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The Power of the ‘Busto’:   

Portrait Statues in the Library of Dr Richard Mead (1673-1754) and Reflections on the Significance of Busts in Libraries Today 

Anthony Davis

In 2019, I visited the Herzogin Anna Amalia Library in Weimar and found myself standing in the room as the rest of my group went for coffee.  Gradually, I realised I was not alone.  Round every corner, from ahead and above, faces watched.  These were statues, busts and paintings of literary, historic and mythological figures associated with the library and with Johann W. von Goethe who helped organise it.  The experience was disquieting and overwhelming. 

Statuary busts were common in libraries in Britain, too, especially during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  The combination of books and sculpture is, as Francis Haskell wrote, ‘an association between the written and the visual of great cultural significance’.[1] The practice became rarer in Victorian times but continues – the late Paul Getty created the finest British private book collection of the late-twentieth century in a purpose-built room at Wormsley with busts in alcoves above the bookcases and placed companionably among the comfortable chairs.   

My reaction was not an anomaly.  Library busts excite strong feelings.  For example, in August 2020, the Director of the British Museum announced that the bust of the collector-philanthropist Sir Hans Sloane would be moved from its prominent position in King’s Library because of Sloane’s connections with slavery.[2] In November 2021, Cambridge University installed a bust of Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire in the Faculty of Education library as ‘a symbol of “tolerance and dialogue” at a time of “culture wars” on campus.’[3]

My dissertation considers two questions prompted by these observations: 

  • Why do people put busts in libraries? 

  • What are the effects on visitors and readers? 


I focus on the library that Dr Richard Mead (1673-1754) installed at 49 Great Ormond Street, London, in a room designed by James Gibbs, probably between 1732 and 1734, comparable with the famous library of his friend Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, at Wimpole Hall. Though demolished in the 1880s, an illustration of Mead’s library remains along with details of the library’s contents.[4] It is particularly useful as a basis for discussion as a private collection owned by a professional man at a key moment in library history. Mead’s library was situated in a part of London suitable for the status of wealthy professional which he achieved, in a house intended to reflect and enhance that status and I show that the same can be said of the library and the busts in it. 

The traditional answer to the first question is that the busts are in some way a visual guide to finding the books.[5] As I show, however, the position is altogether more complex. The placing of busts derives predominantly from socio-political factors – notably status, tradition, commemoration, power, gender and, especially for Mead, a sense of community with other scholars sharing the aim of disseminating knowledge, a community reflecting a centuries-old Humanist tradition involving books, artefacts and networks typical of the learned societies of which Mead was a prominent and active member.  

Adopting the “atmosphere” and “living presence” theories of Gernot Böhme and Caroline Van Eck, the dissertation shows how busts work powerfully as a paratext external to the books, mediating between the library users and authors. The placing of busts in libraries connects with contemporary portraiture such as the genre of paintings of learned men and women with books and a bust or two in the background and also with the classical tradition of dialogues of and with the dead which were particularly popular in the early eighteenth century. Mead’s primarily masculine library (an expression of patriarchy) is contrasted with Queen Caroline’s library in St James’s Palace where the display of busts of kings and queens is a subtle display of power including, unusually for the time, feminine power. I identify contemporary comments where the users of libraries show themselves influenced by and reacting to the ‘living presence’ of the busts, for example in correspondence by Alexander Pope (another friend of Mead).[6]

The effect on the user is subtle and involves a tension between the realism of the image and its limitations, facilitating a disconcerting dialogue between the library user and the “face” which looks at them. One reason why busts can be disturbing is tension between recognition of a potential to see, hear and respond to a statue set against awareness that the object is not real and can do none of these.  This perception has implications for dealing with controversial statuary in our times: sensitivities over busts endure and it is revealing to ask why that is.   

One answer is that, as has been seen, statues of all kinds invite a dialogue. It is not just that they appear to offer an example (the viewer can ignore that if they choose) or symbolise something – it is that they engage the viewer in some ways like a living person does. By his image in the British Museum, Hans Sloane becomes present and appears to speak or at least be capable of speaking. This can perceived as a one-way dialogue – he speaks from the past with views that may be thought obnoxious today, but as he cannot hear, he shouts his message with impunity and the library user has no choice but to be confronted with it, disempowered and deprived of any effective response.   

If that is correct, it complicates how to answer demands to remove busts of people whose ambiguous or inconsistent actions raise complex moral questions – Sloane being an example as a slave-owner and major philanthropist whose contribution to British life is undoubted. Is it sufficient to “retain and explain”?  Perhaps not. The bust “speaks” but there is no real dialogue to be had.  Those offended, sensing their disempowerment, will not be content if their voices cannot be heard. An explanation alone is insufficiently eloquent, not wholly adequate to negate a living presence which seems to speak but cannot hear. 

[1] Francis Haskell, History and its Images: Art and the Interpretation of the Past (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 38. 

[2] ‘British Museum removes statue of slave-owning founder’, The Guardian, 25 August 2020, One can still admire him in his original spot in the lobby of the British Library, though, or on a pedestal in York Square, Chelsea. 

[3] Hazel Shearing, ‘Cambridge sculpture makes a stand on culture wars’, BBC Online, 26 November 2021, 


[4] Matthew Maty, Authentic Memoirs of the Life of Richard Mead, MD (London, 1755).  The contents of the library were auctioned after Mead’s death and annotated auction catalogues are preserved in the Bodleian Library and elsewhere. 

[5] See, for example, André Masson, The Pictorial Catalogue : Mural Decoration in Libraries (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1981) and Le Décor des Bibliothèques du Moyen Age á la Révolution (Geneva: Droz 1972).    

[6] See, for example, The Correspondence of Alexander Pope ed. George Sherburn, 5 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), iii,135-36. 

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