Portrait BustsThe art world today is full of secrets. They range from technical shortcuts to some involving the peculiarities of economics. For instance, did you know that for about the same price you would pay a first quality portrait painter to render your glowing countenance in oils, you could also pay a first-quality sculptor to do the same in terra cotta, bronze, even marble? Assuming top quality, the going rate seems to be around $3,000 to $5,000 depending upon geography, medium, and the name of the artist incised on the back. Although there's probably a hundred portraits painted today for every one portrait bust, I was a little surprised that such art hadn't actually been long forgotten. But if the Internet is any indication, at a time when painted portraits are still a very popular art commodity, you seldom see or hear much about their sculptural equivalent. Part of that, of course, can be chalked up to the fact that for every sculptor, in any style or medium, there are probably about 100 painters (maybe more). And portraiture being such a demanding art in any medium, there is probably only about one sculptor doing portrait busts for every 100 sculptors doing other types of three-dimensional art. So these artists are pretty rare birds.
One hundred years ago, and especially during the history of art before that, portrait busts were not at all uncommon. Although sculptors were not represented among artists by anywhere near the same ratio as today, portrait busts were, in fact, the most common stock in trade of any working sculptor. There was only one style, Realism, and comparatively speaking, not much demand for carved marble or cast bronze statues, so the head and shoulders portrait bust easily made up the bulk of a sculptor's output. And even then, the cost was quite comparable to a painted portrait. The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London has resurrected 33 such busts from the dusty attics, cellars, and vaults of museums all over England for a show entitled "Return to Life: A New Look at the Portrait Bust." They date from as early as 1745 to as recently as 1942 - the latter date giving us some idea as to the declining period of their popularity.
Even the experts aren't sure if the portrait bust simply declined in popularity during the first half of the twentieth century or if sculptors themselves chose to abandon its demanding exactitude in favour of simpler, much more expressive forms of three-dimensional work in line with what their counterparts were doing in painting and other areas of art. Perhaps it was some of both, although it's difficult to assign factors of cause and effect. Certainly, with the change came an increase in the number of sculptors, much greater than necessary to supply any demand for portrait busts. In any case, the London NPG show certainly recalls the amazing talent these once common artists possessed. Regardless of medium, each work seems to "breathe."
Although in most cases the artists of these works are known, in a surprising number the figure carved in stone or cast in bronze is NOT. I'm not sure why, but that's seldom the case with painted portraits. Maybe it's the little brass plates we tack on the frames. Or, perhaps it has to do with the fact that a bronze bust may be about the most indestructible pieces of art we know, far outliving those charged with remembering whose likeness they represent. Paintings do not survive well for generations in attics. A hundred-pound hunk of carved marble does. Work in the London show is representative of England's best, artists such as Joseph Nollekens, New York-born Sir Jacob Epstien, and Edgar George Papworth. And not all the heads are unknown. Among the likenesses represented is that of John Galsworthy (author of The Forsyte Saga) by two different sculptors, as well as the Roman statesman, Cicero, the British statesman, Charles James Fox and no less than four works depicting the brothers George and Dr. Andrew Combe, early advocates of phrenology (the now discredited system of reading character by measuring the scull). Phrenologically speaking, theirs are no doubt highly accurate.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
3 March 2001