Published June 2015
Since the claim of 1389, the King Alfred myth has endured, both within and beyond Univ’s walls. In the 1720s, during a disputed election for Master of the College, even the courts declared that Univ had been founded by Alfred, and that the Crown was its rightful Visitor (see Darwall-Smith, 2008, pp. 251-253). Within the College itself, Univ’s adopted founder has been celebrated in various ways throughout the years; at events, such as a great Millennial Dinner on 12th June 1872 (see Darwall-Smith, 2008, p.390), and in artefacts including this month’s Treasure.
Standing in front of the east window, King Alfred majestically looks out over the Poynton Reading Room in the Library (Fig. 1). Made of white marble and measuring just over 2 feet in height, the bust is a copy by Joseph Wilton, R.A. (1772-1803), of an original by Michael Rysbrack (1693?-1770).
A Belgian sculptor, Rysbrack came to England in 1720, where he soon found fame sculpting portraits. Amongst other places, his works appeared at Kensington Palace, Stowe in Buckinghamshire, and the gardens at Chiswick. Univ’s copy of his King Alfred was produced by John Wilton, a later English sculptor who trained in France with eminent teachers including Jean-Baptiste Pigalle at the Académie de Peinture et Sculpture in Paris. Wilton specialised in casts and copies, winning awards and noble patrons before returning to England in 1755 and becoming sculptor in ordinary to George III in 1761.
The bust of King Alfred was donated to Univ in 1771 by Old Member Jacob Playdell-Bouverie (1750-1828), Viscount Folkestone and later 2nd Earl of Radnor. Viscount Folkestone entered Univ in 1767 as recorded here in one of the College’s Admissions Registers (Fig. 2). He took both his BA and MA before entering parliament and his portrait, painted by John Hoppner (1758-1810), hangs in College (Fig.3).
As Old Member Harold Clifford Smith (matr. 1895) records, the bust originally resided in the Senior Common Room, before being moved to the library in 1938 (Smith, 1943, p.65). Indeed, one of Univ’s portraits shows us its exact location (Fig. 4). In a portrait by F. H. S. Shepherd, Sir Michael Sadler (Master, 1923-1934) and the Fellows of University College are pictured in the Winter Common Room in 1934. Behind them, from a vantage point on the mantelpiece, King Alfred surveys the scene.
Coutu, J. (2008). Wilton, Joseph (1722–1803). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. Doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/29706
Darwall-Smith, R. H. (2008). A History of University College, Oxford. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
Eustace, K. (2009). Rysbrack, (John) Michael (1694–1770). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. Doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/24427
Smith, Harold Clifford. (1943). An inventory of the works of art at University College, Oxford.