown’d,
The Berries crackle, and the Mill turns round.
On shining Altars of Japan they raise
The silver Lamp; the fiery Spirits blaze.
From silver Spouts the grateful Liquors glide,
And China’s Earth receives the smoaking Tyde.

On those somewhat rare occasions nowadays, when coffee is poured with any modicum of ceremony, usually (but not always) in an expensive restaurant, that last couplet invariably bounces out of some quiet backwater of the brain and makes me chuckle. Following on the “silver lamp” and “fiery spirits,” those “silver Spouts” are already pompous, but especially so when rendered in the plural. Pope is careful, though, to admit of plain cups and spoons, and a straightforward grinder that “turns round.” Mock heroism requires a plain background. Those gliding “liquors,” meanwhile, are perversely “grateful” and, in the next line, amplify in fragrance and volume into a “smoaking Tyde,” with that olfactory hint of seductive acceleration. The previously inanimate cups he deftly turns into a sort of allegorical entity, China’s “Earth,” perhaps lounging there, goddesslike, in receptive mode, or in acknowledgment of the absurd rite performed upon the silly “shining altars of” Japan. All five senses are amply stimulated here, with apparently total lack of effort. But look at the perfect symmetry of the conceit: two lines, each of ten syllables only, five meticulous iambs. By all accounts Pope could rattle off these perfect, cantilevered couplets in their hundreds. No fraught half-hours spent chewing the end of his pencil, or screwed up false starts overflowing from his wastepaper basket. I wonder if he even owned one. Effortlessness, however, was not enough: Pope also exhibited degrees of stylistic polish, cruel wit, and condescension that invariably nailed his intended victim, the better to hold him up to ridicule. The master.

At Starbucks, then, you might as well be dead,
If lattes only came in gingerbread.

Angus Trumble is senior curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.

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From the Cloakroom, at the Booker

October 20, 2011 | by

Julian Barnes by Ross MacGibbon.

For the real action at this year’s Man Booker Prize, you had to hit the cloakroom. For much of the evening, along with correspondents from all the major newspapers, I was sequestered in a large room in the palatial spread of the Guildhall. It was only when I ventured downstairs that recognizable faces attached to tuxedos and evening gowns began to drift in from the dinner. I ran across one former winner, dreamily improvising at an invisible keyboard while explaining how relieved he was to belong to what he called the great continuity of the prize; a well-known literary editor roamed the corridors, warily peering from right to left in the manner of a displaced meerkat; and Anne Robinson, host of The Weakest Link, was huddled against a wall, unusually hushed by the seashell allure of her cellphone. Read More »

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