- Museum number
Painted clay portrait bust of Sir Thomas More (1477/8-1535) perhaps by or after George Vertue (1684-1756), full face, wearing a robe with a fur collar and a cap. Around his neck is a chain from which is suspended an Order. Inscribed.
Height: 42 centimetres
Width: 32 centimetres (max.)
- Curator's comments
- Dawson 1999
Literature: The General Contents of the British Museum, with remarks serving as Directory in viewing that Noble Cabinet, London (J. Dodsley, Pall Mall), 1761, p. 6, with busts of Homer and Dr Samuel Clarke (see no. 21); Esdaile, 1922 (see n. 6), p. 112, attrib. to Scheemakers; K. A. Esdaile, The Life and Works of Louis François Roubiliac, Oxford and London, 1928, p. 104, ditto.
Displayed: 1761, on public exhibition (see above); 1817, over the bookcases in the Print Room, (formerly in Mr Baber's department, note from J. T. Smith, 17 November 1817, P&D Archive, Trustees' Reports); 1847, probably still in the Print Room (BM Archive, Officers' Reports, Sir Henry Ellis, 3 June 1847); c. 1960 to present, MLA Dept.
Sir Thomas More, who was canonized in 1935, was martyred at Tyburn on 6 July 1535 for his opposition to King Henry VIIIs divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his refusal to take an oath impugning the Pope's authority. He was the son of a judge and was himself called to the Bar, testing his religious vocation by living for four years as a member of the Carthusian order in East Smithfield, London. He went on to become Member of Parliament, 1504; envoy in Flanders, 1515, and subsequently diplomat at Calais; knighted, 1521; Speaker of the House of Commons, 1523; Lord Chancellor, 1529. Amongst his friends he counted John Colet (?1466-1519) and the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus P1469-1536). Besides Utopia (1515) More's writings include works of religious controversy and Latin verse and prose.
More's portrait was painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1527, but it is not certain that this picture has survived, although early copies exist. A painting on vellum dating from c.1595-1600 and now attributed to Rowland Lockey and probably commissioned from him by Thomas More II, was seen by George Vertue at Ecton Hall in 1742, when it was in the possession of the Sotheby family.(1) Indeed, Vertue was the first to reattribute the family group, in which More is depicted seated wearing a collar of SS(2) over a beaver collar with a small part of his white undershirt showing and wearing a cap much like the one in the bust. Vertue is not known to have ever tried his hand at modelling, but the style of this bust certainly does not suggest the hand of a trained sculptor.
Thomas Hollis FRS (1720-74), the donor, of Corscombe, Dorset, was called by contemporaries a 'republican', but only considered himself 'a true whig'. His generosity in presenting coins, antiquities, prints and books to the Museum between 1756 and his death in 1774 is recorded in an early Museum catalogue.(3) Hollis' portrait with his friend Thomas Brand and his servant and dog on the banks of the Thames, entitled Old Walton Bridge over the Thames, was painted by Canaletto in London in 1754.(4)
George Vertue, a portrait of whom aged fifty was presented to the Museum by his widow in 1775,(5) was a prolific engraver and antiquary. Trained by Michael van der Gucht (1660-1725), originally of Antwerp, Vertue became a member of Sir Godfrey Kneller's Academy established in 1711. His success was assured by his portrait of Archbishop Tillotson after Kneller, commissioned by Lord Somers. The Earl of Orford and Lord Coleraine were amongst his patrons. Devoted to antiquarian research, he travelled around England engraving objects of antiquarian interest. He was official engraver for the Society of Antiquaries from 1717 to 1756, and compiled materials for a history of art in Britain. His notebooks were purchased from his widow by Horace Walpole, who used them in compiling his Anecdotes of Painting in England.
This portrait is something of an enigma. Attributed by Mrs Esdaile to Scheemakers in 1921,(6) its very status as well as its authorship is a matter of conjecture. Its appearance strongly suggests that it was copied from a drawing or engraving. Although made of clay which has probably been fired,(7) it has every appearance of having been directly modelled rather than moulded from a previous version, and it may well have been based on the Holbein portrait discussed above. Vertue's sale catalogue(8) includes twenty-four 'Models, Seals, Impressions, Crayons, &c.', of which lot 38 is one: 'A head of king Henry the 7th finely modell'd'. The sitter's printed name has been scored out in black ink in the copy of the sale catalogue in the Department of Prints and Drawings and 'Sr Tho.s More' added at the end of the entry. The head, which must be the one in the Museum, sold for £1-2s.
(1) J. B. Trapp and H. S. Herbrüggen, 'The King's Good Servant': Sir Thomas More, 1477/8-1535, exh. cat., London, National Portrait Gallery, 1977-8, no. 170; now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
(2) It is not known when More received his collar of SS, with its Tudor badge of a rose, which signified that he was in royal service. Erasmus wrote that More avoided wearing it whenever he could, as he opposed ostentation; see 'The King's Good Servant', no. 27.
(3) Synopsis of the Contents of the British Museum, London, 1808, p. xxvii.
(4) Now at Dulwich Picture Gallery; see Peter Murray, Dulwich Picture Gallery: a catalogue, London, 1980, no. 600. For Hollis, see W. H. Bond, Thomas Hollis of Lincoln's Inn: A Whig and his Books, Cambridge, 1990.
(5) British Museum: a guide to the exhibition rooms of the Departments of Natural History and Antiquities, London, 186g, p. 25 (in the Eastern Zoological Gallery), no. 112, dated 1733; transferred to the National Portrait Gallery, 1879; see Kerslake, 1977, no. 576.
(6) K. A. Esdaile, 'Studies of the English sculptors from Pierce to Chantrey, IX: Peter Scheemaker (1690-1771?), continued', The Architect, 10 February 1922, p. 112. This may be an author's error, as the passage reads, 'In the British and Mediaeval Department at the British Museum is a plaster bust of Erasmus, of obviously eighteenth-century type, with hairy eyebrows and deeply hollowed eyes. As we shall see from the Sale Catalogues, Scheemaker made a bust of Erasmus; evidently one of those which Vertue mentions as taken from old pictures, and there can, I think, be no doubt that this is a cast of that work. The companion bust in the Museum, a "Cicero" (not the true type, but taken from a portrait known from the Renaissance onwards by this name), is probably a cast of one of his Italian studies. . .'. No other bust which could be identified as Erasmus is in the Museum collection.
(7) This material has not been analysed.
(8) A Catalogue of the Entire and Genuine Collection of Pictures, Curious Miniatures, by Cooper, &c. Capital Limnings, Casts, Seals, and Gold, Silver, and Copper Coins and Medals, of Mr George Vertue, Engraver, Late of Brownlow-Street, deceas'd, sold by Ford, St James' Haymarket, 17 May 1757 and two following days (note: this was the second of Vertue's sales). At the foot of the title page is, 'N.B. A Head of MILTON finely model'd from the Life'.
For further information on Hollis, see David Wilson, 'A bust of Thomas Hollis by Joseph Wilton RA, sitter and artist revisited', The British Art Journal, Vol. V, no. 3, Winter 2004, pp. 4-26
- Not on display
- Front of bust including pendant reconstructed; reverse reconstructed; right eyebrow restored; various small chips.
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- '14 April 1758 Mr Tho. Hollis bought a model in clay of Sir Thos. More, by Vertue, at his sale, for one Guinea. The same which is now in the Print Room. No doubt given by Mr Hollis' (undated scrap note in BM Cuttings and Extracts, p. 32); presented by Thomas Hollis, 1758; 'a bust in clay of Sir Thomas More; performed by Mr Vertue, the gift of Thomas Hollis Esquire' recorded in Register of the Benefactions to the British Museum, 1756-1820, 5 May 1758.
- Britain, Europe and Prehistory
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Miscellaneous number: OA.10530