Belloc sleuthing – and the discovery of a lost sculptor

Belloc on the well sited, informative Horsham sundial

I met Hilaire Belloc’s great grandson in the New Year to look at an extant bust of Belloc, with a view to seeing whether there was ‘room’ for a posthumous bust or sculpture which tries to convey the emotive power obvious in some of the photographic imagery of the writer. At present we have precious little in the public domain, other than the decorative addition to the Horsham sundial.

I was intrigued and impatient – and doing a lot of research to find out more about who the Belloc artist might be. My gut feel was that it might be academic and over-stylised.

An early lead suggested the bust was mentioned in ‘And I too lived in Arcadia’ by Belloc’s writer sister Marie Belloc Lowndes. A fine plate shows a bust of Hilaire Belloc, but this turned out to be his grandfather, the painter. I started to search the web for references, and chanced upon Mapping the Practice and Profession of Sculpture in Britain and Ireland 1851-1951, which had a list of past exhibitors to The Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition back to 1768. And there it was: Mary Swainson: Exhibited 9 times between 1891 and 1913; nine works in all (medals, busts, including a bust of Hilaire Belloc and a bust and medal of Madame Belloc.)

The Hilaire Belloc bust as seen, referred to in his own letter to George Wyndham.

So, she was well connected, but was she any good? Returning to the University of Glasgow Mapping database, we find she was born in 1862 and studied at the Slade School, London (1881-1885) under Alphonse Legros. From 1890 she taught at Cheltenham Ladies College for twenty years. During this time she maintained a studio in Paris, where she worked in the holidays and received advice and criticism from Antoine Bourdelle. From about 1910-14, Swainson worked in London and Paris and did some occasional teaching at Miss Wolsey Lewis’ school, Northforeland Lodge. She retired to L’Epine on the Island of Noirmoutier in the Vendée, where she died in 1932 aged about 70.

I still could not find a reference to the Belloc head in any public collection. Starting to search for a Belloc Swainson link, I found “Bessie Parkes to Mary Swainson: 13 letters, 1843-1852” in the Personal Papers of Bessie Rayner Parkes within JANUS, networked access to the catalogues of archives and manuscript collections held throughout Cambridge.

Bessie was Hilaire Belloc’s mother and a distinguished writer and feminist. Further analysis showed that ‘this’ Mary could not be our sculptor Mary; she had not yet been born. But the correspondence pattern suggested there must be friendship or family ties.

Edwin Newcome Swainson was father of ‘our’ Mary (b.1862) and eight younger siblings! We know he was Assistant Secretary of the Admiralty who seems to have been declared insane, possibly in the late 1880s, spending some time in Holloway Sanatorium.

So how do we know for sure this is the correct link? Edwin’s mother is noted as Mary Swainson (Parkes) – presumably Bessy’s sister.

Another cross reference comes through Bob Copper’s book Across Sussex with Belloc following The Four Men – he mentions a Dorothy Swainson as the ‘distinguished musician’ who put Belloc’s rhymes into musical notation. She was Hilaire Belloc’s cousin.

So how can we be sure the busts are the Swainson ones?

Firstly, the Royal Academy, whilst not having photographs, did have more information on the Summer Academy showings. Both busts are confirmed there as ‘marble’ – just as I have seen.

Secondly, The National Portrait Gallery confirmed that it had been offered two busts in 1954, which is just after Belloc’s death and we can presume this was from the Executor. Both were marble and listed as by Swainson. The pictures in the NPG file confirm the evidence of my own eyes.

Lastly, the corroboration of Hilaire Belloc himself. Robert Speaight’s book Life of Hilaire Belloc yields:

After Belloc’s return to Parliament by 314 votes as Member for Salford South in early 1910, he took a rest-cure in France, describing to George Wyndham: ‘I went to Paris where I hobnobbed with soldiers and renewed my youth; sat for my bust and renewed my vanity (not of beauty but of fame); ate clams and oysters with no collar and renewed my gluttony; mixed with equals and renewed my pride; heard Mass in Notre Dame and renewed my faith.’

We know Swainson had a studio in Paris where she retreated after teaching at Cheltenham Ladies’ College during term time. It is unlikely that another Paris bust exists which isn’t referenced anywhere on the web.

Swainson by Legros
Miss Swainson by Alphonse Legros c.1899. Collection Musee D’Orsay

So we have more questions to answer, but as a sculptor, I feel some allegiance to promoting the talented and forgotten Mary Swainson rather than promoting myself as a candidate to conceive something contemporary from documentary sources. She also had more than a passing dialogue with Rodin, which I am now investigating.

I wonder whether one possibility might be that a bronze is created from either of the two Swainson marbles to enable public works in Slindon, Horsham or Shipley – in addition to the curated museum collections where the marble originals are finally lodged.

But would it not be marvellous to see the Legros bust of Swainson and her two distinguished marble works united in an exhibition in one of our national spaces?


2 thoughts on “Belloc sleuthing – and the discovery of a lost sculptor

  1. Hello Jon

    Very fascinating and so many thanks for sharing it with everyone. 

    best wishes Marji


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