The marble bust of Laurence Sterne by Joseph Nollekens sits in a quiet alcove at Shandy Hall. It is carved from a block of marble and was fashioned from life in the latter part of the eighteenth century in Rome where the sculptor was living. Sterne was visiting Rome with the actor and theatre manager, David Garrick and Nollekens happened to meet them in the street. Garrick had given a prize to Nollekens at the Society of Arts in London and as a result of this chance meeting, Garrick sat for his bust for which the artist was paid ‘twelve guineas in gold.’This was his first bust and both sitter and sculptor were so pleased with the result that Sterne agreed to sit for Nollekens as well. This gave Nollekens such pleasure that he ‘continued to be pleased even unto his second childhood’ and often mentioned (years later) how a painting was made of him leaning upon Sterne’s head by Rigaud.
When Sterne died in 1768 an advertisement offered copies of the original plaster (which Nollekens kept in his studio throughout his life) in a variety of different materials and colours. The bust had an important role to play in the twentieth century when the graveyard where Sterne was buried was put up for sale to build offices and flats. St. George’s Fields graveyard in London was long abandoned and it was decided that if any of Sterne’s remains could be identified then they should be moved to Coxwold rather than become lost or neglected. A representative of The Times newspaper, a surgeon and the Hon. Curator of Shandy Hall, Kenneth Monkman, attended the excavation and 5 skulls were found – multiple burials having taken place. One of the skulls had the top removed and it was known that Sterne’s body had been the victim of the ‘body snatchers’ who sold corpses to the anatomists in Cambridge, so this could be the very one. But it seemed too small for a mature man. It was measured against the bust at Shandy Hall and was found to be a match. The skull was brought to Coxwold and reburied outside the church porch where it remains to this day. Another version of this bust of Sterne was presented by Lt. Colonel Croft-Lyons to the National Portrait Gallery through the Art Fund in 1920.
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