On the bottom floor of the great and worthy Ashmolean Museum in the aquatint city of Oxford stand a company of heads and shoulders.
They would look like a white alabaster cocktail party were it not for the fact that they could not hold a cocktail glass if the Chancellor of Oxford himself passed it to them.
They are very valuable heads and shoulders; priceless, even. And they glory under the name of busts.
The 3D portrait goes back a long way to Ancient Egypt and probably before. It affords the opportunity to focus fully on the face and the artist can hint at a fabulous outfit without the tedious, and sometimes expensive, need to provide the full five or six feet of marble. A bust has the added advantage that it will perch on a plinth and stash handily on a shelf. When given the choice between commissioning the full five to six feet figure, and the compact bust, surely every pragmatic person would choose the bust for the sheer economy and convenience?
The Ashmolean is full of them. There’s Marcus Aurelius, found by a farmer ploughing in Northamptonshire in 1976, a characterful protrait of the grim emperor with bright blue inlaid glass eyes. There’s the Goddess Hariti, hailing all the way from Asia sometime in the first century.
But the marble gathering in the basement has a preponderance of busts which are by the same hand. They were made by a man who began life in the same way as Jesus Christ: as the son of a carpenter.
But he found his way, as great artists do, to his own portrait studio, and thus began a prolific life of painting and sculpting. Everyone who was anyone commissioned a Chantrey. He was all the rage.
The stylised classical bust is a thing of the past. You walk past Chantrey’s figures and you have to check yourself not to strike up a conversation.
He captures the rumpled nature of life. The ragged edges, The personness of the person. If I had been a Georgian aristocrat with a sizeable fortune, I would have been elbowing my refined lady friends out of the way to get to the front of the queue for commissions.
So, I met William Wordsworth.
My eyes scanned the party members, as you do, and lit upon those you might want to spend an hour or two talking to.
And there was Wordsworth, with a slightly harassed air, as if, half way through a stanza, you had asked him what the capital of Mesapotamia was. I strolled past him and had to come back and stare, impolitely. For this man has been dead for more than 160 years, yet I could have sworn he was in the room, with all that zeal which characterised his writings. Some illogical part of me was waiting for him to speak.
One other man I could have talked to all night. A surprising choice: a swarthy man whose face looks pitted and sardonic.
His name is Thomas Tomkins, his sign declares. He is famous for little save his beautiful handwriting. In 1777, he wrote The Beauties of Writing, exemplified in a variety of plain and ornamental penmanship. Designed to excite Emulation in this valuable Art.
Biographical information is sparse, but they say he was a well-liked chap. One of his best friends was Samuel Johnson. And it occurs to me that this bust, scanned by tourists in a museum, is a better legacy than any other: for he comes across as the sort of person you would like to talk to over a glass of something refreshing at a party. And now, I shall never forget him.
Perhaps we should all be commissioning busts.
For a bit of fun, check out the busts here in the Wikipedia entry on busts.