Tuesday 8 August 2023

Busts of John Belchier and Matthew Lee by Roubiliac.


The Plaster Bust of John Belchier (1706 - 85).

At the Royal College of Surgeons. Lincolns Inn Fields, London.

a Roubiliac masterpiece paired with the plaster bust of William Cheselden.

and the Marble Bust of Dr Matthew Lee (1694 - 1755).

At Christchurch College, Oxford.

by Louis Francois Roubiliac.

also some photographs of the bust of Cheselden by Roubiliac at the Royal College of Surgeons which has been paired with that of Belchier.

(Post under construction).

I have already written about these two busts (see the links below) but a recent review of the subject lead me to the Paul Mellon Photographic Archive which had been posted whilst I took a three year sabbatical.


My reason for this post is my discovery that the busts of Belchier and Matthew Lee share the same informal dress. First recognised and published in this essay. This technique is unique to Roubiliac, who was occasionally in the habit of adapting prototype busts already sculpted and adding the heads.

I have recently been trawling through the photographs in the Paul Mellon Archive and this has changed some of my perceptions regarding these sculptures. It has also provided me with images which I was unable to obtain from any other on line sources and for this I am very grateful. It is sometimes quite difficult to obtain photographs of objects, particularly those held in private collections! The problem of obtaining permissions and travelling to the location arises more frequently than I would prefer. 




The Plaster Bust of Dr John Belchier at the Royal College of Surgeons, Lincolns Inn Fields.

John Belchier, the surgeon of Bond Street and Sun Court, Threadneedle Street, was a mutual friend of Handel and the Alexander Pope.

 John Belchier (1706-1785) who was at Guy's Hospital from 1736 - 68. He discovered at about the time of his Guy's appointment that the vegetable dye madder stained newly forming bone tissue, opening up the study of the growth and development of the skeleton, which was vigorously taken forward by Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau and John Hunter, he and was a member of the Court of Assistants at the Company of Surgeons from 1751 to 1785. [Wikipedia]

The Oxford DNB entry is more extensive:  "John Belchier  (bap. 1706, d. 1785), surgeon, the son of James Belchier, innkeeper and bailiff of Kingston, was born at Kingston, Surrey, and was baptized there on 5 March 1706. 

He entered Eton College as a king's scholar in 1716. On leaving school he was apprenticed to William Cheselden, head surgeon at St Thomas's Hospital, London. By perseverance Belchier became eminent in his profession, and in 1736 he was appointed surgeon to Guy's Hospital. In 1732 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.  He was a founding governor of the Foundling Hospital, a charity created by Royal Charter in 1739. Belchier was awarded the Copley Medal by the Royal Society in 1737, and his name appears on the list of the council from 1769 to 1772.

Belchier was a founding governor for the Foundling Hospital.

He contributed some papers to the society's Philosophical Transactions. On Belchier's retirement as surgeon of Guy's Hospital he was elected one of its governors, and also a governor of St Thomas's Hospital. He had a reverence for the name of Guy, saying ‘that no other man would have sacrificed £150,000 for the benefit of his fellow-creatures’. In the Gentleman's Magazine for 1743 is the following story:
One Stephen Wright, who, as a patient, came to Mr. Belchier, a surgeon, in Sun Court, being alone with him in the room clapt a pistol to his breast, demanding his money. Mr. Belchier offered him two guineas, which he refused; but, accepting of six guineas and a gold watch, as he was putting them in his pocket Mr. Belchier took the opportunity to seize upon him, and, after a struggle, secured him. (GM, 1st ser., 13, 1743, 50)
A stout but active man, Belchier died suddenly in Sun Court, Threadneedle Street, on 6 February 1785 after returning from Batson's Coffee House. His manservant had attempted to raise his master but was told ‘No John—I am dying. Fetch me a pillow; I may as well die here as anywhere else’ (Wilks and Bettany, 127). He was buried in the founder's vault in the chapel attached to Guy's Hospital."


The terracotta bust of Isaac Newton sculpted by Louis-François Roubiliac recently reappeared in the Royal Museums Collection. The bust had been bequeathed to the Society by John Belchier FRS, and the Council Minutes of 18 August 1785 record that Belchier wanted it to be put on public view at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, the Royal Society already being in possession of a Roubiliac marble bust of Newton.


The black and white photographs below from the Paul Mellon Photographic Archive.

The Belchier Bust here is inaccurately described as terracotta.

I have contacted the curator at the Royal College of Surgeons. This bust is (as I write) currently hidden away in store at the Royal College and is not available to be photographed. I will attempt to obtain permission photograph it in due course.

Currently these photographs are the only ones available to me.


The Two Photographs from Esdaile's Roubiliac. pub 1928.

More recent Photographs of Belchier at the Royal College of Surgeons.

These suggest that the terracotta coloured paint is probably a recent adaptation.

Certainly not something I approve of!

John Belchier (d.1785).

 by Ozias Humphrey (1742 - 1810).

Oil on Canvas.

76 x 64 cms.

 Presented by Henry Watson in 1785 to Royal College of Surgeons.


Perhaps a reference to John Belchier.

In the catalogue for a sale by Christies on 29 March 1805 'of ... Vases, Marbles, etc collected by a Man of Fashion during a recent visit to Rome and Naples', also included 'original models in Terra Cotta, by the celebrated Roubiliac, &c, &c.' 

Lot 118 was described as An original model of the bust of Handel, by Roubiliac, in terra cotta', and it was sold for three Guineas (this bust is probably the Grimsthorpe Castle terracotta bust of Handel). 

The preceding lot, 117, was described as 'Tarquin and Lucretia, a singularly fine model in terra cotta, by the celebrated Roubiliac, undoubtedly, with a glass shade'.

Lot 119 was described as an original model of the bust of Alexander Pope by Roubiliac.

This is the bust now in the Barber Institute bought by the poet Samuel Rogers of St James Place.

 All were consigned by someone named 'Belcher', this is possibly a misspelling of Belchier, the consignor therefore possibly being a relative of the deceased Dr John Belchier (d. 1785), who moved in artistic circles, apparently having an acquaintance with both Pope and Handel, and whose own bust Roubiliac had modelled (model or cast, which is now with the Royal College of Surgeons). 

see my post - http://english18thcenturyportraitsculpture.blogspot.com/2016/03/cheselden-and-belchier-royal-college-of.html

The annotations to the right of the lot descriptions, where the auctioneer has recorded the result of the auction, are incomplete, and do not disclose the name of the purchaser of the bust of Handel, but they disclose that lot 119 (the terracotta bust of Pope) was acquired by one 'Rogers' for five Guineas. (David Wilson). See my post -



An Amusing snippet of conversation - from The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century by WM Thackery.

" The following authenticated story of our artist (furnished by the late Mr. Belchier, F.R.S., a surgeon of eminence) will also serve to show how much more easy it is to detect ill-placed or hyperbolical adulation respecting others, than when applied to ourselves. Hogarth, being at dinner with the great Cheselden and some other accompany, was told that Mr. John Freke, surgeon of St. Bartholo- mew's Hospital, a few evenings before at Dick's Coffee-house, had asserted that Greene was as eminent in composition as Handel.

' That fellow Freke,' replied Hogarth, ' is always shooting his bolt absurdly, one way or another. Handel is a giant in music; Greene only a light Florimel kind of a composer.' ' Ay,' says our artist's informant, ' but at the same time Mr. Freke declared you were as good a portrait-painter as Vandyke.'

 ‘There he was right,' adds Hogarth, ' and so, by G... , I am, give me my time and let me choose my subject.' "

Works, by Nichols and Steevens, vol. i. 40 pp. 2z6, 237.


John Belchier and Dr Matthew Lee by Roubiliac.

The two busts together illustrating the common features of the informal dress.

This technique of using the same busts but with different heads was a technique unique to Roubiliac. It can be seen with his busts of Jonathan Tyers, Henry Streatfield, and John Ray. He also used the same technique in the busts of the Grande Conde and Oliver Cromwell, see my recent post on the Harris Museum, Preston drawings attributed to Joseph Nollekens of busts in the Roubiliac studio at his posthumous sale.



The Bust of  Dr Matthew Lee by Roubiliac.

in the Lee Building, Christchurch College, Oxford.

Placed in the Anatomy School in 1758.

Matthew Lee was educated at Westminster School and then studied at Christ Church. He subsequently practiced Medicine in Oxford and London and was physician to Frederick, Prince of Wales. 

His will provided a substantial sum (ca. £2300) for a building, a Readership and running costs (the costs of supplying bodies for dissection). 

The little Georgian building, originally known as the Anatomy School, was erected in the School Quadrangle, tucked away to the south of the Hall. It was designed and built at a cost of £1200 in 1766-7 by Henry Keene on the site of the organist's house and became the Christ Church science laboratory.


My original blog post was the first published essay on the subject of this particular bust - peculiarly it is not recorded in the Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain .. Roscoe et al, pub Yale 2009.

Mrs Esdaile states in Roubiliac, Oxford 1928 says 'placed on a bracket below the gallery of the college Laboratory... is thickly covered in paint which effectually prevents the search for a signature'.

I wonder whether here Mrs Esdaile was relying on second hand information.

Currently at the foot of the staircase in the Lee Building, the former Anatomy School, Christ Church College, Oxford now the Senior Common Room.

Placed in the building in 1758 (info from A Christchurch Miscellany, Hiscock, 1946).

This bust went unnoticed by Mrs Poole until she was alerted to it by Mrs Katherine Arundell Esdaile
see page 317, Catalogue of Portraits Oxford... Vol III, Mrs Reginald Lane Poole 1925.

Noted in the lecture room in 1925, now in the hallway on the ground floor.

Mrs Poole says the bust was painted but I am informed there is no obvious evidence.

The bust is very dirty and could do with a gentle wash.

These photographs were provided anonymously - taken under very difficult circumstances with very little light which explains the low resolution - when I contacted the Curator? Kevin McGerty and the members of the Committee of the Senior Common Room at Christ Church I was told that it wasn't possible to get access or be provided with photographs - why??? 

Other members of staff at Christchurch College Oxford, and in particular the Librarians were fantastically accommodating.


The bust of Belchier at the Royal College of Surgeons is paired with the bust of Dr Cheselden.

I have already posted on the subject of the Royal College of Surgeon's Roubiliac Busts.



The Photographs below come from the Paul Mellon Photographic Archive.

This bust is again erroneously described as terracotta and has been repainted a sort of brown terracotta colour which disguises previous damage.

Also wrongly described as by Rysbrack.

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