Lloyd de Beer, Curator of Late Medieval Europe, British Museum
Last month we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. It is not often that people collectively stop to remember the creation and sealing of a document from the early 13th century, but this one (or four to be precise) is special, and its specialness has grown exponentially since its creation. It is a document which quickly became a symbol, enduring as a touchstone and inspiring many throughout its history. You can sometimes find it lurking in surprising places.
Each morning on my walk to work I pass through Bloomsbury Square, and most days I think about the people who have lived in and around the area. Usually, and with no specific focus, I let my eyes and mind drift across the buildings to the east and the west, but one morning on this walk I noticed properly for the first time a bronze sculpture at the north end of the square. I wondered why this figure faced away from the small park, staring down Bedford Street, so I moved in closer to inspect.
Before looking at his face I could tell from behind that this individual was dressed in a very grand style, seated on an ornate double columned throne with a large cushion. As I moved around him it was clear that he was presented as a Roman, clad in imperial garb, a single foot outstretched and teetering on the end of the stone base. It was only when I looked closer at the large rolled up scroll, held at an angle towards the viewer on the ground, between his hand and knee, that I saw something familiar. Dangling in mid-air was the great seal of King John (r. 1199–1216). This man holds a copy of Magna Carta. But why?
The bronze figure was made in 1810 and shows Charles James Fox, post mortem, who was previously the leader of the Whig party. It was commissioned through subscription by his friends and sculpted by Sir Richard Westmacott, famous at the British Museum for making The Progress of Civilisation, the pediment sculptures situated above the main entrance under which several million people pass annually. In 1809, a year before beginning the Fox sculpture, Westmacott had finished and erected at the opposite end of Bedford Street, a sculpture of Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, long standing friend and political ally of Charles James Fox. Two politicians, two friends, cast in bronze and linked eye to eye for eternity.
What I found interesting as I learnt more about this sculpture was how Magna Carta was invoked symbolically through the authentic use of the king’s seal. In some ways this sculpture is an early form of the Gothic Revival rolled up in the presentation of a classical ideal. A document can only tell us so much, but when connected to the enthroned image of the king, hey presto, the figure is transformed and holds in his hand a copy of Magna Carta. He is therefore by proxy invested with the authority of the people. This was not a paltry copy of the seal but an exacting replica of the object both in size and style, which the sculptor must surely have studied with his own eyes. In this instance the medieval image of the king, the classical style of the sculpture and the modern man all sit side by side, collectively telling us about the personality of the individual.
More recently when wandering through the Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art exhibition I came across a small Greek bronze of Zeus which looked so similar to the statue of Charles James Fox that the likeness struck me immediately. The Zeus figure was acquired by the Museum in 1865, long after the completion of the Fox sculpture and I have since learned that Westmacott surely based his design for the body of Fox on classical sculptures of seated philosophers such as Epicurus. However Westmacott had a long standing relationship with the British Museum, going as far back as 1805 with debates on how to show the Townley collection.
There is also an early record for one of his visits in the Museum archives, dated 18th February 1820. Given his involvement and taste for the classical it is impossible that he was not inspired by the collections of the British Museum, even if there was not an exact source of inspiration for the Fox sculpture. But where did Westmacott see the medieval seal?
Seal matrices, impressions, casts and facsimiles were part of a long-standing antiquarian interest in the past. Seals were attached to documents and documents were interesting so therefore antiquarians became interested in seals. Testament to this is the fact that some of the earliest medieval acquisitions at the British Museum were seal matrices. Amongst them is the seal matrix of Robert Fitzwalter, one of the barons who rebelled against King John and was crucial to the formation of Magna Carta.
Before the library officially separated from the Museum in 1973 to become the British Library, the Bloomsbury site which Westmacott visited held the many thousands of seal impressions now housed at St Pancras, including those of King John. It is tantalising to think that Westmacott, who spent a great deal of time thinking about the importance of classical sculpture, might also have spent just a little bit of time at the British Museum connecting it to a medieval past and a modern future.