Roubiliac’s busts of Alexander Pope focus of ‘Fame and Friendship’ exhibition

A new exhibition opening this week at the Yale Center for British Art looks at a series of portrait busts of 18th-century poet Alexander Pope by French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac. “Fame and Friendship: Pope, Roubiliac, and the Portrait Bust in Eighteenth-Century Britain” is on view Feb. 20–May 19 at 1080 Chapel St. in New Haven. The exhibition is free and open to the public.            

No literary figure of his era was more esteemed than Pope, whose early success translating Homer’s “Iliad” into English led to financial independence and an ability to manage his public persona — including the popular sculpted portraits of him.

“Pope was a person of great fame in his own lifetime, a national worthy,” said Malcolm Baker, curator of the exhibition and Distinguished Professor of the History of Art at the University of California-Riverside. “Some of the portrait busts were made to disseminate his image far and wide, but others were produced for particular friends.” These included William Murray, a young lawyer whom Pope tutored in oratory skills, who went on to become lord chief justice in 1754.  

The focus of the exhibition is a series of busts of Pope in a variety of mediums, including terracotta, plaster, bronze, and marble. Already frequently used to represent authors in antiquity, portrait busts became the most widely disseminated images celebrating famous writers during the 18th century. “Fame and Friendship” also includes a number of adaptations and copies of Roubiliac’s sculpture that help explore the little-understood processes of sculptural production and replication in 18th-century Britain.

“This is such a unique opportunity to learn something about sculptural practice in the 18th century and the replication of objects,” said Martina Droth, head of research and curator of sculpture at the YCBA. “We don’t really know a whole lot about how sculptors’ studios worked and the exact relationship between these busts. They all speak across and between each other. It’s quite a complicated story, really.”

“Fame and Friendship” also includes paintings, prints, drawings, and rare books that foreground Pope’s celebrity status from Yale collections, private lenders, and international collections, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, British Museum, and Leeds Museums and Galleries. The exhibition has been co-organized by the YCBA and Waddesdon Manor (The Rothschild Collection), where it will travel in summer 2014.

According to the organizers, “Fame and Friendship” builds on a tradition of Pope studies at the university, including the work Sterling Professors of English, W.K. Wimsatt, Pope’s most famous iconographer, and Maynard Mack, who wrote the definitive biography on Pope.

“This exhibition could only have been possible at Yale,” said Baker, noting the university’s history of Pope scholarship, its collections, and research program. “It shows why the Yale Center for British Art a is very special place,” he added.

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Amy Athey McDonald: amy.mcdonald@yale.edu,