I have a bronze bust of Charles Bradlaugh - one of my proudest possessions. And now I have two. Here's the story.
First of all, if you are wondering who Bradlaugh is - well, one of the most prominent and remarkable of Victorian radicals: a Parliamentarian, atheist, Republican, birth control advocate, Irish and Indian nationalist, and determined campaigner, journalist, pamphleteer, orator and propagandist.
A bit like Tony Benn in more recent years, Bradlaugh was both loved and hated. (Though unlike Benn, he was an opponent of socialism ... and a freemason!)
Returned to Parliament by the electors of Northampton in 1880, Bradlaugh then fought a bitter and protracted struggle to be allowed to take his seat in the House of Commons - to affirm, or even to be allowed to take the oath on the Bible when he was an avowed unbeliever.
He spent a night in detention in the Houses of Parliament (supposedly in the clock tower) as part of that turbulent, and eventually successful, campaign.
I bought the bust of Charles Bradlaugh at auction many years ago. It's about ten inches high and the work of Francis Verheyden, a Belgian sculptor who moved to London where he lived for several decades prior to his death in 1919. There is an artist's signature mark, 'F. VerHeyden', at the side of the bust.
The rear of the bust also bears a small casting tag: 'CIE DES BRONZES / BRUXELLES' - suggesting that the bust was cast at the prestigious Compagnie des Bronzes in the Belgian capital.
Charles Bradlaugh died in January 1891 at the age of 57. He was buried, amid much fanfare, at Brookwood cemetery on the outskirts of London. A monument at his grave erected two years after his death 'consists of a bronze bust of Mr. Bradlaugh, by Mr F. Verheyden, on a red granite pedestal', according to a tribute volume, Champion of Liberty. 'It was erected at a cost of £225, and the money was subscribed absolutely spontaneously, without a single appeal or one word of request.'
There's also an imposing statue of Bradlaugh - unveiled in 1894 - in his former constituency of Northampton, and a hall which takes his name in the Pakistani city of Lahore.
As you can see, the bust at the grave is very similar - though not quite identical - to my much smaller bust.
The Brookwood bust was stolen many years ago, as was the bronze wreath on the pedestal. Whether this act of desecration was simply criminal or also in part political or ecclesiastical is not at all clear.
Happily the National Secular Society - the freethought organisation which Charles Bradlaugh founded in 1866 and which still thrives - is now restoring the monument at Brookwood. I was asked to loan my bust to a specialist company, Ryman & Leader, so they could make a fresh cast. This they will now scale up - by a factor of three or four, by my reckoning - to make a replacement for the missing Brookwood bust, though it will be made of a special resin rather than bronze.
Here's Andrew from Ryman & Leader when he came round the other day to return my bust - and to give me a resin copy of the original. Thank you - that's really kind and much appreciated. Which is the original? Well, if you can't tell it hardly matters!
The resin copy is splendid and wonderfully convincing. The colour tone is almost identical. The weight is more or less the same. The only difference - it doesn't quite have the feel of metal, and it doesn't ping when you hit it (delicately!) with a spoon.
I am still puzzled about the purpose of the bust that I bought all those years back. It may have been a prototype made by the sculptor to seek the approval of whoever commissioned him before embarking on the bigger, and more expensive, bust. Or perhaps some small busts were made as a means of raising funds for the memorial - though I am not aware of any other Bradlaugh busts around (if you are, do please let me know).
But I am very happy that my Bradlaugh has now been twinned!
Andrew Whitehead's blog
Welcome - read - comment - throw stones - pick up threads - and tell me how to do this better!