Curator's Choice: Marcus Risdell chooses the rediscovered head of Shakespeare

Marcus Risdell interviewed by Ben Miller | 07 May 2009
A picture of a man wearing a tie standing in front of a figurehead in a case

In 2009 art historian Marcus Risdell moonlighted from his role as Curator at London’s Garrick Club to co-curate the puzzle of shifting identities that was Shakespeare 1709-1790: How Britain's Sculptors Invented a National Hero show at Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham.

Curator's Choice: In his own words Marcus Risdell tells us why a facsimile of Louis Francois Roubiliac’s 1742 Bust from Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre is his favourite poetic figurehead…

"It's from my collection, I'm so familiar with it and I've handled the real thing. I was also put in charge of commissioning the facsimile, so I was responsible for working with the National Conservation Centre in Liverpool, who fabricated it. They've actually done a feature on their website about the Garrick Club bust.

The story behind the statue is that it was rediscovered in the 19th century outside the Lincoln’s Inn Field theatre by the curator of the Hunterian Museum. They were next door rebuilding, and this was in a little yard at the back of one of the houses they'd built and then demolished.

There was this myth about it being taken from real life, because Sir Charles Davenant used to claim that he was Shakespeare’s Godson, and he was the first person to run the theatre when it was set up again after closure.

It stayed in the collection at the Hunterian Museum and was given to Richard Owen, who exhibited it at Crystal Palace – he designed the dinosaurs in the dinosaur park there. He was a palaeontologist and he invented the term dinosaur, he was right at the forefront of the field.

So it had this story and I was given the job of trying to work out its prominence – I've done a lot of research on this particular bust.

The other thing that I like is the way it’s unique in that there are two of them – there's another one in the British Museum. That one came direct to the British Museum from Roubiliacs's studio, so there’s no second-guessing on this one.

What we know about Roubiliac is that he couldn’t have produced it before 1738, because he only came to England in 1730 and his career really got going in 1738. The theatre where it was rediscovered was only used for one theatrical season in that window, so it had to be Henry Gifford's season.

I like this one partly because I designed the new socle, which is a facsimile of an imagined 18th century one. I did loads of calculations on the golden section as the curator in my full-time job – this is me skiving, but I used to be a freelancer and I’m used to working for other people, so they're quite happy with it, as am I.

It’s the most baroque, the most rococo of all the busts. Roubiliac often does these really, really grand designs…he's swanky, that's the word."

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