Bust of a Man…Alternate version
My inquiry into the sculpture known as Bust of a Man begins with the known facts. There are two similar sculptures known a Bust of a (Black) Man. One is unsigned and is at the Yale Center for British Art. A lesser one, to my eye, is at the Getty Museum and is signed “Francis Harwood fecit.”, meaning “I did that!”. The latter is dated 1758. Francis Harwood was a British sculptor who worked in England and Italy from the mid 18th century to his death in 1783. It appears that he was quite adept at making copies of the great sculptures of the world. He did not make his works to deceive, rather he made his living fulfilling the wishes of patrons who wanted copies of the great classical sculptors for their private collection. He was more craftsman than artist, and any assumption that he did the original work located now at the Yale Center because he signed a copy must be addressed in the context of the reality that he was not that talented. The Yale Center at some point changed its attribution from “Francis Harwood” to “Studio of Francis Harwood” perhaps due to the conflict between the signed and dated lesser work and the realization that it had an unsigned copy by a better sculptor who, they may have surmised, must have worked with Francis Harwood. I suggest otherwise.
What if the signature and/or date of the Getty sculpture is wrong? Since the Getty bust seems most likely a reworked copy of the Yale bust, it seems quite plausible that Francis Harwood created the Getty sculpture, not from a live sitting, but from the existing Yale bust. That is what Francis Harwood did for a living. The date is quite another story. If the Yale bust was created prior to 1758, the identity of the sitter and the sculptor would remain a mystery. I submit that the date on the Harwood copy may be wrong, purposefully wrong. If the two sculptures were actually of a later date, some progress could be made as to the identity of the sitter and the sculptor.
We begin with the assumption, supported in the literature, that the sitter was associated with a Duke of Northumberland, one of the richest men in the world. Famously, an American slave who was to take the name “Bill Richmond”, was brought to England around 1777 by Hugh Percy, who was to become the Second Duke of Northumberland. Percy was a General in the British Army who participated in several of the early conflicts of the American War For Independence, including the Battles of Lexington and Concord. He quickly grew fed up with the war and due to disagreements with his Commander, he returned to England while the war was still in its early stages. The slave Bill, of somewhat indeterminate age, impressed the General with his quick wit and his ability to defend himself with his fists. It was not uncommon for British officers to return to England with former slaves who attached themselves to British units as a means of escaping from their horrors. At certain points in the War, both sides promised freedom to slaves who served as soldiers in their army. To the degree that some of these men were runaway slaves or not classified as soldiers, their status after the war was uncertain. In 1772, a lower court judge in England issued an opinion in the matter of Somersett’s Case, which held that since slavery was abhorrent to British law, any slave who is on actual British soil is a free man while on British soil. With the protections afforded by this precedential decision and those provided by the wealthy Duke of Northumberland, Bill Richmond now in England, became educated, acquired a trade, and otherwise seemingly took his place as a free British subject . Later in life, he revolutionized the sport of boxing and once fought for the title of Champion of England. I suspect that the Yale sculpture was carved at the time Bill Richmond was growing into his adult self, possibly 1781. The scar above the eye and the sculpture’s physique speak to Bill Richmond’s past as a slave or fighter. In the latter part of the 18th century there were several sculptors who could produce such a masterwork and the Dukes of Northumberland were famous for their discerning eye and willingness to spend considerable money on their art. With the surrender of Cornwallis in 1781, Britain and France, while technically still at war over the American conflict, were able to resume a certain amount of trade. The great sculptors of France, most specifically Jean Antoine Houdon, were exploring the issue of slavery in their works. In 1781, Houdon carved a bust of a black woman, thought to be a study for the “attendant” in a fountain sculpture of a bather, of which only the head remains and is located at the Musee municipale Ancienne Abbaye, Saint-Leger, Soissons. This sculpture was later used by Houdon in an allegory of slavery and freedom. As can be seen from the recast sculpture, now in the Musee Nissim de Camondo, Paris, this sculpture is the spiritual kin to the Bust of a Man at Yale and may well have been done by the same sculptor at approximately the same time.
The American victory in its War for Independence led to another adventure in the life of Bill Richmond. The darndest thing happened…the victorious Americans who were all about freedom wanted their slaves back. In the years between the British surrender of 1781 and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the status of slaves under the control of the British was uncertain. The British insisted on honoring their commitment to those slaves who fought as soldiers in their army and papers were issued on their behalf. Yet in the confusing time, even some freed blacks with papers were re-enslaved. Bill Richmond had not been a soldier and had no papers, but at least he was in Britain where he had some security. Yet there was well reasoned apprehension on the part of many in Britain that in any treaty which would ultimately be signed, Britain might agree to relinquish its former slaves who had no papers. I presume that neither the (soon to be) Duke nor Bill Richmond was keen on seeing slave Bill returned to slavery in America. As wealthy as the Northumberlands were, Lord Percy was politically and socially vulnerable because of his quick exit from the war theater. It would not look good for a British General to violate the terms of a treaty. Bill Richmond needed an identity that would protect him from deportation just in case the worst political result was negotiated. Enter Francis Harwood.
Francis Harwood had spent his life providing reasonable facsimiles of classical sculptures. Now, in the early 1780’s he was near the end of his life and was about to produce his greatest work. Much was at stake. I suggest, with absolutely no proof, that Francis Harwood copied the masterwork Bust of a Man and signed it, verified it, and falsely dated it. It gave Bill Richmond a false ID. I admit that the date of 1758 was farfetched, as the subject was a man who clearly was younger than that, but the concepts involved in providing a false ID had not yet been perfected. The scar above the eye and impressive physique would testify to the fact that it was Bill Richmond. The year 1758 may have been picked because it predated any American conflict and would therefore provide an unassailable cover. It also may have been inserted to establish a twenty year absence from America, which is often a statutory period for the abandonment of property. Thankfully, we know of no attempt to “repatriate” and re-enslave Bill Richmond. However, we do know that the Treaty of Paris of 1783 is a convoluted document which many believe required all British officers to return their slaves to their “rightful” owner.
To sum up, I believe that the Yale Center for British Art has a sculpture entitled Bust of a Man, which depicts the bust of a former slave who came to be known as Bill Richmond. It is an important piece of American History as well as a sculptural masterpiece. It was probably created in the late 1770’s or early 1780’s and just might be(sorry YCBA) French. The Getty Art Museum has a copy of that sculpture, probably created in 1782 or 1783, created and signed by the lesser British sculptor, Francis Harwood. It was purposely misdated. The Getty sculpture is less of a sculptural masterpiece, yet quite possibly it is one of the most important pieces of art in American History if for no other reason that it is one of the first examples of what was to become an American institution…the phony ID. The spiritual sisters of these sculptures are located at the Musee municipale Ancienne Abbaye, Saint-Leger, Soissons and the Musee Nissim de Camondo, in Paris. Further investigation should be undertaken to determine if they were created by the same hand.
Below: The Francis Harwood Bust of a Man at the Getty, The recast Houdon, the original Houdon and the YCBA Bust of a Man