Louis-Francois Roubiliac (1695-1762)
The 18th century French Huguenot sculptor, Roubiliac spent most of his artistic career working in England, where he established a reputation for his brilliant and sensitive Baroque sculpture - notably portrait busts - in stone, marble and terracotta - including those of notable figures like Shakespeare, Handel and Isaac Newton.
As a result of these works, together with his full-length seated marble statue of Handel (1738, Victoria & Albert Museum), numerous tomb sculptures and monumental statues, Roubiliac has come to be regarded as one of the finest French Baroque artists and one of best sculptors ever to work in England.
Early Life and Career
Very little is known of Roubiliac's career before moving to London in the early 1730's, or how he learned the art of sculpture. He may have received some artistic training from Balthasar Permoser (1651-1732), one of the leading Baroque sculptors in Dresden. Additionally he may have travelled to Paris and studied under Nicolas Coustou (1658-1733), a leading wood carver and sculptor who may have imparted the influences of his studies of Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Alessandro Algardi (1598-1664).
EVOLUTION OF SCULPTURE
Sculpture of Handel
Roubiliac's first significant work was a full length seated marble sculpture of the composer Handel (1738, Victoria & Albert Musuem, London). Handel is dressed casually, his shirt partially unbuttoned and his slippers dangling. A small naked little boy sits at his feet, writing down the music which the composer strikes on a lyre. Roubiliac signed his name on the plinth of the statue.
This work manages to capture the lively, friendly atmosphere of many 18th century plays. This is achieved partly by the relaxed pose of the sitter, and partly through the carving skills employed to created soft curves which capture the play of light. Yet, the statue is carefully composed, the S curve of the body is framed on the left by the line of his gown and on the right with his lyre. Forms and space, shadows and light play beautifully together on the smooth surface of the marble. The success of this work, soon made Roubiliac one of the most celebrated portrait sculptors in London. He was a virtuoso portrait sculptor who liked his sitters in simple contemporary clothes, as in his bust of John Belchier (1749, Royal College of Surgeons, London).
Westminister Abbey Sculptures
Many of Roubiliac's principal works are to be found at Westminster Abbey, including monuments to Handel, Admiral Warren, Lady Elizabeth Nightingale, Marshal Wade and the Duke of Argyll. His marble Tomb of Sir Joseph and Lady Elizabeth Nightingale (1761) is particularly dramatic, in the style of Bernini whose work Roubiliac saw when he visited Rome in 1752. In this tomb, Lady Elizabeth is being attacked by Death, a terrifying skeleton which emerges from a vault, while her husband vainly tries to protect her. Sir Joseph commissioned the tomb after the early untimely death of his beloved wife. When Roubiliac compared his own work to that of Bernini (1598-1680), he is said to have commented that his own sculptures looked meagre and starved, as if made of nothing but tobacco pipes.
It was believed that Roubiliac was responsible for the famous Davenant bust of Shakespeare (Garrick Club, London). Scarcely noticed for the past 150 years at this gentleman's club, the bust was put under the forensic microscope recently. It was discovered that the bust dates from at least 100 years earlier, which means the 17th century sculpture may in fact represent the true face of the famous playwright. The statue of King George II in Golden Square near Soho in London is however definitely the work of Roubiliac. Trinity College, Cambridge also possesses several busts by the artist.
Louis-Francois Roubiliac died in 1762, his vivid imagination and skills as a craftsman ensured he received a valued place in the history of English sculpture.