By Elana Estrin
It’s hard enough to do archival research without the subjects themselves peering over your shoulder. But if you visit the Ransom Center Reading Room to pore over the letters, manuscripts, and papers of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Robert De Niro, or Edgar Allan Poe, they are all there to supervise your research—or at least their busts are.
Fourteen busts perched in the lobby greet Ransom Center visitors, and 29 busts keep an eye on the Reading Room. Many of the sculptures—such as Walt Whitman, Tom Stoppard, and Ezra Pound—represent those whose collections are housed at the Ransom Center. Figures whose archives are not at the Ransom Center—such as Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein, and D. H. Lawrence—are represented in other archives. The sculptors range from the well known, like Jacob Epstein, to the unidentified, to Leo Tolstoy, Jr., who sculpted his father’s bust.
According to Associate Curator of Art Peter Mears, who oversees the busts, such sculptures are part of the English literary tradition.
“The busts are part of the library’s high-end furniture. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. It’s the distinguished look of the library that provides that atmosphere for research.”
If researchers happen to be studying one of the luminaries whose bust oversees the Reading Room, it may behoove them to examine the bust. The sculptures and the stories behind their production often enhance what researchers learn from the subjects’ archives.
For example, the marble bust of Edith Sitwell radiates her formidable personality.
Another example comes from one of the most unusual busts at the Ransom Center: that of Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas. Sculpted by Hugh Oloff de Wet two years before Thomas’s death, the bust is thought to be the only sculpture made of Thomas while he was alive. De Wet sculpted Thomas’s disheveled tie to hold the head up high, wrinkles etch his face, and a cigarette dangles from his mouth. Before arriving at the Ransom Center, the bust was missing until it turned up at London’s Festival Hall in 2003. Shortly after, a woman named Peta Van den Bergh wrote a letter to The Guardian saying that her parents were mutual friends of Thomas and de Wet, and de Wet sculpted the bust in his parents’ sitting room. “The idea of having the bust smoking a cigarette came from Dylan Thomas himself,” Van den Bergh writes, “Having walked around and inspected the head, he proclaimed that something was missing and stuck his own cigarette in its mouth. Hugh duly copied and added it.” Van den Bergh recalls that de Wet finished quickly, which allowed him to capture Thomas’s “ruffled, pressurized character.”
In addition to de Wet’s Dylan Thomas bust, the Ransom Center also has de Wet’s busts of Ezra Pound, Edmund Blunden, Roy Campbell, and John Cowper Powys. Mears counts de Wet’s sculpture of Ezra Pound, which he calls “raw and striking,” among his favorite busts at the Ransom Center. According to Mears, de Wet visited Pound at his home in Rapallo, Italy in 1965. As was his practice, de Wet chatted with Pound to relax him while drawing an initial sketch. He then sculpted the bust alone in order to “mould and twist and pinch and knuckle and knead the red mud as fast as [my hands] could follow mnemonic contours extruded from my mind.” When de Wet showed Pound the finished product, Pound said, “You had finished when you began.” In addition to the bust, the Ransom Center also holds de Wet’s initial sketch and a photograph of the wizened Pound posing beside his bust.
The Ransom Center’s busts of Robert Frost, Rudyard Kipling, John O’Hara, John Steinbeck, and William Carlos Williams are all by boxer-turned-sculptor Joe Brown. When he retired from boxing, Brown started making money by posing for students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Unimpressed by a boxing sculpture the instructor made, Brown gave sculpting a try. He placed his first three sculptures in an exhibition, thus launching a successful career. Brown later taught at Princeton University as both a boxing and sculpting instructor.
In a 1973 Sports Illustrated article, Brown recalls a conversation between his student and Robert Frost when Frost posed for his bust, which is displayed in the Ransom Center lobby.
Student: “How do you go about writing a poem?”
Frost: “Well, first something has to happen to you. Then you put some words on a piece of paper and ride them like a horse until you have a poem.”
Student: “I think I should set myself a program and write two, four, even six hours a day, whether I feel like it or not. Do you think that’s a good program?”
Frost: “It sounds like a good program. I’m sure it’ll improve your handwriting.”
Student (angered): “I’m serious.”
Frost: “I’m serious, too. You want me to give you the truth wrapped in a bundle so that you can put it under your arm and take it home and open it when you need it. Well, I can’t do that. The truth wouldn’t be there anymore.”