Heads and shoulders, verse and prose

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth

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 ย 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 wroteย The Beauties of Writing, exemplified in a variety of plain and ornamental penmanship. Designed to excite Emulation in this valuable Art.ย 

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.


26 thoughts on “Heads and shoulders, verse and prose

  1. Wordsworth does look contemporary . . . as if he plans to open up and speak. Beautiful post, Kate.

    BTW: Two “gems” from The Geography of Bliss that made me think of you:

    (1) The Village of Slough (near London) featured in a television series on Happiness. Those who signed up underwent a 12 week training to “be happier.” It was hoped that they would spread happiness to others in a constant flow.

    Alas, most of the folks that Weiner interviewed in Slough pronounced the village to be “crap.” Perhaps a 16 week training next time?

    (2) Jeremy Bentham of Utilitarian fame (the greatest good for the greatest number) still attends meetings at the University ~ his contemporaries wheel his clothed skeleton into the room where he is marked as “attending, but not voting.” ๐Ÿ˜€

    1. ๐Ÿ˜€ Nancy, you have out-Shrewsdayed Shrewsday! These are fabulous nuggets. I had never heard of either! I feel a post coming on about Slough and what there is there to see. I was educated at a Bernadine Cistercian convent in a Victorian mansion on its outskirts, a building built for one of Queen Victoria’s ladies and waiting. I feel sure the town has much to offer us…hmmmm…

      1. Oh, FUN! I hoped if I tossed a nugget your way you might be inclined to weave your magic around it.

        Bentham’s skeleton “attending but not voting” made me laugh out loud . . . you Brits and your bones. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. There’s a very clear connection there, Tammy – I have not really written about Tomkins but he was very much involved in the appearance of letters. He published another books called ‘Alphabets written for the improvement of youth in Round, Text, and Small Hands’, in 1779. A predecessor to Steve, indeed ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. My eye was also drawn to the mention of Thomas Tomkins in this wonderful piece, Kate, but alas, I see it is not about that ‘other’ Thomas Tomkins of the 17th century, the composer born in St Davids, Pembrokeshire (though not long resident in that county).

    Never mind, I also love busts, much more accessible than their more monumental full-bodied counterparts. There are a few dotted around the National Portrait Gallery off Trafalgar Square which I enjoy perusing when I visit there. One of my favourite busts is actually part of a monumental colossus of Constantine the Great now placed in the Vatican Museum. All that remains is the head and a pointing hand. Something similar must have stood outside the Colosseum, which I understand got its name from a giant figure and not from its gigantic size.

    1. I must rummage around and see if I can find that one, Chris ๐Ÿ™‚ No, today I have only a humble calligrapher to offer: though great musicians have their fair share of busts…

  3. Ah! To be able to spend some time chatting with William Wordsworth. One of my favorite college literature classes focused on Wordsworth and Coleridge. Our professor told us of how Wordsworth would go walking with his sister. It was during these walks that he came up with the beautiful prose – perhaps, with the assist of his sis.
    Kate, the bust is a nice likeness. He’s “head and shoulders” above the rest.

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