Art History Professor Travels to England to Research and Write

By Laila Rashid, CHASS Dean's Office Student Intern
November 26, 2013

Dr. Malcolm Baker, distinguished professor of art history at UCR, has recently completed his book, The Marble Index. Roubiliac and Sculptural Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century Britain, a 165,000-word study of the bust and the statue as modes of representation within 18th century Britain. Thanks to one fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and another from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London, he was able to carry out research in the UK on issues such as the relationship with painted portraits, conventions, settings, sitting, making and multiple production. This book, to be published by Yale University Press in June 2014, is the first wide-ranging study of sculptural portraiture in eighteenth-century Britain. A plethora of books on portraits have been written, and interest in work on the painted portrait continues to escalate. But little has been written about the bust and the statue as portraits. This became much more prominent during the 18th century - not only did people start commissioning them in larger numbers, but they also became much more ambitious aesthetically and were looked at much more closely, so now they are images that one engages with more directly. Dr. Baker’s book discusses what happens with these genres and how and why they became so central in 18th century culture.

Out of his work has also grown a further project - an exhibition and research program about the portraits of the poet Alexander Pope, who was a very pivotal figure in changing notions in the place of the author. Pope was the first independent author to support himself through what he earned as an author, and is a distinctive figure in how he presents himself in his verse and portraits.

In 18th century Britain, there were more portraits of Pope than any other figure but the bust has a special place. While portrait busts had been used to commemorate the achievements of great writers from antiquity onwards, that of Pope was exceptional in celebrating a contemporary writer. This exhibition, which takes place at the Yale Center for British Art, brings together works from various collections in both Europe and the United States, and will be accompanied by a series of interdisciplinary conferences and meetings involving art historians and literary scholars. Following this will come another book of collected essays, which Dr. Baker will edit. He will then write further about the way in which the author is represented in the 18th century, and how the notion of authorship changes during this period.

As part of the Pope program, he is also collaborating across the Atlantic with computer scientists at Yale and University College London, who are working together on the digital scanning of eight different versions of one bust, which will allow scholars to think anew about how these images were produced and replicated.

Dr Baker’s research for both the book and the exhibition connect closely with what he teaches at UCR. Next quarter he will teach a course on the role of sculpture in 18th century France and Britain—the history of sculpture (along with architecture and photography) forms a distinctive strand within Art History’s new PhD. His work is closely linked with that of his colleagues Jeanette Kohl, who is a leading specialist on renaissance sculpture, and Kristoffer Neville, who works on architecture and sculpture in the 17th century. No other art history department has three people who have a shared interest in sculpture in the early modern period, making them quite distinct.

As an undergraduate, Dr. Baker started with English, and then switched to art history during his graduate work. He spent a great deal of his career working as a curator for the Victoria and Albert museum, one of the greatest decorative arts museums in the world. There, he held a variety of positions while also teaching at universities of York and Sussex. When he retired from his curatorial position, he moved to USC and then to UCR. In addition to his fellowships from the Getty Research Institute and the Huntington Library, Dr. Baker was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities in 2011—a prestigious fellowship given to an impressive number of CHASS faculty over the past few years—as well as a Senior Fellowship at the Paul Mellon Centre in London, which is part of Yale’s program. Dr. Baker speaks warmly about working at UCR, stating, “I really like the colleagues here, and I am delighted to work in such a strong and lively department.”

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