Bruce Holdsworth goes in search of a local artwork’s historic roots

Did you know there was a sculpture of Rider Haggard in Hastings Library?

Bronze. Courtesy of Hastings Public Library Reference Section

When I moved to St Leonards On Sea in 2005 I made my way to the Public Library in Claremont. I was impressed by the splendour of this historic building with its Venetian Gothic decoration that used to be The Brassey Institute and Art School. Inside I noticed an early 20th century bronze sculpture of the head of an imposing bearded figure. It looked to be in the modelled style of Jacob Epstein. Nobody there could tell me anything about it.

This sculpture haunted me and when I mentioned it to my new arty friends they too knew nothing. After the refurbishment of the library I went in to enquire about it again. The Reference staff were helpful and told me that it was in fact a bust of Rider Haggard and that it was now ‘in storage’. I was shown a photograph on a computer but there was no other information. The library did not know who it was by or how it came to be there.

Following my Epstein hunch and knowing vaguely that both he and Haggard had connections with the area, I tried to find out if there were any records of an Epstein sculpture of Haggard anywhere. This drew a blank so I tried the other way round to see if there were any records of a Haggard bust anywhere else.

The internet is a wonderful resource sometimes and it led me to the work of Stephen Coan in South Africa. He is a writer with a special interest in the South African period of Haggard’s life. In an article on The Heritage Portal he reports that:

“In March 1922 the Italian painter and sculptor Francesco La Monaca produced a bust of Sir Henry Rider Haggard….. which formed part of an exhibition at the Bromhead, Cutts and Company’s Fine Art Gallery, 18 Cork Street, London, featuring 34 busts in bronze and marble by La Monaca of eminent English figures of the time… According to Haggard the bust was judged ‘a fine and vital work of art’. In 1932 the bronze… was exhibited along with other Haggard related items… at the Pretoria Publicity Association… Haggard died in 1925 and in 1932 his widow Lady Louisa Haggard donated the bust and seventeen other items connected with her late husband to the Pretoria Publicity Association…..Where they are now is a mystery.”

I guessed this must be related to our bust and, although I can’t find the reference now, I read that the London Fine Art exhibition was so popular it moved to Eastbourne Town Hall in1923. This reinforces the local connection and a possible source for our bronze. The Reference Library emailed the image to me and I forwarded it to Stephen Coan. He confirmed that this was a bronze version of the original. He emailed back a photo of the original in the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M University.

So now we just need to find out how and when it came to be in our library. Can anyone help?

Original. Courtesy of Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M University via Stephen Coan

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