This life-size bust, carved from white (probably Carrara) marble depicts the statesman George Canning (1770–1827). Canning, the Member of Parliament for Liverpool, was a career politician, who held a number of offices including Foreign Secretary (1807–9 and 1822–7), President of the Board of Control (1816–22), and Prime Minister of a divided coalition government for a few months before his death. This bust was produced as part of a series of notable historical figures, known as ‘worthies’, commissioned from the artist by the wealthy collector Robert Vernon (1774/5–1849) between 1828 and 1830. The other commissions were busts of Arthur, Duke of Wellington (Tate N02236), the writers Samuel Johnson (National Portrait Gallery) and John Milton (untraced), and the scientist Sir Isaac Newton (National Portrait Gallery, London). These were presumably first displayed at Vernon’s mansion at 50 Pall Mall, London, although only the bust of Milton was noted by the journal Art Union when they reviewed Vernon’s collection in 1839 (Art Union, vol.1, 1839, p.19).
Edward Hodges Baily was a pupil of John Flaxman and was principally known and regarded for his neoclassicism, especially his poetic works, such as Eve Listening to the Voice (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). He was also an experienced portraitist, producing over 130 portrait busts in his career, and applied for numerous public commissions for portrait statues, including an unsuccessful bid to carve the statue of George Canning in Liverpool Town Hall (Baily’s model is in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery). In 1839 he won the commission to carve the statue of Admiral Lord Nelson for the top of the column in Trafalgar Square, the work for which he is best remembered.
Like the busts of Wellington and Johnson, the Canning bust was based upon an earlier portrait bust by the English sculptor Joseph Nollekens (1737–1823). Nollekens carved the original bust in marble in 1810, when Canning was forty years old, and exhibited it at the Royal Academy the following year. It is now in Apsley House, London, while another version resides at Ickworth Park in Suffolk. Although Baily clearly acknowledges his debt to the earlier sculptor, he has not produced a replica. The Roman-style draperies, complex in the Nollekens, have been simplified into broader folds, and the craning of the neck evident in Nollekens’s version has been made less dramatic. The eyeballs are unincised, creating a less immediate characterisation. All Baily’s alterations make the portrait less specific and more sedate, as though the artist was attempting to historicise the figure rather than communicate the expression of character. While Nollekens depicted Canning from life, with his greatest achievements as a politician still to come, Baily was creating a lasting memorial to a deceased statesman.
Emma Hardy, ‘Edward Hodges Baily’, in Ingrid Roscoe, Emma Hardy and M.G. Sullivan (eds.), Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain 1660–1851, New Haven and London 2009, http://22.214.171.124/henrymoore/index.php, accessed 18 September 2013.