Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
Louis-François Roubiliac, a native of Lyon, learnt his art in Dresden with Balthasar Permoser and in Paris with Nicolas Coustou. Disappointed by his failure to achieve first prize in the Prix de Rome he moved to London in 1730. Though not himself a Huguenot, he associated with the sizeable expatriate French community of artists and patrons in London, many of whose families had first left France following the withdrawal in 1685 of the protection afforded to Protestants by Henri IV’s Edict of Nantes. Roubiliac made an immediate impact on his craft in Britain and enjoyed a career of more than thirty years, winning fame for his funerary monuments and portrait busts. This two outstanding example illustrates his ability to memorialize a character and to convince the viewer of the real presence of steel, cotton, hair, silk and fur where in fact there is only white marble.
It seems likely that this bust was commissioned by or for Lord Ligonier, probably in connection with his office as Commander-in-Chief of British forces from 1757-1759. Ligonier was born at Castres in France to a Huguenot family that was forced to emigrate after 1685. He joined the British army in 1702 and was able to purchase a captaincy by 1703, attaining the rank of Field Marshal in 1766 after a career of sixty years. He served under Marlborough at Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde and Malplaquet, with the Duke of Cumberland in 1745, and ultimately as Master General of the Ordnance. He became a close confidant of George II, who invested him as a Knight of the Bath on the battlefield of Dettingen in 1743. Aggressive by instinct and humane as a commander, he has been called the most outstanding general in the British army between Marlborough and Wellington, and in his time he shared something of their fame, and a degree of notoriety from the ‘harem’ he kept at Downe Place at Cobham in Surrey.
The different forms of signature of this bust and that of John, 1st Earl Ligonier (1680-1770), c.1760, also by Roubiliac, RCIN 35256 suggest that Roubiliac created his portrait of Ligonier from the life but not that of the King, who may even have died before it was finished. The aged features of George II are fixed with unsparing realism. The 76-year-old King’s oyster-eyes, protruding jaw and sagging skin made unpromising material for a portrait, and the eye is drawn, deliberately no doubt, to the astonishing knotted length of drapery that extends wantonly over the edge of the King’s armour, conjured from cold marble. In this markedly baroque – and old-fashioned – portrait Roubiliac was surely setting out to surpass the works of Bernini, which he will have known from his studies with Bernini’s pupil Balthasar Permoser, and from his time in Paris with Nicolas Coustou.
A payment of £153 11s to Roubiliac in February 1763, referred to in Ligonier’s regimental accounts (archives of Lloyds Bank), probably applies to this commission. George II disliked having his portrait taken, and no sittings are recorded for this bust. It seems likely that the King’s bust was produced after his death (aged 76) in October 1760, and that the likeness was based on a portrait made in his last years.
Text adapted from The First Georgians: Art and Monarchy 1714 - 1760, London, 2014