Issue 20 : Autumn 2005
Towards the beginning of last year I decided to retire at 60 from my post as Conway Librarian. What tempted me away was the opportunity to produce a second volume on London’s public statuary. The first volume, on the City of London, had given me a taste for ferreting about in the records, and the grass had come to seem greener in the National Archives and other places, though the Courtauld’s book and photo libraries are still a vital resource for me.
Having had a quietish leaving party in April 2004, I was not unduly surprised when my Conway Library colleague, Geoffrey Fisher, told me that a further party was planned to take place almost exactly a year later. This, I understood, was to give non-Courtauld library users a chance to say their farewells, I turned up to find respectable numbers of familiar faces from very far and wide, some of them looking, I thought, strangely apprehensive. I had not noticed a large, boxed-in object in the corner of the room. This was “the bust”, a massive bronze portrait of myself, by Ivan Klape, a very good Croatian sculptor, who I have known for several years. On a table alongside, two preparatory studies in plaster were displayed. In the course of the evening, the unveiling of this interesting object followed on the heels of a speech by Ben Read, poignantly recalling our many enjoyable trips to Antwerp, Bratislava and elsewhere. Unbeknownst to me, as they say, the bust had been subscribed for by a number of well-wishers, many of them sculpture buffs, for whom contributing to such a thing must have had cultural-historical resonances, as it would for me.
In my current research it is my duty to locate the original prospectus for a statue raised by public subscription. But this was that other, more problematic thing, the limited subscription, the commemoration brought into existence by a group of friends in a conspiratorial manner. This kind of subscription is, in general, the bane of the sculpture researcher, as train and bike rides to remote country houses in Leicestershire are likely to be the only way of finding out what actually went on. In the case of my own bust, I could probably offer an enticement to one of the subscribers to show me a copy of the original document, but then, in this case, I have no reason to stoop to such expedients. My knowledge of the process is limited, but a few hints have come my way, which are included here for the benefit of future researchers. Ivan was personally responsible for the immense size of the bust. The organisers had imagined it would be on a somewhat smaller scale, and only found out that it was to be colossal when they visited the sculptor’s workplace in Union Street. They had some misgivings on account of the increased cost of casting so large a work, but were convinced by the sculptor that “big was right”. Ivan worked from photos, being forbidden by the organisers of the subscription to communicate with me in person during the process. I remember, in the period in which he was working on the bust, getting a telephone call from him, inviting me to go for a drink, because, he said, if we did not meet soon, “vee vill forget vot vun another look like”. Something prevented that rendez-vous from taking place, allowing him to give me the full benefit of his imagination.
Recently, the bust has been exhibited a number of times, including the annual exhibition of the Society of Portrait Sculptors in Cork Street. Now in my flat, it has been having a stand-off, in a corner of my sitting-room, with a miniature bust of a far greater man.