Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait Bust of Sir Robert Peel Bt. PM (1788–1850), 1850 

Matthew Noble 

Portrait Bust of Sir Robert Peel Bt. PM (1788–1850), 1850, Matthew Noble
Zoom
Marble
19th Century
17 ¾ in (45 cm) high
 
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Inscribed on the back of the shoulders SIR ROBERT PEEL BART. and below M. NOBLE SC. LONDON 1850

This small bust of the Tory Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel displays the dignified yet dramatic style typical of Matthew Noble’s work. The sculptural rhetoric of contrapposto is combined with an understated realism and direct observation that elevates the sitter without descending into exaggeration or charicature. Of all nineteenth century sculptors, Noble was one of the ablest in implying the vocabulary of classicising portraiture – where the sitter’s draped coat or mantle recall the togaed dress of Roman senators – with an immediate and speaking representation that transmits the personality of the sitter unrestrained by the archaising convention.

Noble’s busts of Peel are dated to 1850 and 1851, in which latter year he exhibited a bust of ‘the late Sir Robert Peel’ at the Royal Academy (collection of Earl Peel). The present example, like the RA bust, is dated 1850. The sculptor produced a further set of busts dated to 1851, of which the National Portrait Gallery, London holds examples both on the scale of life and at the reduced dimensions of the present sculpture. It is debatable whether Noble ever secured life sittings from Peel, who died in 1850, but his lively interpretation suggests some familiarity with the sitter, and Noble was popular in Tory circles, securing sittings from the Duke of Wellington in 1851.

The series of Peel busts differs in size and costume, some such as an example in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 596) or that in the collection of Lord Peel, being on the scale of life, others like present bust and a further example in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 596a) being reduced copies, perhaps intended for display on the desks and in the libraries of political followers and friends of the late Prime Minister. Most examples of the bust depict the sitter in contemporary dress, albeit draped in manner that at first suggest timeless classical drapery, although the life-size bust in the National Portrait Gallery shows the sitter with the open chest and toga of Roman sculpture.

















Noble was born at Hackness, Yorkshire. He studied under John Francis (1780-1861) in London, and first exhibited at the RA in 1845. Noble himself was weak throughout his life, his constitution was so delicate that he was effectively killed by the shock of losing his son in a railway accident. An obituary in the Art Journal of 1876 commented that it seemed ‘surprising to those who knew him personally that he should have lived even the comparatively short period of his life, and yet more that he should have been able to continue his labours. Few men have been more esteemed or regarded, not alone for his great ability , the manifestations of talent that very closely approximated to genius, but for rare qualities of mind and heart....He was a gentleman of high rectitude, irreproachable in all the relations of life’1. Other portrait busts include those of Queen Victoria and the Prince consort, Sir Robert Peel, W. Etty, R.A., the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of London.

1. R. Gunnis Dictionary of British Sculptors p..274
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