This full-length marble statue of the composer George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) was commissioned by the entrepreneur and collector Jonathan Tyers, who ran Spring Gardens at Vauxhall in London in the mid-18th century. Handel was then a leading figure in the capital’s musical life. Since public life-size marble statues of living subjects were until this date undertaken only for monarchs, noblemen or military leaders, this figure made a considerable impact at the time. It is the earliest-known independent work by Roubiliac, and established his reputation as a sculptor.
Louis François Roubiliac (1702–62) was trained in Lyon, later working in Dresden and studying in Paris before moving to London in about 1730. All his known surviving works were executed in Britain. He specialised in portrait busts and funerary monuments, and was renowned for his handling of marble, particularly his creation of subtle surface textures.
Handel has not dressed up to have his portrait taken. He sits comfortably in his indoor clothes, his shirt partially unbuttoned, his slippers off and dangling, and his soft cap pulled over his cropped hair. He is totally at ease with the little naked boy who writes down the music which the composer is striking on a rather fanciful lyre.
The boy has propped his paper against a viol, and an oboe and flute lie discarded beside him. Handel has crossed his legs and listens attentively to his own music, while his left elbow rests on leather-bound scores of his operas and oratorios, including ’Alexander’s Feast’, finished in 1737, just a year before Roubiliac signed his name on the plinth of this marble statue.
The sculptor has captured the lively, informal and friendly atmosphere of many 18th century novels and plays. He has achieved this not only through the pleasant attitude in which he has portrayed Handel, but also through the relaxed rhythm of the body, the soft curves of the clothes, and the rich textures wherever the light ripples over the crumpled surfaces. Yet the statue is carefully composed: the S curve of the body is framed on the left by the undulating line of the gown, and on the right the lyre and viol pick up the curves of the boy’s body and the composer’s arm and face.
Forms and spaces intermingle, lights and shadows chase each other, and the edges of the garments trace a playful linear pattern on the polished marble surface. The classical ideal of beauty has not been allowed to transform Handel’s relaxed and natural features, and informality is stressed by the absence of the wig which was generally worn in public.