John Bushnell: Image-Maker

This paper was first delivered at the Church Monuments Society conference at Herstmonceux Castle, East Sussex, in September 2016. I am grateful to the Society and its President, Jean Wilson, for allowing me to publish it here.

John Bushnell (c.1630-1701) is at once a wayward and memorable sculptor. In the 1720s the artist and commentator, George Vertue (1684-1756), described ‘his manner of design’ as ‘great and spirituous, not elegant or gracefull, consisting chiefly of a manner neither easy nor agreeable.’ (See George Vertue Notebooks, The Walpole Society, Vols. 18,20,22,24,26,29,30 Oxford, 1932-55). For modern viewers, this lack of elegance and grace seems curiously and attractively modern, even if the English master was markedly deficient in the accomplished fluency of his older contemporary in Rome, Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).

This article will examine some of Bushnell’s extant works in Sussex, Venice and elsewhere, and try to place him within a context that was both British and European. In Sussex, Bushnell’s works in Ashburnham and Mid Lavant are of prime importance. Simon Watney has also plausibly attributed the marble monument to Bishop Carleton in Chichester Cathedral to the sculptor (‘John Bushnell in Chichester: The Monument to Bishop Carleton’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol.150, November 2008, pp.759-62). The late Katharine Gibson’s publications on Bushnell have been fundamental to my present article (‘ “The Kingdom’s Marble Chronicle”: The Embellishment of the First and Second Buildings, 1600 to 1690’ in A. Saunders (ed.), The Royal Exchange, London, 1997, pp.138-72 & ‘The Trials of John Bushnell, The Sculpture Journal, VI, 2001, pp.49-60), as well as Ingrid Roscoe’s masterly account in the Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain 1660-1851, London 2009, pp.174-6), and Katharine Esdaile’s pioneering article on the sculptor (‘John Bushnell, Sculptor’, The Walpole Society,Vol. 15, 1926/7, pp.21-45). 

On the Albert Memorial, in the marble frieze of great sculptors on the north side, carved by John Birnie Philip (1824-1875) in 1863-4, Bushnell is shown looking towards his older predecessor Bernini, and standing between Francis Bird (1667-1731) and Louis François Roubiliac (1702/5-1762). Bushnell looks remarkably debonair, and this rather stylish Victorian image seems to be somewhat at odds with the surviving biographical information on him. No contemporary likeness of Bushnell is extant, though Vertue mentions a half-length picture of him ‘holding a Marble Bust.’ But, again thanks to Vertue, writing about 20 years after the sculptor’s death, some lively verbal accounts of his errant personality survive, as well as of his troubled later years.

In addition, contemporary documents reveal his litigious nature, especially regarding property. Vertue spoke to the youngest of Bushnell’s sons (probably Richard, b. 1679), when he visited his ramshackle house near Hyde Park in the 1720s (after Bushnell’s death). According to the son, the artist ‘stay’d 2 Years in France in his way to Italy. Went to Rome. &c. and was imployd in Venice by a Grandéé or Procuratore de St marc. For whom he did a vast Monument in Basso relieve. Being a siege of Candia, & a sea fight against the Turks. … in which great work he was imployd about six years. He staid some time in other places in Italy. & returnd by Vienna. Thro’ Germany & home from Hamborough [Hamburg].’ Like a handful of other native-born seventeenth-century British sculptors, including Bird, as well as Nicholas Stone and Grinling Gibbons, Bushnell therefore acquired invaluable experience working on the Continent. This contact with French and Italian sculpture, and possibly works in the German-speaking lands, informs his sculptural language.

The Mocenigo tomb in the church of San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti in Venice, dating from 1663-5, the earliest known monument on which Bushnell is known to have worked, comprises a central figure, the commander Alvise Mocenigo, Procurator of Venice, (or Lazzaro Mocenigo, Venetian Commander-in-Chief?), obelisks, and reliefs on each side packed with action. The lateral panels depict two of the battles that took place during the protracted Siege of Candia in Crete, in which the Venetians fought the Ottomans, a campaign in which Mocenigo played a leading role. The tomb was designed by the Venetian sculptor, Giuseppe Sardi (1624-1699), whose assistants included the Netherlandish artist, Giusto de Corte (1627-1679), active in Venice from 1657 onwards. Bushnell apparently worked specifically on the lively, if somewhat crowded, reliefs. Between October 1663 and May 1665, relatively high payments, totalling 2,500 ducats, were made to one ‘Giovanni Businelli inglese scultore’.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this monument in terms of Bushnell’s future career is that it is carved in marble, meaning that he would have acquired a skill that was far from common for masons and sculptors in Britain in the mid-seventeenth century. But possibly we can also see stylistic traits that were to come to the fore in his later work, notably the dominant standing figure. Even if the English master was said to have worked on the reliefs, rather than the figure, he must have been impressed by the format of the statue, and the classicising forms used to portray a naval commander. Surely Bushnell’s working alongside a skilled Netherlandish artist would also have had an effect on his work, and his later proven ability to portray both human subjects and inanimate objects with powerful realism?

We should however go back to Bushnell’s time in Britain, before he left for the Continent. He was born in London, the son of a plumber, Richard Bushnell, and trained with Thomas Burman (1617/18-1674) from about 1650 to 1656, whose work is redolent of that of Nicholas Stone. Bushnell was forced to marry one of his master’s maids, who had ostensibly been made pregnant by Burman, and to avoid this Bushnell fled to Europe, stealing £15 of his master’s money. He stayed on the Continent for just over ten years, from 1657 to 1668. During that long sojourn only the Venice monument is known, and we can but surmise what else the youthful sculptor produced.

On returning to England, Bushnell was commissioned to make statues of monarchs for the Temple Bar and for the Royal Exchange. Although these are not going to be discussed here in any detail, they provide an interesting context, both for the format of his later memorial to Lord Mordaunt at Fulham (see below, and figs.3&7), and in a wider sense for what these public, secular commissions tell us about sculptors active in Britain at that time, and indeed Bushnell’s status as a sculptor in England. He was vying with other gifted sculptors active in London in the late seventeenth century, such as Grinling Gibbons, Caius Gabriel Cibber, and John Nost the Elder. Like them, he had spent time working on the Continent, gaining technical and other experience which few other native English artists possessed.

This article concentrates on church monuments, and I want next to look at the monument to Elisabeth Pepys, Samuel Pepys’s wife, married shortly before her fifteenth birthday, who died prematurely of a fever at the age of 29 in 1669. Her memorial was installed in St. Olave’s church in the City of London, where both Pepys and his wife worshipped, not far from the Navy Office where the diarist worked. He could apparently look up at his wife’s memorial from his pew opposite. The image may have been partly based on a painting of Elisabeth which has now been lost, though an engraving of it survives by John Thomson. The vivacity of the portrayal, the open mouth and smile, must have been inspired by Bernini, such as the bust he made of his mistress Costanza Bonarelli (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence). Unfortunately Pepys did not continue his diary after his wife’s death, and so there is no first-hand account of the commissioning of her memorial.

Bushnell seems to have excelled in portraits in a bust format. Although the sculpture of Mrs Pepys is not a Bernini, it does suggest her lively character, presumably informed by Pepys’s own recollections of his beloved spouse. Just before he had been commissioned to carve Mrs Pepys’s likeness, Bushnell produced the head and hands in wax of a male subject, the recently deceased military leader General Monck, as part of the effigy of him made for Westminster Abbey. The wax does not survive, but a plaster model related to it is extant, on long term loan from Westminster Abbey to the Guards Museum, London (My thanks to Andrew Wallis and Susan Jenkins for giving me access to this plaster). On 5 April 1669 Bushnell sent a bill for £35 ‘for making the head and hands in wax; for painting the same. A Perriwigge of Hayre to it, And modelling the whole body in Stucke [plaster] and for my paines and servants and also [for] attendance in dressing and setting up the same in Westminster Abbey’ (A. Harvey and R. Mortimer (eds.), The Funeral Effigies of Westminster Abbey, Woodbridge, 1994, p.75, citing Public Records Office LC 2/10 (1) Book of abstracts). This was the first effigy in the Abbey for which wax was used, perhaps a legacy of Bushnell’s time in Italy, where there was a longstanding tradition of using wax for sculptures. The exact status and date of the plaster is uncertain. Possibly it is a death mask, made soon after the General’s death, serving as a model for the wax, although it could be a later cast after the wax. It is certainly imbued with naturalism, and compares closely with one of the contemporary portraits of the jowly General with heavy eyelids, as seen in engravings, such as that by David Loggan. 

It is fruitful to compare the Monck plaster with another jowly subject, Charles II, in a terracotta bust, presented to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1948. This has been plausibly attributed to Bushnell, as well as Caius Gabriel Cibber, and it displays interesting Italianate characteristics (Inv. no. M1-1948. My thanks to Victoria Avery for allowing me access to this bust, and for discussing it with me (see Fitzwilliam Museum and D. Bilbey and M. Trusted, British Sculpture 1470 to 2000. A Concise Catalogue of the Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2002, p.38). We do not know if it was a finished piece, or a model for a marble. A marble portrait of Charles II exists at Seaton Delaval in Northumberland, and has also been ascribed at different times to Bushnell as well as to Cibber. The terracotta could have been a model for the marble, although there are differences of detail between the two. (I am grateful to Bill Dunn for alerting me to this marble see Art Fund). David Taylor of the National Trust feels the marble could be by Bushnell, though both it and the terracotta at Cambridge were ascribed to Cibber by Katherine Gibson in her entry on him for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

The surface modelling of the terracotta can be plainly seen, including the firmly realistic observation of certain details, such as the lace cravat and chain round his neck from which the Order of the Garter hangs, as well as the impressed brocading of the costume beneath the armour. But is the terracotta by Bushnell? First recorded in 1877, it was first ascribed to him by Katherine Esdaile in her 1926 article. It may have been owned by Francis North, Lord Chancellor (1637-1685), a man highly esteemed by Charles II. I said that it possibly exhibits Bushnell’s links with Italy, and certainly it exhibits Italianate features, for example the tall proportions of the bust, which recall the sixteenth-century Venetian sculptor Alessandro Vittoria (1524/5-1608), as well as the lively turn of the head, evoking once more the baroque flourishes of Bernini.

A pair of male terracotta busts in the V&A of two unknown gentlemen, perhaps a father and son, acquired in 1963, previously sold in the Midlands, have also been associated with Bushnell (Inv. nos. A.7 and A.8-1963. Bilbey and Trusted British Sculpture, 2002, p. 38). Dated to around 1670, they are fine, if somewhat enigmatic, pieces, possibly models for marble effigies for a monument. The classicising dress might suggest they were intended as posthumous memorials. They tie in reasonably well stylistically with the Charles II bust, although they lack its tall proportions, and, unlike that bust, they have integral socles. All four of these busts pose, rather than answer, questions about Bushnell’s oeuvre and his skills as a portraitist. They are merely attributions, rather than definitively telling us more about his practice.

We should now return to one of Bushnell’s secure works, mentioned in passing earlier, and in particular to his church monuments. His memorial to Lord Mordaunt is in All Saints Church Fulham (figs.3&7). This imposing work was commissioned by his widow at a cost of £250, and portrays Lord John Mordaunt, Baron of Reigate and Viscount of Avalon (1626-1675).

In the words of the topographer, John Bowack, in 1706, he is ‘somewhat bigger than the Life in his Robes, with a Battoon or staff of Command in his right Hand, as being Constable of Windsor Castle.’ (Esdaile 1926/7, p.35). Vertue condemned it as ‘of no great skill, far inferior to many others I have seen done’, but I think many of us would disagree with that condemnation. The Viscount stands proudly between two panels inscribed with his genealogical ancestors, and a Latin inscription recording his own merits. His gauntlets and his coronet rest on squat bases. The marble is carved skilfully, with particular details, such as the hilt of the sword and the buskins worn on the Viscount’s feet, which are all sensitively rendered.

The black marble backing acts as an admirable foil to the white statue, a compositional device again no doubt imported from Italy. The pose and detail of the sword recalls Bushnell’s figure of a king, probably King James I, made for the Temple Bar, the gateway between Westminster and the City of London, commissioned in 1669, soon after he returned to London from the Continent (K. Gibson, ‘ “The Kingdom’s Marble Chronicle”: The Embellishment of the First and Second Buildings 1600 to 1690’ in A. Saunders (ed.),The Royal Exchange, London, 1997, p.150). It can be compared too with the figure on the Mocenigo monument in Venice, as noted above. Again, Italianate elements in the pose of the commemorated man and the overall composition are evident.

The monument to Lady Mary May (d.1681) of 1676 in the church of St Nicholas in Mid Lavant, West Sussex, was re-discovered in 1980, having been consigned to the crypt of the church by a Victorian vicar in the 1870s to make room for more pews (main image & figs.10&11). (T.D.S. Bayley, ‘Lady Mary May’s Monument in Mid Lavant Church’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, CVII, 1969, pp.1-11, and F.G. Aldsworth, ‘The May Family Vault and the Lady May Monument in the Church of St. Nicholas, Mid Lavant, West Sussex’, Sussex Archaeological Collections,, CXX, 1982, pp. 230-2.) Lady May commissioned her own memorial after she had been widowed in 1672. Her husband’s uncle was Hugh May (1621-1684), the celebrated architect, who worked at Windsor Castle and elsewhere, a friend of Sir Christopher Wren, as well as Pepys. Perhaps it was thanks to Pepys that Lady May decided to commission the effigy of herself from Bushnell. The fact that it was made during her lifetime possibly explains why the portrayal is so realistic, even down to the smallpox marks on her face.

The detail of the earring, and the skilfully carved hand clasping a bunch of drapery indicate Bushnell’s skills as a sculptor. Showing smallpox marks on sculpted portraits is not unknown, as can be seen in the later bust by Roubiliac of Henry Herbert, 9th Earl of Pembroke of about 1750, currently on loan to the V&A. Although the Lady May memorial lacks its original immediate setting, and is now somewhat clinical in feeling, it is a fine portrait, of real character, the face typical of Bushnell’s best work. It graces the cover of the second edition of the Pelican volume on sculpture in Britain by Margaret Whinney, revised by the late John Physick.

The Ashburnham monument in East Sussex is probably the sculptor’s most impressive work. Erected in 1675, it commemorates William Ashburnham (d.1679) and his wife Jane, Countess of Marlborough (figs.12&13). William commissioned the memorial from Bushnell, and the lengthy inscription beneath it evokes his affection for his deceased wife. He ‘Lived almost five and forty yeares most happily with her … William Ashburnham her husband … gloried in nothing in this World/ But this his Wife’ (J. Seddon, P. Seddon and A. McIntosh, Public Sculpture of Sussex, Liverpool, 2014, p.4).

His kneeling figure epitomises a husband’s grief. Ashburnham was a close friend of Pepys, and again, given the monument to Mrs Pepys, this could be the reason Bushnell was given the commission. Close parallels can be detected between this memorial and other works by Bushnell: the reclining figure of the Countess is similar to that of Lady May. Here though, a cherub crowns – albeit somewhat awkwardly – the commemorated lady with a wreath. Meanwhile the chunky pedestals at the side echo the ones flanking the Mordaunt monument. The theatrical curtains being drawn back by two more cherubs may be inspired by Continental prototypes. Comparable draped curtains can be seen at the apex of another monument by Bushnell to Elizabeth Myddelton at Chirk in Denbighshire. What Simon Watney calls Bushnell’s ‘crazy theatricality’ is all too apparent. Surely this format also inspired Bushnell’s younger contemporary, Grinling Gibbons, for example with the design for his tomb to the 1st Duke of Beaufort (d. 1700) at Great Badminton? The emotional power of the Ashburnham tomb can be compared with Cibber’s almost exactly contemporary fine Sackville monument at Withyham, erected in 1678 at a cost of £350, commemorating the 13 year old Thomas Sackville who died in 1677.

The flying cherub seen on the Ashburnham tomb is one reason that Simon Watney has plausibly attributed the monument to Bishop Guy Carleton (d. 1685) in Chichester Cathedral to Bushnell (Watney 2008, fig. 58 on p. 762). As Watney has pointed out, we can see in this monument many of the elements which appear in Bushnell’s known works: the obelisk, the splayed out gadrooned form at the base, ‘like an immense caterpillar’ in Watney’s words, the form of the inscription on the base, and the hovering putti with their ‘rubbery bodies’, windswept hair and over-sized heads.

Bushnell’s last work was completed the year before his death. This is the monument to Henry, Earl of Thomond (1619-1691), erected in 1700 by the Earl’s widow, Sarah, Countess Dowager of Thomond at the church of St Andrew, Great Billing, Northamptonshire (I am most grateful to the Reverend Doug Spenceley and The Parish of Great and Little Billing, Northampton for giving me access to the church).

The monument is placed in what was once the family chapel in the church, the Earl and Countess depicted in rather clumsy but seemingly highly realistic bust formats. Between and below them in high relief, kneel one son and four daughters, facing the altar in smaller format, while at each end of the podium on which the busts are set, are two more daughters. A swaddled baby lies between the two parents, presumably a child who died in infancy. On either side, two weighty angels draw back curtains. A black marble obelisk beneath a coat of arms at the top and behind the baby was once adorned with painted foliate decoration, though this has now faded. At the obelisk’s base is the inscription ‘Erected 1700’. Although the overall design is idiosyncratic, to say the least, the originality of the conception and the charmingly carved details are effective and attractive. Bushnell’s encounters with the naturalism of Netherlandish sculpture, perhaps via the work of Giusto de Corte in Venice, must have played their part. The use of the drill in the Earl’s lace cravat is noticeable, as well as the almost brutal realism of his and his wife’s corpulent portraits, presumably taken from drawings or paintings, though could Bushnell have sculpted the Countess from life? These details reveal why he was in demand for such commissions, despite his difficult and argumentative character.

Bushnell died at the age of 70, and is buried at Paddington,London, where he is described in the records as an ‘image-maker’. As Vertue says, he ‘travelld abroad & there studied & became an Excellent Master’. Without question, Bushnell has moments of excellence, and is an unforgettable artist, whose monuments are in some ways as vexing as his personality clearly was when he was alive: quirky, and often paradoxically contradictory, in that they possess details of the highest quality, juxtaposed with inept compositions and anatomy. Vertue noted, ‘He was certainly a very haughty man & coud not bear contradiction and usd commonly to say this nation was not worthy of him, nor his works.’ He was doubtless a trying man, though possibly a genius in his own way. Vertue also tells the sad, though intriguing story, of Bushnell erecting an enormous Trojan horse, ‘form’d in Timber, & design’d to have it cover’d with stucho, to form the muscles’ at a cost of £500, inside whose head alone, a dozen could be seated ‘easily round a table’. But it blew over in a storm, and was destroyed before it was completed. Two vintners promised to pay for it to be re-built, as they were going to use the head as a tavern, but Bushnell was too disillusioned to continue. This seems to sum up his character: madly ambitious, and deeply flawed. Aside from these biographical anecdotes, how should Bushnell be summed up as an artist? He had a unique style, and moreover his work illustrates the state of sculpture in Britain in the second half of the seventeenth century: somewhat insular, and epitomising the lack of formal academic training sculptors suffered before the foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768. His monuments are at the very least arresting, and at best, fine portraits of those commemorated.

Main image: John Bushnell, Monument to Lady May, St Nicholas Church, Mid Lavant, West Sussex, 1676, marble (photo: Emily Cock, courtesy Effaced from History?)

Aurora Corio