Head of a Laughing Child: an important Chelsea porcelain sculpture, circa 1746-49
Lot 174
Head of a Laughing Child: an important Chelsea porcelain sculpture, circa 1746-49

Lot Details
Head of a Laughing Child: an important Chelsea porcelain sculpture, circa 1746-49 Head of a Laughing Child: an important Chelsea porcelain sculpture, circa 1746-49 Head of a Laughing Child: an important Chelsea porcelain sculpture, circa 1746-49 Head of a Laughing Child: an important Chelsea porcelain sculpture, circa 1746-49 Head of a Laughing Child: an important Chelsea porcelain sculpture, circa 1746-49
Head of a Laughing Child: an important Chelsea porcelain sculpture, circa 1746-49
Slip-cast and finely modelled in the white with a smiling face looking joyfully to one side, the facial features tenderly and beautifully represented, the waves of hair deeply undercut, 18.5cm high (a few small chips to curls of hair)


  • Provenance: An English private collection

    It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this previously unrecorded head as a piece of 18th century English art. Sculpturally and academically it is an enticing and tangible piece of magic, a tour de force.

    The only other recorded example is in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, described by Dr Nicholas Penny as '...the most celebrated piece of porcelain in the Ashmolean Museum...' (Penny 1992, p.17). It was donated by Cyril da Costa Andrade in 1965, in honour of Sir Winston Churchill and was originally from the collection of C.T. Fowler who is said to have discovered it in a London shop, shortly before August 1938. From 1938 until the discovery of the present lot in 2011, the Ashmolean head was thought be unique. The Oxford head has been painted with enamel colours, possibly at a slightly later date. The decoration does not follow the modelling, with tiny teeth painted below the upper lip and some hair on the forehead represented where there is no corresponding relief. There are significant areas of black kiln specking on the surface of the enamelled head, most notably in a crescent-shaped patch above the left breast and under the chin. There is also some lighter specking on the face and forehead and on the back of the right shoulder. The newly-discovered head has been left in white, as the potter must have intended and although it exhibits some very light kiln specking, this is far less evident compared with the enamelled piece.

    The Ashmolean head was published by Dr Bellamy Gardner in The Connoisseur of August 1938, pp. 59-60, illustrated in colour on the cover. Gardner attributed the modelling to Louis-François Roubiliac and went further by suggesting that it was a portrait of Roubiliac's daughter, Sophie. Gardner's assertion appears to be based solely on the fact that Sophie's godfather was fellow Huguenot, Nicholas Sprimont, who became the proprietor of the Chelsea factory. A search for sources of the head suggests that it was unlikely to have been made as a portrait and instead is drawn from 17th century Italian sculpture.

    In his 1992 catalogue Dr Penny hints at possible sources of inspiration, starting with major works by Bernini in Rome. Two of the most celebrated of Bernini's angels are his magnificent Angel Administering Intolerable Pleasures to St Teresa, in the church of S Maria della Vittoria, and his equally dramatic Angel Lifting Habbakkuk by a Lock of Hair, in the Chigi Chapel of S Maria del Popolo. These predate Bernini's Gloria in the Cathedra Petri in St Peter's Basilica, a monumental gilded relief carved with joyful angels, created between 1657 and 1666. These Bernini angels and the Chelsea head seem to share the same cheeks, mouths and pointed locks of hair. They differ in the way the Chelsea model exhibits slanting eyes and a slightly more exotic look, which Dr Penny suggests may be the result of the development of Bernini's style by Permoser.

    Like most Baroque sculptors, Balthasar Permoser was heavily influenced by Bernini, while in turn Permoser was even more influential on so many sculptors who came across his work. After fourteen years working in the studio of Giovanni Battista Foggini in Florence, Permoser was summoned to Dresden to work for the Elector of Saxony, and then to Prussia to work on the Charlottenburg Palace. He is best known for his architectural sculptures on the Zwinger palace, built by Augustus the Strong from 1710-28. On a smaller scale, but equally ambitious was another commission from Augustus for a sculptural pulpit for the Elector's chapel. Liberally strewn with angels' heads, Permoser's pulpit was made of polished white marble and bears an uncanny resemblance to porcelain. Porcelain was Augustus's overriding obsession and he also asked Permoser to create models on a much smaller scale for Meissen, figures to be made in polished red stoneware and in white porcelain.

    Among the many students who trained in Permoser's Dresden studio was a young sculptor from Lyon named Louis-François Roubiliac. The young Frenchman returned to Paris but was frustrated that his work was not appreciated in his own country and instead he moved to London. Roubiliac joined the community of Huguenot artists living in London and forged a career as a sculptor of monuments and portrait busts. Roubiliac married in St Martin's-in-the-Fields in 1735 and when his daughter, Sophie, was born in 1744 he asked his friend Nicholas Sprimont to stand as Godfather, her christening held at the Huguenot church in Spring Gardens (Adams 2001, p.19).

    Roubiliac and Sprimont must have been more than simply like-minded acquaintances. At the time Sprimont was establishing his porcelain factory in Chelsea, the sculptor was working on his first major monument, a funeral work commemorating Bishop Hough, to be erected in Worcester Cathedral. Malcolm Baker, in his paper to the English Ceramic Circle (Baker 1997), drew attention to a letter written by Theophilus Biddolph on 7 May 1745 which discussed the monument at length. An important feature of the commission was a bas relief panel to be incorporated within the monument. Biddolph had visited Roubiliac's workshop to check on progress and in his letter he mentions 'The Basso Relievo is to be in Chelsea China'.

    The porcelain panel was never created and the monument was instead carved entirely in marble. The letter, however, shows that in the first months of the Chelsea venture, Roubiliac was contemplating using the new material of porcelain for a monumental sculptured plaque. Roubiliac will have worked in Permoser's studio in Dresden at the time when Permoser was modelling for Meissen porcelain. Moving to England, the idea of his own work being cast in porcelain must have seemed an impossible dream for Roubiliac. The prospect of working with Sprimont to create a porcelain panel must have excited both men enormously, though it would appear this particular collaboration did not come to fruition.

    In order to appreciate the excitement caused by Sprimont's new Chelsea porcelain, it is worth reviewing the history of porcelain figures in England prior to the mid 1740s. Before Chelsea, the only porcelain sculptures available were Chinese figures, the pagods and magots collected in the grandest of homes and mocked by William Hogarth. In his series Marriage a la Mode, one well known image shows the playboy hero before his mantelshelf where he has gathered a profusion of slender Guanyins and podgy Buddhas. These were the Dehua figures of blanc-de-chine which had been imported en-mass from China half a century earlier. No longer available from the East, these white Chinese porcelain ornaments had achieved iconic status in the age of rococo and were sold by dealers in fashionable St James's. The Adventurer of November 20th 1753 published a fictional account of a visit to Bedlam and introduced the reader to Harriet Brittle, whose 'opinion was formerly decisive at all auctions.....about the genuineness of porcelain.' Harriet paid an exorbitant price for 'a Mandarin and a Jos' that she intended to place 'in a little rockwork temple of Chinese architecture, in which neither propriety, proportion, nor true beauty, were considered'. When a careless wagon driver smashed her priceless figures, this completely turned her mind. To soothe poor Harriet, her family provided her with Chelsea vases and urns to decorate her cell in Bedlam as she believed these to be real Chinese porcelain.

    Among other costly trinkets of silver and gold, the London dealers around St James's and The Haymarket offered society customers 'Old China' and 'Old Japan', antiques of their day and far more precious than the cheaper Chinese tableware which, thanks to the East India Company, was now readily available and falling in price. A few shops sold Dresden China, enormously costly and in very limited supply, pretty porcelain enamelled in colours and in European, not Oriental taste.

    As a silversmith in London with origins in Europe, Nicholas Sprimont was well aware of the marketplace for luxury goods. By embarking on a porcelain manufactory, he knew that there was more to success than simply producing perfectly white chinaware. The biggest problem was manufacturing porcelain cheaply enough to compete in the shops with the antiques and imports. There was no point trying to make blue and white or even famille rose teasets or armorial dinner plates. Enamelled decoration added enormously to manufacturing costs. Sprimont's greatest asset was an almost pure white porcelain glaze, better than anybody else in England had yet perfected. He also understood fashionable design from his work as a silversmith. Bringing his two materials, silver and porcelain together was pure genius. Making the very latest English silver shapes in white porcelain meant these could be sold as something unique.

    Silver forms, closely related to objects known to have been made in Sprimont's silver workshop in Soho, are to be found in early Triangle-period Chelsea porcelain. There can be no clearer evidence that Sprimont was the designer, if not also the modeller. In his introduction to the Victoria and Albert Museum's Rococo exhibition catalogue (Mallett 1984, p.237), John Mallett quoted the enamel artist André Rouquet who reported of the Chelsea factory that 'an able French artist supplies or directs the models of everything that is manufactured there'. Mallett noted that Sprimont came from Liège, from a family of silversmiths, so technically he was Flemish, not French, Liège being part of the Holy Roman Empire at that time. Mallett agreed with Rouquet that in the early days of the Chelsea factory Sprimont is likely to have done all of the modelling and designing. There can be little doubt that the Teaplant teawares originated from the mind of a silversmith, and even curiosities such as Chelsea's Chinamen teapots share the whimsy of Sprimont's rococo silver designs. Adams 2001, p.19 describes a Sprimont silver tea kettle dated 1745/6 with a dragon spout and a laughing Chinaman on the cover.

    Sprimont may have picked up the idea behind the Chelsea teapots when he was in France, from the white china Magots made at St Cloud. These would have been unknown in England, however and more likely it was old Dehua Blanc-de-Chine that inspired Sprimont's Chinaman teapots and also the Chelsea Budai made during the Triangle period. Together with a slightly later seated Guanyin, this was the only exercise in directly copying the Orient in early Chelsea. Sprimont did not want his Chelsea porcelain to be associated with mere copies of the Chinese. Stoneware potters in Staffordshire made their cheaper versions in white saltglaze. Sprimont, though, was making something that could not be bought anywhere else in England. His porcelain was aimed at an altogether more refined market. Here was an artist making fine sculpture, not craftsman-made crockery.

    Horace Walpole appreciated the new material and bought a pair of white Crayfish salts for his collection at Strawberry Hill (these are now in the British Museum, 1887,0307,II.18). Sprimont's shell-shaped dishes and modelled creamjugs were close to perfection, but some of the three-dimensional modelling was not perhaps up there with the finest art. A squirrel and an owl are comical, yes, but not perhaps best sculpture. Sprimont's talents lay as a silversmith and designer, not a sculptor, yet he moved in the highest artistic circles in London and mingled with the top painters and sculptors.

    Casts of great works were readily available to purchase, either in bronze or plaster. Small sculptures by Francois Duquesnoy, known as Il Fiammingo, inspired two small models in white Chelsea porcelain, a sleeping child and a boy's head. The sleeping child was also made in porcelain at Vincennes and while it is debateable which factory made it first, the French version probably post-dates the Chelsea and is likely to have been based on the same bronze prototype. The head of a boy first appeared as a detail on a tomb in Rome carved by Il Fiammingo and Sprimont must have acquired a cast. Chelsea's version is delightfully subtle, though some of the sculptural quality was lost along the way.

    The boy's head was probably not made until 1749-50, whereas the Chelsea sleeping child in the British Museum is incised with the date June ye 26 1746 and exhibits the slightly creamy glaze which is characteristic of the earliest figure models. The present Head of a Laughing Child appears whiter and reflects the rapid improvements made to the Chelsea body during the Triangle Period. This brilliant white porcelain was an entirely new material for sculpture in England.

    Porcelain sculpture had been made elsewhere in Europe before the 1740s. Models in Meissen white porcelain had been created for Augustus the Strong's palace and a stunning Böttger Porzellan head of Apollo is well known, as well as a baby's head. Roubiliac undoubtedly came across such things while training in Permoser's Dresden studio, but this is not the kind of Meissen retailed by the dealers in London amongst their 'Old Dresden'. In Italy the Doccia factory made some of the most striking of all European porcelain sculpture, much of it after Classical antiquities. As with Vincennes, however, most Doccia sculpture post-dates Chelsea and here again there is no evidence to suggest any white Doccia sculptures had been seen in England at the time of Sprimont's early productions. In London in 1746, therefore, Chelsea's white porcelain sculptures were unique.

    So what about the present Head of a Laughing Child and the important question of whether Roubiliac provided Sprimont with the model? We know that in September 1744 Sprimont had stood as Godfather for baby Sophie Roubiliac and the following year Louis-François Roubiliac considered using Chelsea china for part of his monument to Bishop Hough. All other evidence is circumstantial, however. One strong pointer to the Child's parentage is the existence in white Chelsea porcelain of two separate models of William Hogarth's dog Trump, one a mirror image of the other. John Mallet has shown that Chelsea's Trumps were taken from a terracotta by Roubiliac and that Sprimont will have acquired a version in terracotta, or possibly a plaster cast, directly from Roubiliac's studio (Mallet 1967). White Chelsea models of Trump are in the Colonial Williamsburg Collection and the Victoria and Albert Museum (C.101-1966), while a coloured version, illustrated here, was one of the treasures at Rous Lench Court.

    Terracotta versions of a similar, though not identical Head of a Laughing Child are well known and an example is offered in this sale as the following lot. Numerous versions of this model are recorded in bronze, marble, terracotta and plaster and these have been discussed by Penny 1992, Baker 1997 and others. Most are given 18th century dates although they all probably postdate the Chelsea model. The only signed example so far recorded is a marble version in the Hermitage in St Petersburg which is signed by Joseph Nollekens RA. A plaster or possibly terracotta version appears in a painting in the Royal Academy, showing the artist John Hamilton Mortimer with Joseph Wilton and a Student. This fascinating painting, probably a self portrait by Mortimer, depicts a student using the Duke of Richmond's Cast Gallery, a collection of plaster casts after the Antique made available to students c.1758-62 under the direction of the sculptor Joseph Wilton. The version of the Child's Head placed at the side of the composition bears a striking similarity to the Chelsea model.

    It seems likely that all these related versions, including the Chelsea one, originate from the same source. The Head of a Laughing Child has become popularly known as 'Roubiliac's Daughter', an attribution probably resulting from Dr Bellamy Gardner's 1938 article discussing the Chelsea version. There is presently no known autograph version that can be linked unquestionably to Roubiliac's workshop, but as most surviving versions have a British provenance, an authorship by Roubiliac does seems most likely. Following Roubiliac's death in 1762 the contents of his studio were auctioned and the sale included various items that may be related. In the sale were moulds of 'a young child', 'a laughing boy' and 'a boy's head', as well as a plaster model of a 'crying boy'. These are discussed on the Victoria and Albert Museum Website in relation to a pair of bronze busts in the Museum collection nos. A.2-2008 and A.3-2008.
    These 18th century busts in the Victoria and Albert museum comprise a bronze laughing head paired with the head of a crying child. No Chelsea crying head is recorded, but the existence of a companion model in bronze does suggest the Head of a Child was intended to be a likeness not of Roubiliac's daughter but that of an infant philosopher. The so-called 'Laughing and Weeping Philiosphers', Heraclitus and Democritus, were well-known subjects in art and sculpture as opposing images of Joy and Sorrow, reflecting different attitudes to life. Penny 1992, p. 18 discusses many different versions where the subjects are depicted as children. Roubiliac would therefore have been very familiar with the concept.
    Some of the surviving bronze and terracotta versions will most likely correspond to the 'Laughing Boy' and 'Crying Boy' models included in Roubiliac's studio sale. Logic suggests that Sprimont will have acquired one of the terracotta versions, in the same way as he used a terracotta from Roubiliac's studio to create his Chelsea porcelain model of Hogarth's Trump. There are significant differences, however, between the bronze, terracotta and plaster versions and the Chelsea porcelain Head of a Laughing Child. Heraclitus and Democritus as children are by necessity male. In the Chelsea version, the sex of the child is more ambiguous.
    The Chelsea head is not cast from any known terracotta or plaster version. In the porcelain version the mouth is closed with no hint of teeth and the eyes, too are almost closed. The subject is smiling rather than laughing. In these respects the Chelsea head differs from all the other known versions. If the origin was a terracotta, such as the following lot in this sale, someone has totally re-modelled it before the casting in porcelain.

    This prompts the question of whether Nicholas Sprimont was up to the job? Did Sprimont simply take Roubiliac's model and adapt it, or did Sprimont ask Roubiliac himself to recreate a new model to be cast in porcelain? There can be no doubt that the modeller of the Chelsea Head of a Laughing Child was a very accomplished sculptor, far more accomplished than the modeller of, say, the Chinaman teapots. If the task was given to Roubiliac, it is worth remembering that his daughter Sophie would have been between three and five years old. Was Dr Gardner right all along? Was his own daughter in the sculptor's mind when he created the unique mould for Chelsea?

    The end of the Triangle Period marks a significant change in direction for the Chelsea factory, coinciding with the move from Mr Supply's House to new expanded premises in Lawrence Street. Sprimont gave up his silversmith business in Soho to give his full attention to developing porcelain 'in a Taste Entirely New'. Instead of his own ideas and models based on silver, totally new productions were almost entirely copied from the best foreign porcelain. This meant copies of the latest designs from Vincennes and Meissen and from old Japanese Kakiemon.

    Realising he needed an experienced modeller full-time within the factory, it was probably in 1748 that Sprimont brought in Joseph Willems who was also Flemish. A major new series of bird models was introduced, based on prints by George Edwards, while Sprimont's new financial backer, Sir Everard Falconer arranged to borrow Sir Charles Hanbury Williams' extensive collection of Meissen figures and every piece was copied exactly. A taste entirely new indeed.

    Very few of Sprimont's designs from the Triangle period survived the changes in direction that swept through his business. Crayfish salts, formerly made largely in white, were now issued in new colours. After 1750 fine white porcelain was no longer the sole domain of Chelsea. Some truly magnificent models came from the kilns at Derby during the so-called 'Dry Edge' period, while the Muses Modeller's work at Bow presented the London market with a very different kind of English porcelain figure. Sprimont's former business partner, Charles Gouyn now produced white figure groups at St James's, but to Nicholas Sprimont white porcelain had apparently lost its appeal. His new models copied from Meissen are rarely found in white; indeed the little Chinaman in this sale is an exception.

    Sir Everard Falconer was secretary to the Duke of Cumberland and Faulkner no doubt encouraged the production of a white porcelain portrait bust of the Duke, made at Chelsea during the Raised Anchor period. This bust of Cumberland is disappointing as a piece of sculpture. Some old white stock from the Triangle period was probably coloured during the Raised Anchor period, and this raises again the question of precisely when the colouring was added to the Rous Lench Trump and the Ashmolean Head of a Child. Were these coloured at Lawrence Street, perhaps?

    For more than fifty years visitors to Oxford have been able to admire the Ashmolean's coloured head in its own case in the Chambers Hall Gallery among 18th century British paintings. With this newly discovered example in pure white porcelain it is possible to appreciate in full the unique sculptural quality of the model. In every respect the Head of a Laughing Child is a true masterpiece of European porcelain.


    Adams 2001
    Adams, Elizabeth. Chelsea Porcelain. London: British Museum Press, revised edition, 2001

    Asche 1978
    Asche, Sigfried. Balthasar Permoser: Leben und Werk, Deutscher Verlag für Kunstwissenschaft

    Austin 1977
    Austin, John C. Chelsea Porcelain at Williamsburg, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1977

    Baker 1997
    Baker, Malcolm. Roubiliac and Chelsea in 1745, English Ceramic Circle Transactions, Vol 16, pt. 2, 1997, pp.222-225

    Esdaile 1928
    Esdaile Katherine A.M. Louis-François Roubiliac, Oxford, 1928

    Gardner 1938
    Gardner, Dr Bellamy. Sophie Roubiliac in Chelsea Porcelain, in Connoisseur, pt. 102, 1938, pp. 59-61

    Hillier 1996
    Hillier, Bevis. Nicholas Crisp and the Elizabeth Canning Scandal, English Ceramic Circle Transactions, Vol 16, pt. 1, 1996

    Hodgson 1994
    Hodgson, Zorka. A Chelsea Boy's Head after François Duquesnoy-Il Fiammingo, English Ceramic Circle Transactions, Vol 15, pt. 2, 1994

    Legge 1984
    Legge, Margaret. Flowers and Fables, A Survey of Chelsea Porcelain 1745-69, National Gallery of Australia, 1984

    Mallet 1984
    Mallet J.V.G (contributor). Rococo: Art and Design in Hogarth's England, London: Victoria and Albert Museum, Exhibition Catalogue 1984

    Mallet 1967
    Mallet J.V.G. Hogarth's Pug in Porcelain, London, Victoria and Albert Museum Bulletin III, No. 2, April 1967, pp. 45-54

    Penny 1992
    Penny, Dr. Nicholas. Catalogue of European Sculpture in the Ashmolean Museum, 1540 to the Present Day, Vol. 3, Oxford University Press, pp.17-18, fig. 457.

    Young 1999
    Young, Hilary. English Porcelain, 1745-95: Its Makers, Design, Marketing and Consumption, London, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1999
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  1. John Sandon
    Specialist - British Ceramics
    Montpelier Street
    London, United Kingdom SW7 1HH
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