Monday, January 23, 2017

Exploring the archives: the mystery of the marble bust

Of the many hundreds of enquiries we received at Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library last month, the mystery of the marble bust was perhaps one of the most intriguing. 

A Dutch antiques and fine art dealer, based in Eindhoven, got in touch to ask if we might be able to identify the subject of a marble bust that had turned up in the Netherlands.  The only clue the inquirer had about the bust was an engraving on its base which revealed how it was made by the Sheffield sculptor William Ellis (c.1824 - 1882). The individual depicted in the sculpture however was unknown.

Bust of the mystery Victorian gentleman which surfaced in Eindhoven, Netherlands

A search through the old newspapers at the Local Studies Library revealed an obituary for William Ellis, reported the day after his death in the Sheffield Independent newspaper on 20 July 1882 which details the various commissions Ellis worked on during his career. These included busts of notable nineteenth-century individuals associated with Sheffield such as Samuel Plimsoll M.P. (1823 - 1898), Henry Unwin J.P. (c. 1811 - 1879), the sculptor Alfred G. Stevens (1817 - 1875) (all exhibited 1876), the Rev. Samuel Earnshaw (1805 - 1888) (exhibited 1877) and the scientist Dr Henry Clifton Sorby (1826 - 1908) (exhibited 1879). One of Ellis’ last commissions was a bust of John Arthur Roebuck, M.P. (1801 - 1879). By cross-referencing pictures of these individuals on Picture Sheffield ( with the picture of the bust in the Dutch antiques centre, one-by-one, we were able to eliminate the candidates in this rather distinguished line-up of Victorian gentlemen until the identity of the individual was revealed. The bust bore an undeniably clear resemblance to John Arthur Roebuck.
Roebuck was born in India to an English civil servant father, raised in Canada, and qualified as a barrister. He served as radical Liberal MP for Sheffield in two spells between 1849 - 1868 and 1874 - 1879 (up until his death). In parliament, Roebuck was nicknamed “Dog Tear 'Em” due to his terrier instincts, his tenacity and his fierce opposition to notions of aristocracy and privilege.

Picture of John Arthur Roebuck (1801 - 1879), Liberal MP for Sheffield
(Sheffield Archives and Picture Sheffield Library: s08216)

Roebuck’s life was one of relative affluence. By contrast, the man who memorialised him in marble, William Ellis, spent most of his life battling destitution and hardship. Despite his talent as a sculptor, Ellis’ obituary reveals how between commissions ‘his existence has been a perpetual struggle with poverty…a struggle with an empty purse, and an empty cupboard’. A graduate of the Sheffield School of Art, Ellis assisted his friend and mentor Alfred Stevens (1817 - 1875) in the original winning design for the ‘Wellington Monument’, an undertaking which saw the two sculptors forced to endure ‘a wearying harassing life’ in London, subsisting ‘on the most part on bread and coffee during their stay in the metropolis’. Stevens himself died in poverty before the final Wellington monument (now housed in St Paul's Cathedral) was completed.  During the severe winter of 1880-81 Ellis’ obituary observes how Ellis ‘was frequently on the verge of starvation. Yet he never complained, and bore the biting cold and bitter misery of a fireless home with heroic fortitude’.   Ellis died practically penniless at his home at 26 Reliance Place, Winter Street, Sheffield on 19 July 1882.
Roebuck’s bust may have gone from Sheffield, but thanks to the documentary evidence at Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library its identity, and the story of its creator, will always be remembered.