JULIA B. GRANTHAM INTRODUCES ROBERT TRUSCOTT, THE CREATOR OF OUR BRAND NEW BOOKPLATE.
On the day of the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death in July 2017, I was not in the UK and regretted bitterly that I could not participate in all the commemorative events that took place in Winchester at that time.
On the evening of the 18th July, a short beep of my phone informed me of a new message. I opened it and found two pictures from Robert Truscott – a night shot of a house on College Street in Winchester and a picture of Jane writing at her table with a candlelight shadow of her profile on the wall of that house. I suddenly felt close to all my friends, remembering Jane on the night of her passing as if the images had magically transported me to Winchester.
Robert Truscott has become known to the Jane Austen community worldwide after his sculpture of Jane Austen at her writing table took pride of place next to Jane’s resting place at Winchester Cathedral during the bicentenary commemorative celebrations. He shared the whole process of creating this remarkable work of art with his friends on Facebook, and of course, many Janeites spotted the pictures. The word about this beautiful little statue has spread quickly throughout the online Jane Austen community, far and wide.
I checked out Robert’s Facebook page at the time to learn more about his work and was astonished to read that he studied at St Petersburg’s Repin Academy, a world-famous art school in Russia. Presuming that Robert was my compatriot, I sent him a message saying how proud I was that such a brilliant portrayal of my favourite author was created by a Russian artist. My mistake was soon corrected. Robert is not Russian; he is based in Winchester and graduated from the Winchester School of Art. However, his interest in military history and an enthusiasm for Russian culture led him to St Petersburg where he continued his postgraduate studies. While in St Petersburg, which occupies quite a unique place in European history and culture, Robert visited world-famous theatres and museums, and even had a chance to create a sculptural portrait of one of the prima ballerinas of the Kirov Ballet (Mariinsky Theatre), Ulyana Lopatkina. His other work has always emphasised links between 19th century and 20th century culture, history and military conflicts.
That is why, well before Jane Austen’s fans got to know his work, Robert’s name was widely known in the field of military sculpture as an artist who produces sensitive figurative work, mostly in bronze and plaster, with a particular interest in the history of world conflicts – from the Napoleonic Wars through to WWI and WWII. His sculpture, Defeat, was the winner of the prestigious Threadneedle Prize People’s Choice Award in 2012.
I asked Robert what inspired him to make such a sudden change from war-time sculpture to the portrayal of one of the least military-focused authors of 19th-century British literature. Although living and writing in the midst of European wars and revolutions, Jane Austen managed to almost entirely avoid the topic of these conflicts in her books – on the surface at least.
Robert explained that what interested him the most is people in action, doing something that occupies them completely - a job, a passion, a need for survival. In that respect, a soldier in the middle of a battle, a ballerina practicing her dance, and a writer absorbed by her creation are not that dissimilar.
“I wanted to create a statue of Jane Austen for quite a while. You see, I pass the house in College Street every day on the way to my studio, and it always brings her to mind. So the conception has been growing in my mind over many years, however, the bicentenary galvanised me to get on with it,” Robert said.
“Actually, I have a personal connection with Jane Austen, in a way,” he continued.“My relations were in the Royal Navy in Jane’s time. Captain William Truscott was a Rear Admiral; in 1794 he commanded the HMS Ganges that captured the French corvette called Jacobine.”
Here I interrupted, not able to contain my excitement, voicing the possibility that Robert’s ancestor might have known Jane’s brothers.
“Yes, it is very possible. The Royal Navy was a close-knit service then,” replied Robert and continued.“His son was called Robert, like me. He was a Major in Sir John Moore’s army at the Battle of Corunna in 1809. Maybe because of these connections I do like the era. I also like the freedom of the fashion - it was very feminine. The neo-classical resurgence… I was convinced the empire dress would sculpt very well whilst seated with the gathering of folds and waterfall-like spill of drapes. And I think it worked.”
Robert talks about the empire dress like a true sculptor, and – I am sure – all of us who have donned the Regency attire even once in our lives would agree with him – there is nothing we like better than the empire line!
I asked Robert how he had chosen the pose for his statue.
“I like making people in the act of what they do. I like people at work. So it was only natural that I wanted to sculpt Jane writing. This way I could make her writing table as well, and that would be a direct reference to Jane Austen. It is such an easily recognisable piece of furniture, isn’t it? My friend Helen McArdle lent my model the costume. Helen is an expert costumier who concentrates on the Regency era; she goes to Regency dance classes and other events.”
And how long did the process take, from the very first sketch?
“Over several months, as the model wasn’t always available. She would sit for around 1 - 2 hours at a stretch. I only sculpted with the model in front of me; the information is best translated this way. Nature is always more surprising than if you work from your head only. It is a drawn out process, but it helps to avoid clichés and create something true to life.”
I asked Robert when he ‘knew’ his Jane was getting there – when he knew he had got her right.
“Fairly early on. The odd thing is, it goes fast to start with, then it slows and it gets hard to know when to stop. That’s the hard bit ... not over-fussing things.”
(I certainly knew what Robert was talking about, and I am sure many of our Jane Austen writers will heartily agree with this sentiment!)
“As I was working on the statue, I posted some pictures on Facebook and LinkedIn and Sophie Hacker, the acting Dean’s [of Winchester Cathedral] wife, who helped to curate the commemorative exhibition, saw my photos of the early stages of this work on LinkedIn and asked me if they could have it for the exhibition.”
The rest is history! I can’t imagine a single person who would have visited the exhibition and not fallen in love with “Writing Jane”! Personally, I was so moved by meeting her that I created a video in which I contemplated her future after the exhibition.
Currently, the sculpture is displayed at the Jane Austen’s House Museum, right next to Jane and Cassandra’s donkey cart. (I think Jane and Cassandra riding in their cart would be another wonderful theme for a sculpture!) But Robert hopes to scale it up one day into a slightly larger outdoor piece, so that it will retain the intimacy that suits Jane’s modest personality, yet be suitable to grace one of the places closely associated with Jane, like the green near the house where Jane passed her final days at number 8 College Street in Winchester. Personally, I think it would be wonderful to see Jane writing in the garden of her cottage at Chawton. In the picture above, you can see her on a fleeting visit there before she travelled to Winchester for the exhibition. Doesn’t she look at home?
When I approached Robert about creating a new bookplate for the Foundation, I was hoping only for something like one of the initial sketches he drew while working on his sculpture. He, however, did more – he travelled to Chawton and created a brand new drawing for us of Jane at her writing table in the winter. Look how she covers her shoulders with a thick shawl - it fits so perfectly with a February launch and the frosty days we are having here in England this week!
Whatever Robert does next, I am sure his work will continue to celebrate the human figure as the ultimate means of artistic expression, and the human spirit with its yearning for a kinder society based on traditional values in harmony with nature.
You can see more of Robert’s work here.
Thank you, Robert, for your time and for drawing for us such a charming sketch. I am sure the bookplate will be well received and cherished by JALF supporters from all corners of the world.
© Dr J.B. Grantham, JALF Bookplate Program Manager
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Image credit: Julia B. Grantham.