Roubiliac made four portraits of Handel, of which the first, the famous statue of the seated figure with Apollo’s lyre, commissioned for Vauxhall Gardens and completed in 1738, established the sculptor’s reputation. The last was the composer’s monument in Westminster Abbey.
It is perhaps Roubiliac’s marble portraits rather than contemporary paintings by artists such as Thomas Hudson that present us with the persona of the inspired genius rather than the prosperous gentleman. In this bust, Handel is dressed well but in indoor garb of the kind worn in private, perhaps even while composing. The lop-sided, tasselled cap, carved with miraculous softness, and the disarranged coat are hallmarks of a sculptor intent on displaying every illusionistic trick, but also suggest a man careless of the material world, his mind on higher things. It should be remembered that the bust itself was intended for the composer’s own home, not for any official setting.
By the time he sat for the portrait, Handel had enjoyed considerable success in London, and indeed the Vauxhall statue was the first of any living composer to be erected in his lifetime in London. He had composed more than forty operas in Italian and the great series of oratorios in English on Old Testament themes was already well under way. Having provided the music for George II’s coronation in 1727, at the time he was sitting for this bust he was at work on the funeral anthem for Queen Caroline. In the previous year, 1737, he had suffered some kind of disorder or ‘palsy’, perhaps a minor stroke, arising no doubt in part from overwork, and he had been obliged to retire first to Tunbridge and then Aix la Chapelle to take the waters. Despite this, and the onset of blindness in the last ten years of his life, the bust depicts Handel with many of his greatest successes, including Messiah, still ahead of him.
John Christopher Smith the Younger, son of Handel’s manager and principal copyist, was one of the composer’s favourite pupils. Smith the Younger inherited many of Handel’s possessions that had first been left to his father. They included ‘…my large Harpsichord, my little House Organ, my Musick Books, and five hundred Pounds sterl:’ and may also have included the bust. Smith the Younger was appointed music teacher to Princess Augusta, widow of Frederick, Prince of Wales. According to Coxe, ‘The Princess … derived so much satisfaction and improvement from his instructions, that she was often heard to say, that in her advanced age, she had acquired a new taste for music.’ It was Smith the Younger who presented the bust, the harpsichord and the ‘Musick Books’ (the composer’s manuscripts) to George III. The latter were presented to the British Library by H.M. The Queen in 1957.
Text adapted from The First Georgians: Art and Monarchy 1714 - 1760, London, 2014
Given by the sitter to John Christopher Smith (1683-1763); his son, also John Christopher Smith (1712-1795); by whom given to George III, c.1772-4.