Charles Townley (1737-1805) was born into a wealthy Catholic Lancashire family and was educated in Douai (in present-day Belgium) and Paris. In 1768, after ten years of developing his country estate, Townley set off on the first of three Grand Tours to Italy where he quickly became an enthusiastic collector of antiquities with the assistance of his agents in Rome: Gavin Hamilton and Thomas Jenkins.
Returning to England, Townley bought a house in Park Street, Westminster, and filled it with his formidable collection of classical sculpture. When Tonwley died in 1805 the collection was acquired by the British Museum, London. It was one of the most significant acquisitions of classical sculpture at the time and still remains today part of the core of the museum's holdings of ancient Greek and Roman antiquities.
The highly naturalistic bust of Charles Townley offered here was carved posthumously, two years after the sitter's death in 1805. It is almost certainly the prime version in a series of three known busts of this sitter that were carved by Joseph Nollekens between 1807 and 1811. The two other versions are both housed in the British Museum, London (op. cit., pp. 220-1, no. 82 and 83) and were formerly in the possession of Richard Payne Knight and John Townley respectively.
The present bust displays characteristics typical of Nollekens' work; a heightened sense of realism that includes - in this case - the sitter's thin lips and warts, and an attention to every sinuous contour to the eyes, cheeks and chin. However, it is also atypical of his work insomuch as Nollekens tended to depict his sitters as a bust with a socle, posing heroically and dressed a la grecque. Here Townley is denuded by the artist and is carved with a modest hair style and in the form of a herm bust. In his nudity, Townley exudes a different type of heroism from many of the conventional English portraits of the 18th or early 19th century. Here, he looks more like the similarly nude figures of Germanicus, Laocoon or even the Dying Seneca, each of whom displays a not dissimilar sense of pathos and humanity as a result of their respective trials. Furthermore, unlike Pitt's or Fox's elaborately coiffed hair, Townley's cropped and almost dishevelled hair recalls the hair styles of historical figures represented in antique sculpture. When also considering the herm-form of the bust as well as the use of Greek for the inscription, one begins to see that Nollekens was intentionally breaking from his traditional style of portraiture. The use of these references to the antique heighten the sense that Nollekens considered this bust to be a special commission, and simultaneously remind the viewer of Townley's passion for classical civilisations.