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portrait bust

  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Description

    Terracotta portrait bust of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton Bt (1571-1631) by Louis-François Roubiliac, slightly to left, wearing a doublet, cloak and large ruff, attached to a rectangular painted stone socle of waisted form.

  • Producer name

  • Date

    • 1757
  • Production place

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 78 centimetres
    • Width: 63.1 centimetres
    • Depth: 24.7 centimetres
    • Weight: 44 kilograms
  • Curator's comments

    This is the model for bust in the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge.Dawson 1999
    Literature: K. A. Esdaile, 'Studies of the English sculptors from Pierce to Chantrey. XIII. Louis François Roubiliac (1695-1762) continued', Architect, 16 June 1922, p. 450; K. A. Esdaile, 'A bust of Sir Robert Cotton', The Times, 13 May 1924; K. A. Esdaile, The Life and Works of Louis François Roubiliac, Oxford and London, 1928, pp. 101, 165, 202; M. Whinney, Sculpture in Britain 1530-1830, rev. ed. John Physick, 1988, pp. 222-3, fig. 158; M. Baker, 'The portrait sculpture', in D. McKitterick (ed.), The Making of the Wren Library, Cambridge, 1995, p. 134.

    Displayed: 1922, 'in private rooms' (Esdaile, 1922, XIII, p. 451); before 1928, 'main staircase opposite Rysbrack's bust of . . . Sloane' (Esdaile, 1928, p. 101); 1930s, 'Entrance Hall, on the left of the Main Staircase', and then 'Grenville Room' (P&D notebook, p. 129); from at least 1957, King's Library

    Sir Robert Bruce Cotton(1) was educated at Westminster School and Jesus College, Cambridge. By 1588 or perhaps even earlier he had started collecting.(2) In its final form his collection included manuscripts, maps, charters, rolls, printed books, inscriptions,(3) stones (such as Roman monuments from the north of England),(4) medals, coins, seals and curiosities. In 1622 he settled in Cotton House, Westminster. His library was open to scholars including Francis Bacon, William Camden, Sir Walter Raleigh, Seiden and others. On the foundation of the Bodleian Library in 1601, he sent a gift of manuscripts. He was knighted by James I in 1603; the following year he was elected MP for Huntingdon, and was created baronet in 1611. He subsequently sat for Old Sarum in 1624, Thetford in 1625 and Castle Rising in 1628-9. In 1615-16 he was imprisoned for trying to shield the Earl of Somerset. In the 1620s he attached himself to the Parliamentary party and published political tracts. He was excluded by order of King Charles I from his library in 1629-31.(5) Some of Cotton's papers were printed posthumously.
    The Cottonian Library was transferred to the nation in 1702, in accordance with its founder's wishes. Before it came to the British Museum in 1753, it was at Essex House from 1712 until 1730, when it was removed to Ashburnham House. There it suffered in the fire of October 1731 when 200 of the 958 Cottonian manuscript volumes were lost or damaged, as well as charters, seals and other material. The library was then taken to Westminster School. It was part of the foundation collections of the British Museum in 1753, and passed to the British Library in 1973.
    Cotton's inscriptions and other stones were carefully arranged in his lifetime in a summer-house in his garden at Conington, Huntingdonshire, but were neglected by his descendants. They were presented by Sir John Cotton, the last of the line, to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1750 in spite of the fact that Sir Robert had not been at the college. This was just three years before the foundation of the British Museum. There they were noticed by visitors and were in fact the finest collection in the country one hundred years after Cotton's death.(6)
    The terracotta bust, in which the treatment of the soft ruff betrays the artist's particular fascination with rendering textiles in clay and marble, is the model for the marble at Trinity College, Cambridge(7) commissioned by Eliab Harvey and completed in 1757. As Whinney pointed out, the pose, in which the sitter's head is slightly turned and the gaze directed downwards, differs from the marble, where the head is erect. She considered the terracotta to have an 'intimate charm', contrasting it with 'the more aloof marble'.(8) The terracotta bust was retained by Harvey, the second son of William and Mary Harvey,(9) and remained in family possession until it was acquired by the Museum. A portrait once given to Paul van Somer but now known to be by Cornelius Janssen,(10) engraved by George Vertue and published in the first volume of Vetusta monumenta, 1747,(11) corresponds quite closely to Roubiliac's image, and may have been known to the sculptor.

    The head is hollow and was probably made separately from the body, although no signs of the join are visible. The hair and cloak edge were evidently separately modelled, and the socle is a greyish colour where the brown coating has rubbed away. At the reverse plaster can be discerned; this was used to attach the terracotta to the socle, which is of stone.(12) Toolmarks made in the wet clay by the artist can be seen almost all over the reverse except in the panel at the left, where clay was evidently added before firing to prevent collapse in the kiln.
    Prior to cleaning the surface of the bust was carefully examined and three residues observed. A translucent brown resinous material applied coarsely on the eyes, lips and other areas was analysed using Fourier transform infrared analysis and found to be similar to a mastic varnish. The second residue, a grey deposit in the recesses of the bust, was analysed by X-ray diffraction. It contained two components, gypsum and an unidentified material. The latter was analysed by X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and the elements lead and zinc identified. This suggested that the unidentified material contained lead white and zinc white pigments. Although lead has been used since antiquity, zinc white was not widely used as a pigment until the early nineteenth century and so its presence is unlikely to be contemporary with the bust. The third residue occurred as a white band above the collar. This was identified by X-ray diffraction and X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy as a mixture of lead white and calcite. Both pigments were in widespread use when the bust was made and the residue could therefore be contemporary.(13) The examination of these residues supports the current view that terracottas were coated,(14) probably to disguise firing defects or uneven coloration, as well as to meet the requirements of the market.
    Cotton himself was evidently interested in the notion of the commemoration of famous men, which underpins both the sculpture in the Wren Library and the collection of busts in the British Museum. He erected several tombs and epitaphs in All Saints, Conington, and his son Sir Thomas ensured that his father's life was commemorated in stone, even though the portrait bust attributed to Joshua Marshall and its accompanying Latin inscription and armorial pediment were not in place until 1655.(15) He would no doubt be gratified at the presence in the Wren Library and the King's Library, British Museum, of Roubiliac's fine portrait, a far more flattering image than the conventional one on his monument.

    (1) See E. Edwards, Lives of the Founders of the British Museum, with Notices of its Chief Augmentors 1570-1870, London, 1870 for 'The founder of the Cottonian Library', pp.48-152. A modern view can be found in K. Sharpe, Sir Robert Cotton, 1586-1631: history and politics in early modern England, Oxford, 1979. For the most recent work see C. J. Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: essays on an early Stuart courtier and his legacy, London, 1997, which contains a number of papers exploring his life and work, with special emphasis on his library.
    (2) Dawson is grateful to Dr Colin Tite for this information and for other comments on Cotton.
    (3) See D. McKitterick, 'From Camden to Cambridge: Sir Robert Cotton's Roman inscriptions, and their subsequent treatment', in Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton, pp. 105-28.
    (4) See Glenys Davies, 'Sir Robert Cotton's collection of Roman stones: a catalogue with commentary', in Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton.
    (5) For a study of Cotton's political career, see Sharpe, Sir Robert Cotton, and the same author's essay, 'Introduction: rewriting Sir Robert Cotton', in Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton, pp. 1-39.
    (6) See McKitterick in Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton, pp. 118-25.
    (7) Baker, 1995, pls 90, 94.
    (8) Whinney, 1988, p. 222.
    (9) Roubiliac's monument to William and Mary Harvey at the church of St Andrew, Hempstead, Essex, erected in 1758 by Roubiliac, is discussed in Baker, 1995, no. 38.
    (10) It has been published by Simon Keynes, 'The reconstruction of a burnt Cottonian manuscript . . .', British Library Journal, XXII, no. 2, Autumn 1996, p. 115, and p. 144, n. 17. Dawson owes this reference to the kindness of Dr Colin Tite.
    (11) Reproduced in a four-page leaflet by Colin Tite accompanying the 1993 series of Panizzi Lectures. Dawson is grateful to Ann de Lara for a copy of this leaflet.
    (12) Dawson is grateful to Malcolm Baker for his helpful comments on the construction of the bust, and to Loretta Hogan for her discussion.
    (13) For further details of the analyses see L. R. Green, 'Examination of surface layers on a bust of Sir Robert Cotton', British Museum, Department of Conservation, Conservation Research Group Internal Report, CA/1997/25. Dawson is grateful to Susan Bradley and Lorna Green of the Conservation Research Group for help with this aspect of the Cotton bust.
    (14) J. Larson, 'The treatment and examination of painted surfaces on eighteenth-century terracotta sculptures', International Institute of Conservation Conference 1990 Proceedings, 1990, pp. 28-30.
    (15) See D. Howarth, 'Sir Robert Cotton and the commemoration of famous men', in Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton, pp. 40-67. The monument is illus. in fig. 10, p. 56 and a sketch identified as by Nicholas Stone which may be of Cotton in fig. 11, p. 58.


  • Bibliography

    • Dawson 1999 22 bibliographic details
  • Location

    On display: G1/od/nr198

  • Exhibition history

    Kept in the King's Library, South End for many years, until the British Library left Bloomsbury

  • Condition

    Right shoulder and front of cloak damaged; lower left side damaged in the ruff; cleaned in 1997. Remains of the painted surface are still visible - the residues have been analysed.

  • Associated names

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date


  • Acquisition notes

    The bust remained in the sitter's family (Harvey), until its sale in 1924. Advertised in Connoisseur, vol. LXIII, no. 249, May 1922, p. xi as 'Dr William Harvey', 'Price £150'. The Trustees' minutes of 12 April and 10 May 1924 reveal that the bust was on offer to the National Portrait Gallery, which was unable to purchase posthumous portraits. (Marjorie Caygill supplied this information.)

  • Department

    Britain, Europe and Prehistory

  • Registration number



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