M oving on down through the centuries with our series and with only two months to go before the Ashmolean reopens, we reach Britain in the early 19th century.

We also touch base with the Ashmolean’s impressive cast collection. This in the main means casts of Greek and Roman sculptures, but it also holds the remainder of the collection of important full-size plaster models and busts gifted to the Ashmolean by the widow of one of Britain’s greatest sculptors, Sir Francis Chantrey (1781-1841).

Sixteen plaster busts by the artist renowned for his portrait busts, notably his naturalism and simplicity of style — and whose work has been compared to Michelangelo’s — will be dramatically redisplayed on the ‘Chantrey Wall’ of the new museum. The display will be visible from all three levels of the new northwest stairway and will include politicians, a painter, a princess, an antiquary, a naval officer, a scientist and surgeon among other worthies.

None will be more than a metre away from the viewer. So you will be able to get a good look at the bust of a friend of Chantrey’s, this month’s featured object: William Sharp, the leading engraver of his day and a political and religious radical. Sharp was an active member of the Society for Constitutional Information, dedicated to parliamentary reform. Engravings made by Sharp are in the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum collections.

Look closely at the bust of the 64-year-old Sharp, first exhibited at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1813. You will see, as Greg Sullivan, researcher and curator of the Chantrey Busts at the Ashmolean, believes, that it is odd for a portrait bust.

“It shows him in a curious pose. It is more intimate than they usually are,” Greg said. “And he is looking up to the heavens slightly.”

This could be because Sharp was a mystic, Greg explains, as was Chantrey himself and Horne Tooke, followers of the prophets that abounded in the early 19th century: names like Joanna Southcott, and Richard Brothers who predicted the death of George III, was later arrested and certified insane.

It is a “friendship portrait,” Greg explained, in the tradition of 17th century friendship portrait painting — and it is unique, an original work of art.

Chantrey would model in clay, then take a plaster-cast from the model to transfer dimensions to a marble or bronze statue.

Normally the cast is thrown away once the statue is made, but there is no marble bust of Sharp and it was not a commission for it is not recorded in his ledgers.

It was made to keep as part of Chantrey’s display collection of statues, busts and bas-reliefs in his Pimlico studio. His collection of around 180 works was presented in 1842 to the University Galleries, then under construction — what was to become the Ashmolean Museum.

The collection has had a chequered history since then. First housed in the sculpture gallery of Cockerell’s imposing new museum (opened in 1845), then consigned to the basement at the turn of the 20th century as a result of a “turf war between different interests in the museum” with the promise of redisplay once more space became available, from 1939 it was shown again — more or less!

This time, as a compromise, the heads only (sawn off from statue bodies) were shown in the gallery that is now the shop. The remaining parts were left to lurk in the museum’s basement.

Since 1989, the 16 busts now destined for the Chantrey Wall have been on display in the library at the National Trust’s Belton House, Lincolnshire.

The Chantrey Wall busts include John Philpot Curran (1750-1817), advocate and champion of Irish liberties; John Dalton DCL (1766-1844) who ranks among the great names in science with his thinking on atomic theory and whose first scientific paper was on colour blindness, a condition he experienced personally; the Scottish statesman Mountstuart Elphinstone (1757-1831), a former Governor of Bombay who wrote books on India and Afghanistan; Sir Andrew Snape Hamond Bt. (1738-1828) a British naval officer and Governor of Nova Scotia, who was also involved in the Court-Martial of the crew members captured on Tahiti after the Mutiny on the Bounty; the portrait painter Thomas Phillips RA (1770-1845); and two women, a Miss Mundy (it is uncertain which daughter of the Mundys of Markeaton Hall, Derby she is) and the Princess Louisa Wilhelma Adelaide of Saxe-Weimar (1817-1832).

A few more of Sharp’s busts will be displayed in the Human Image Gallery.

They include that of the politician and philologist Horne Tooke. Incidentally, his bust and the one of Sharp are examples of the sort of politically-edged busts that made Chantrey’s name.

The Cast Gallery, closed for much of the time during the building work, will again be accessible, but this time directly by way of a covered passage from the new Rome and the Byzantine World galleries of the main museum.

Finally having the space to honour properly the memory of this great British artist is an important moment in the museum’s history, Greg is happy to say. And hopefully, as Chantrey intended, they will “provide ‘instruction’ for future ages by showing the peaks the art of portraiture had reached in the British Isles.”