Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Mary Seacole portrait bust plus update

UPDATE 30 JULY  at today's sale, the hammer price reached £101,000    - a tribute to Seacole's historical significance but which sadly probably means the portrait won't be going to a public museum.

31 JULY    @RacingGreenUK
 is thrilled to announce that producer owner Billy Peterson won the bid for the Mary Seacole terracotta bust today at auction. The company hopes to feature it in the upcoming movie 'Seacole' starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw

A second cast of the delicate terracotta bust of the famous Victorian healer Mary Seacole has unexpectedly come to light.  Dated to 1871, it was modelled from life by sculptor Victor Gleichen  and exhibited at the Royal Academy in summer 1872.

The bust was previously known from a black-and-white photograph from the 1870s and a version now in the National Museum of Jamaica in Kingston, which was loaned to Manchester Art Gallery in 2006 for the Black Victorians exhibition curated by Jan Marsh.  Both are the same half-lifesize dimensions and both show Seacole wearing the replica medals commemorating her service to British soldiery during the Crimean War.

The appearance of a second cast is unusual, because terracotta – the fired version of the original clay portrait modelled by hand during sessions with the sitter – is not often reproduced in the same medium.  While conveying a warm colour that is more attractive than bronze or marble in relation to the human head, terracotta is fragile and prone to chips and stains.

The newly-discovered bust has suffered some knocks, but is generally robust.  It clearly shows the marks of the sculpting tools, and the firing seams. It belonged to Jack Webb, antique dealer and collector who haunted the shops in Camden Passage and specialized in militaria.

Jamaican-born Seacole, whose career has inspired generations of nurses and whose statue now stands outside St Thomas’s Hospital, was voted ‘greatest Black Briton’ in 2004.  She

Undeterred, she financed her own voyage to the war zone

“I have seen her go down, under fire, with her little store of creature comforts for our wounded men and a more tender or skillful hand about a wound or broken limb could not be found among our best surgeons’,  wrote the Times’s war correspondent.  Nightingale loathed Seacole for selling alcohol to the troops – doubtless much-appreciated amid the wintry Crimean conditions.

One of the officers among the British forces was a German-born nobleman known as Count Gleichen von Hohenlohe-Langeburg, who was related to Queen Victoria.  After the Crimean War he trained as a sculptor and had a grace-and-favour residence in St James’s Palace.   Gleichen was one of the British officers who raised funds for Seacole when she was left bankrupt by the sudden ending of the war.  

Sculpting the portrait bust over a decade later seems an additional gesture of gratitude and support. It appears to have been made in an edition of four or six, in accordance with sculptural practice, so there should be other copies awaiting discovery.

1 comment:

  1. I read that the statue was bought by the studio who are currently making a film about her staring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and will be on display at the Florence Nightingale museum afterwards.