Three versions of the present bust are known. The other two, one of which is paired by a bust of the Earl's wife, Mary, the eldest daugher of Richard, Viscount Fitzwilliam, are at Wilton House. Although none is signed, their attribution to Roubiliac has not been doubted since they were first discussed by Mrs. Esdaile in her monograph on the sculptor, where she also referred to a terracotta model of the bust of the Earl in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, bearing a modern inscription, 'Roubilliac [sic] fec.' (Esdaile, loc. cit.). More recently, archival research has revealed that Roubiliac received £165 and a halfpenny in 1751 from the executors of the 9th Earl for his monument, of which the present bust formed a part (Bindman and Baker, loc. cit.). It would appear, however, that the bust may not originally have been intended for the monument, but was more probably an independent portrait subsequently enlisted for the task. It was, in any event, certainly in place as early as 3 July 1754, when it was described by Richard Pococke as having the form of 'a marble bust as against a pyramid' (Pococke, loc. cit.). The original form of the monument was considerably modified when it was transferred from the chancel of the old medieval church at Wilton in 1845 to its present location in the new church. The bust has now been replaced by a replica.
Henry Herbert, 9th Earl of Pembroke, whose date of birth is variously given as 1688, 1689, and 1693, was known as 'the architect earl'. His father, the 8th Earl, acquired the Wilton Diptych, founded the celebrated Wilton Royal Carpet Factory, and was President of the Royal Society. The 9th Earl was also elected F.R.S., and was described by Horace Walpole as a second Inigo Jones. He was the architect of the 'Palladian Bridge' across the River Nadder in the grounds at Wilton, superintended the construction of Old Westminster Bridge from first to last, and was a friend of the likes of Lord Burlington and William Kent.
Rupert Gunnis, in his short account of Roubiliac, quotes Vertue's encomium of the sculptor and describes it as probably the best description of Roubiliac's work: 'his models of statues, monuments, bustos are very curious and excellent, with great skill and variety. His inventions very copious and free - picturesque - so light and easy - as painting'. His own observation (Gunnis, loc. cit.) that 'he had the seeing eye as well as the skilled hand' is equally to the point.
Proceeds from the sale of the present bust will go to the St. Mary and St. Nicholas Trust Fund, for the preservation of the church.