‘The Picture of the Prime Minister hangs above the Chimney of his own Closet, but I have seen that of Mr Pope in twenty Noblemen’s Houses,’ wrote Voltaire in 1733.
Alexander Pope’s start in life was not promising. A crippled hunchback, suffering chronic ill-health, he was, as a Catholic, excluded from Court, allowed to live no closer to Westminster than Chiswick. His ‘Rape of the Lock’, a mock epic satirically inflating a ludicrously minor incident in polite society, became the first bestseller after the 1710 Copyright Act, but brought him a mere £22.15s.
Yet the poet who, according to Samuel Johnson, ‘never drank tea without a stratagem’, knew how to exploit his work’s succès de scandale. The infinitely better deal he extracted from his publisher for subsequent translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey made him rich. And through his canny manipulation of his own image, he turned himself into Britain’s first celebrity author.
Pope’s ubiquitous presence in the houses of the Great and the Good is the subject of Fame and Friendship: Pope, Roubiliac and the Portrait Bust, curated by Malcolm Baker and Juliet Carey, at Waddesdon Manor, near Aylesbury, the house and park providing a perfect backdrop (until 26 October). The French émigré artist Louis François Roubiliac fashioned the classic sculpted image of the poet, and the installation-like arrangement of no fewer than eight near-identical Roubiliac Popes in terracotta, marble, bronze and plaster in Waddesdon’s refulgent White Drawing Room (above) lends the show an appropriately Warholesque flavour.