Louis-François Roubiliac (1702/1705– 11 January 1762) was a French sculptor who worked in England, one of the four most prominent sculptors in London working in the rococo style, “probably the most accomplished sculptor ever to work in England”, according to Margaret Whinney.
Roubiliac was born in Lyon and trained in the studio of Balthasar Permoser in Dresden, where Permoser, a product of Bernini’s workshop, was working for the Protestant Elector of Saxony, and later in Paris, in the studio of his fellow-townsman Nicolas Coustou. Disappointed in receiving second place in the competition for the Prix de Rome, 1730, he received his medal but not the chance to study in Rome; he moved to London instead. In 1735 he was married at St Martin’s-in-the-Fields to Caroline Magdalene Hélot, a member of the French Huguenot community in London..
In London, he was employed by “Carter, the statuary” but was introduced by Edward Walpole, son of the Prime Minister, to Henry Cheere, who took him on as an assistant. Sir Edward’s intervention resulted in the commission for half the busts in the series for Trinity College, Dublin, and for the Argyll monument commission, if Horace Walpole is to be credited. His first outstanding separate commission was the seated figure of Handel for Vauxhall Gardens, for which he was recommended by Cheere. Its prominent placement in the fashionable pleasure grounds “fixed Roubiliac’s fame” as Walpole asserted, and he was able to open the studio in St Martin’s Lane that he maintained until his death. Roubiliac was a founding member of the St Martin’s Lane Academy, a professional association and fraternity of rococo artists that was a forerunner to the Royal Academy. His studio in St Martin’s Lane became its meeting room; its members came together again for his funeral.
Handel (Victoria and Albert Museum)
Commissions for portrait busts and monuments for country churches supported him until 1745, when he received the first of his commissions for a funeral monument in Westminster Abbey, for the late Duke of Argyll (installed 1749). George Vertue was one of the work’s many admirers; it showed, he thought, “the greatness of his genius in his invention, design and execution, in every part equal, if not superior, to any others” outshining “for nobleness and skill all those before done by the best sculptors this fifty years past” The mourning figure of Eloquence, the notably unkind John Thomas Smith found to be “such a memorial of his powers, that even his friend Pope could not have equalled it by an epitaph”.
Even when the patrons were prominent, the churches in which the monuments were installed often lay deep in the English countryside: the monument of the Duke of Montagu (1752), soon followed by his duchess (1753), are in the church at Warkton, Northamptonshire; Horace Walpole, an inveterate country house visitor, noted them: “well-performed and magnificent, but wanting in simplicity” was his verdict.
The neoclassical eye, trained to appreciate svelte line and idealised refinements of nature, did not savour the rude vigour and immediacy of Roubiliac: the legs of the figure of Hercules, supporting the bust of Sir Peter Warren in Roubliac’s monument in Westminster Abbey (1753), J.T. Smith found “were copied from a chairman’s, and the arms from those of a waterman”
Part of the memorial (1760) placed by Ann Bellamy Lynn to her husband George at St Mary’s church Southwick, Northamptonshire
About the mid-century Roubiliac was employed for a time as a modeller at the Chelsea porcelain factory, a new outlet for sculptors’ talent in Britain; its entrepreneur Nicholas Sprimont stood godfather to the sculptor’s daughter Sophie, in 1744. For a friend like Thomas Hudson he was willing to sculpt figures of Painting and Sculpture to ornament a marble chimneypiece in Hudson’s house in Great Queen Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. For his friend William Hogarth he even carved a portrait of Hogarth’s dog “Trump”. His second wife (a considerable heiress) having recently died, he took a brief tour to Italy towards the end of 1752 in the company of several artists.
Soon after his death an auction sale of the contents of his studio was held, 12–15 May 1762, from which Dr Matthew Maty purchased a number of his plaster and terracotta models, which he presented to the newly-founded British Museum. Prices were derisory, and when his effects were totalled up, Roubiliac’s creditors, J.T. Smith asserted, were satisfied with one shilling sixpence in the pound.