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Bust of George Bellas Greenough (1778-1855)

George Bellas Greenough    Marble portrait bust of George Bellas Greenough, by Richard Westmacott, 1843. (GSL/POR/22) Photograph by Alistair Fyfe, 2009.

Provenance: Commissioned by the Society in 1842.

One of the thirteen founders of the Geological Society, served as its first President, 1807-1813, then again between 1818-1820 and 1833-1835.

George Bellas Greenough, originally named George Bellas, was born in London in 1778. He was left an orphan by the age of 6, but inherited a large fortune from his maternal grandfather, a wealthy chemist who had made his money from the manufacturing of patent remedies such as ‘Greenough’s Liver Pills’.

He studied at Cambridge with ideas of going into law, but whilst at the University of Göttingen in 1798, Greenough became influenced by the natural history lectures of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (which he had attended initially to improve his German). By the time of his return to Britain in 1801 he had developed an interest in geology.

William Smith
 Portrait of William Smith.  Engraving by T A Dean after painting by Hugues Fourau, published by Ackermann & Co, 1837. ( GSL/POR/61/6)
The bust sits in front of the Society’s ‘Geological Map of England and Wales’ (1820) which was published only five years after William Smith’s version. The Map is principally the work of George Bellas Greenough who unlike Smith was not a field geologist. Instead he relied on others sending him information which he would then collate. Most controversially amongst his sources was Smith’s map, but Greenough played down Smith’s contribution.

On being accused of plagiarism, Greenough wrote in his defence, “In the belief that the work had been virtually abandoned by Mr Smith it was undertaken by me...[the map] had been more than twelvemonth at the engraver when Mr Smith published his...Mr Smith’s map was not seen by me till after its publication, and the use I have since made of it has been very limited. The two maps agree in many respects, not because the one has been copied from the other, but because both are correct.”