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We think we live in image-conscious times. Some people on Facebook – or so I’m told – change their cover photo every few hours. Certainly pop singers are highly image-conscious: in the case of such figures as Rihanna, Beyoncé or Miley Cyrus, the image often overwhelms the reality. But today’s serious writers – using publicity photos that are either dowdy or laughably out-of-date – are missing a trick.

They are streets behind English literature’s greatest master of image manipulation (that is, manipulation of his own image), the 18th-century poet Alexander Pope. This was the main and surprising impression I took away from the fascinating and erudite exhibition at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, co-organised with the Yale Centre for British Art, entitled Fame & Friendship: Pope, Roubiliac and the Portrait Bust.

The show brings together eight portrait busts of Pope, sculpted in marble, terracotta and plaster, by the émigré French sculptor Louis François Roubiliac, beautifully exhibited in the only light and airy room in all the richly damasked gloom of the Rothschild family’s faux-renaissance château in the Chiltern Hills.

The busts, so finely modelled and carved that the marble seems to breathe, make an unforgettable impression but it is best to start at the beginning, that is with a careful inspection of the introductory room featuring paintings and prints of both Pope and Roubiliac, and early printed editions of Pope’s works.

Pope, the most brilliant wit in a time of outstanding wits and the greatest English poet between Milton and Wordsworth, was image-conscious because he needed to be. He was tiny (4ft 6in) and hunchbacked, a victim of Pott’s disease; he was also a social outsider, born a Roman Catholic in a time of violent religious disturbance, and so unable to live closer to Westminster and the court than his villa at Twickenham. Nevertheless, he made the villa, with its famous grotto, as sought-after an address as any in town.

How magnificently Pope managed to make the most of what might be seen as disabilities. Unlike the teenagers today who, tragically, seem to regard the slightest physical imperfection as a reason for suicidal despair, the young Pope turned his unusual looks to his advantage. In the portrait by Charles Jervas, the handsome young poet, turning slightly towards the viewer, shows off his fine features and magnificent wig, manifesting a sort of aristocracy of the spirit.

Jonathan Richardson’s portrait of the poet in left-side profile wearing a laurel wreath makes him look like a Roman, which was in a sense what he wanted to be; he based his writing on life on that of Horace. Richardson’s etching of his poet-friend, with thinning hair, looks like one side of a Roman coin.

Just as fascinating are the images Pope chose for the frontispieces and headpieces of the early editions of his poems and translations, whose typography and design, most unusually, he supervised himself. His greatest success, financially, was his translation of Homer’s “Iliad”, published when he was only 27 in 1715; for the frontispiece Pope chose an engraving by George Vertue of a bust of Homer in the Farnese collection. But later Pope had himself painted standing next to a bust of Homer, and then for the frontispiece of his collected poems, he chose a splendid engraving based on the Jervas portrait. No young poet has ever shown more confidence in his poetic powers.

But the busts are the heart of the matter. Entering a room containing quite so many versions of what is essentially the same image has a slightly eerie effect. It reminded me of the Monty Python “Whicker Island” sketch, set on a tropical island, in which different Pythons kept popping up dressed as celebrity interviewer and travel presenter Alan Whicker: “The whole problem of Whicker Island is . . . there are just too many Whickers.”

Historically, it is fascinating to have the full gamut of busts but, artistically or aesthetically, I have a sneaking feeling that three would have made a greater impact than eight. All the same, these are magnificent, intense works. Pope in late middle age has become hollow-cheeked, his facial muscles taut. Elizabeth Barrett Browning found the effect discomfiting: “A too expressive, miserable face – drawn with disease and bitter thoughts, and very painful, I felt, to look at”.

On four of the busts, Roubiliac carved the words ad vivum, indicating that they had been modelled from the life. They certainly live, nearly three centuries later, conveying both the intelligence and the fine sensibility of one of England’s subtlest poetic minds.

The irony is that the master image-maker, Roubiliac, seems to have been so much less image-conscious than Pope. But I have to admit that Roubiliac, with his five o’clock shadow and his floppy velvet hat, in a painting attributed to François-Xavier Vispré, looks, shall we say, more simpatico than the ever-artful and calculating Pope.



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