Completed Sculpture 16 Is this bust of Beethoven by Samuel Nixon?

Topic: Artist

I suggest that this bust of Beethoven could be by the sculptor Samuel Nixon (1804–1854). The article below appeared in the ‘Morning Post’ of Thursday 15th May 1845.

‘HONOUR to BEETHOVEN – On Wednesday, May 21, will be published, a bust of BEETHOVEN (life size) by SAMUEL NIXON Esq. Dedicated by permission to the Beethoven Quartett Society. Orders and subscriptions received by Mr. W. H. Smith, 76 Harley-Street, where a model of the bust, may be seen, or by any of the principal Musicsellers’

Jill McKechnie, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

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David Saywell, then Art Detective Officer, wrote to the collection: ‘Although that mentions the bust being life size, and yours clearly is not, [it] mentions a model of the bust being on display at 76 Harley Street. Do you think that this is your sculpture?’

Andrew Neilson, then Collections Care Officer, replied:
'Gabe [former Curator, Gabrielle Gale] and I have looked at the information you have kindly put forward to suggest that our plaster bust of Beethoven may be the work of the sculptor Samuel Nixon. And whilst we agree that there are similarities between our bust and Samuel Nixon’s, we do not feel there is enough evidence for us to confidently say that he is the creator of our plaster bust of Beethoven.

Something that stood out for me when looking closer at our bust was that the style, size and inscription in particular is very similar to that of another series of miniature busts in our collection: (I’ve included links to the busts on Art UK and our collections site)

Sculpture: Bust of Franz Schubert. Plaster. (Art UK) (Royal Academy of Music)

Sculpture: Bust of Robert Schumann. Plaster. (Art UK) (Royal Academy of Music)

Sculpture: Bust of Johann Sebastian Bach. Plaster. (Art UK) (Royal Academy of Music)

Sculpture: Bust of George Frideric Handel. Plaster. (Art UK) (Royal Academy of Music)

These four busts arrived at the Academy in 2006 as part of a gift from the Estate of Phyllis Roberts. However, the bust of Beethoven is part of our McCann Collection, which arrived at the Academy in 1999. The fact that all five busts are very similar, but arrived separately from two unrelated donors suggests to us that these may have been mass produced.

Unfortunately, we have no information about the creator or dates of creation of the four busts donated to us by the Estate of Phyllis Roberts, nor is there is further information in our acquisition notes about the Beethoven bust in our McCann collection acquisition files.

In light of the similarities between the Beethoven bust and the other four busts I’ve posted links to above, do you think it would be worth further investigating the identity of the creator of this bust, and potentially the other four on Art Detective?

In the meantime, we would prefer that the creator remained unknown on Art UK as we don’t feel we have enough evidence to prove that Samuel Nixon was the sculptor that created our bust.'

Jacinto Regalado,

Is there a link to the bust known to be by Nixon?

Marcie Doran,

This bust is quite similar to a Parian ware bust of Beethoven that seems to have once been featured on the Drove House Antiques website. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find a link to it.

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Jacinto Regalado,

I wonder if this could be Parian ware rather than plaster. The small size and bland, rather generic face suggest a mass-produced item.

Marcie Doran,

This bust is similar to a Parian ware bust at the V&A.

A bust of Beethoven owned by William Henry Smith of 76 Harley Street (see introduction to this discussion) was mentioned in an article in 'The Musical World' from the 9th of December 1848. It was described as a "plaster bust".

Happy new year everyone.

Jacinto Regalado,

The two busts are very similar, Marcie; the clothing is virtually identical. The bust you linked earlier from Drove House Antiques is also quite similar. I now believe our bust is plaster, but all three busts would appear to be related. One cannot say which one is the original, and indeed, all three may be derived from another bust.

Jacob Simon,

Numerous derivative plaster busts were produced by numerous different plaster figure makers from one mould or another in the 19th century and into the 20th century. Unless the plasters are impressed on the reverse with the name of the figure maker they are extremely difficult to attribute. Even then, with the figure maker’s name, this does not provide the name of the originating sculptor whose work was used as the basis for the mould.

Further, to be recognisable as Beethoven, such busts needed to preserve such features as the tousled hair and the extravagant neck tie. Even if the detailing is exactly the same from one bust to another, this is inconclusive since rip-off copies by other figure makers were abundant.

So I share the Royal Academy of Music’s caution when it comes to attributing this bust.

Jacinto Regalado,

Gunnis does not list a Beethoven bust for Nixon, although that does not mean he did not make one. The works Gunnis does list for him are mostly not busts, suggesting that was not his principal product.

Jacinto Regalado,

Given the small size of our plaster bust, it is virtually certainly one of many and derived from a pre-existing model, which no doubt gave rise to other versions like the ones in Parian ware linked above. I expect busts of famous composers made in quantity are typically very hard if not impossible to attribute to a definite original sculptor.

Jacinto Regalado,

The V&A version is dated 1850-1900 and is larger than ours. I would suggest adding a note to the Art UK entry like "Very similar versions of this bust in varying size are known in Parian ware. The original version, thought to date from the 19th century, gave rise to other versions derived from it."

Marcie Doran,

I have attached an article from 1859 that supports the view that the original sculptor could be difficult to determine.

The accession numbers for those four busts at the Royal Academy of Music all start with "2008". Is it possible that the donor was actually the estate of Phyllis Kathleen Roberts (née Aspden)(1916-2008)? Her Wikipedia entry shows that she was a "sculptor and painter".

Jacinto Regalado,

As Jacob said, even if the bust bore the signature of its maker, that would not necessarily be the original sculptor, and I rather doubt we will be able to determine who that was in this case.

Jacinto Regalado,

For the sake of interest, Gunnis says Neville Northey Burnard (1818-1878) made a bust of Beethoven shown at the RA in 1851, but it is untraced.