Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Nollekens, Joseph (1737-1823)

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NOLLEKENS, JOSEPH (1737–1823), sculptor, second son of Joseph Franciscus Nollekens [q. v.], was born in Dean Street, Soho, 11 Aug. 1737, and was baptised the same day at the Roman catholic chapel in Duke Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields. After the death of ‘Old Nollekens’ in 1747, his widow married a Welshman named Williams, and settled with her husband in the Principality, placing the boy Joseph with the sculptor Peter Scheemakers, who, like the elder Nollekens, was a native of Antwerp.

Joseph is said to have been looked upon by the denizens of Vine Street, Piccadilly, where Scheemakers had his studio, as ‘a civil, inoffensive lad, not particularly bright.’ The latter part of this description is borne out by what we learn of him in later years. Indeed, in everything outside his artistic faculty Nollekens seems to have exhibited not only the ignorance due to a neglected education, but a perversity akin to imbecility. He had inherited from his father a passionate love of money, which displayed itself even in childhood. Yet the wife of his master said of him that ‘Joey was so honest, she could always trust him to stone the raisins.’ He took a sincere delight in modelling, his only other diversion being bell-tolling. The lad was attracted by the prizes offered by the Society of Arts, and, according to the books of the society, he was in 1759 adjudged 15l. 15s. for a model in clay of figures; in 1760, for a model in clay, a bas-relief, 31l. 10s.; and in the same year, for a model in clay of a dancing faun, 10l. 10s. Having amassed a little hoard during ten years of hard work, Nollekens determined to visit Italy. He started for Rome in 1760. His small stock of money being reduced to twenty-one guineas on his arrival, he sent to England a model, for which he received ten guineas from the Society of Arts; and in 1762 he was further encouraged by a premium of fifty guineas for a marble bas-relief of ‘Timocles conducted before Alexander.’ But the foundation of his future wealth was probably laid by his introduction in Rome to Garrick, by whom he was received with great cordiality. The actor commissioned him to execute a bust, for which twelve guineas ‘in gold’ were paid. This, Nollekens's maiden effort in portraiture, was so successful that Sterne, who was in Rome, also consented to sit. The result was a bust for which Nollekens himself had a great partiality. Even in his period of full development it was held to be among his best achievements, as is shown by its introduction into the sculptor's portrait by Dance. But Nollekens endeavoured to make money by other means during his sojourn in Rome. He took an active part in the traffic in, and restoration of, antiques. His first venture in this line was the purchase of some fine specimens of ancient terra-cottas from labourers employed in the gravel-pits at the Porta Latina, who had found them at the bottom of a disused well. These, which he secured for a very trifling sum, he eventually sold to the well-known collector Townley. They were included among the marbles bought by government after Townley's death, and are now in the British Museum. Other wealthy men employed him as their agent in the collection of antiques; and he is said to have bought great numbers of fragments on his own account, to have supplied them with missing heads and limbs, which he stained with tobacco-water, and then to have sold them as dubious treasures for imposing sums. By these devices Nollekens amassed the means to become a speculator on the Stock Exchange, where he was so successful that on his return to England in 1770 he was able to take the house vacated by Francis Milner Newton, R.A. [q. v.] (No. 9 Mortimer Street), and to set up a studio. He brought over a large collection of antiques, drawings, coins, and casts of his own busts. These last he characteristically turned to account by filling them with silk stockings, lace ruffles, and other articles liable to duty.

His reputation had already reached England, and his busts became almost as popular among fashionable people as Sir Joshua's portraits. In 1771 he began to contribute regularly to the Royal Academy, and in that year was elected an associate. In 1772 he became a full member, the king himself confirming the choice, on signing the diploma, by a compliment, and a commission for a bust. In the same year the sculptor married Mary, the second daughter of Saunders Welch. Welch, who succeeded Fielding as one of the justices of the peace for Westminster, was an intimate friend of Johnson, and the latter extended his regard to his friend's daughters. Mrs. Nollekens is described as having claims to be considered a beauty; her elegant figure and auburn ringlets, the pride she showed in the compliments of Dr. Johnson (who declared he would himself have been her suitor had not his friend been too prompt), her avaricious character, her petty jealousies, and the exhibitions of what Nollekens called her ‘scorney’ temper have all been noted by the pitiless biographer of her husband. Nollekens had chosen a partner who ably seconded him in his mania for sordid economies. The description of their household is almost incredible, when we consider that Nollekens was reckoning his income by thousands, and left a fortune of 200,000l. Ludicrous tales are told of his own and his wife's parsimony—how when Lord Londonderry sat for his bust on a cold day, and put coals on the scanty fire in the sculptor's momentary absence, he was reproved by Mrs. Nollekens; how Mrs. Nollekens fed her dogs by taking them to prowl round the butchers' stalls in Oxford Market; how Nollekens pocketed the nutmegs provided for the hot negus at the Academy dinners, and purloined the sweetmeats from dessert when he dined out; how he sat in the dark to save a candle, and wrangled with the cobbler for a few extra nails in his old shoes; how he owned but two shirts, two coats, and one pair of small clothes. Yet Nollekens reckoned Reynolds and Johnson among his friends; he was capable of sudden freaks of generosity, and, especially towards the close of his life, would astonish needy acquaintances with considerable gifts. In his last years, when partially paralysed, and in a state of senile imbecility, he was surrounded by parasites who hoped to benefit by his will. The Caleb Whitefoord of Goldsmith's ‘Retaliation,’ or rather, perhaps, of the spurious appendix to the poem, was among the more assiduous of these. After his wife's death in 1817 his house was managed mainly by an old female servant, known in the neighbourhood as ‘Black Bet,’ but nicknamed ‘Bronze’ by his pupils, from the darkness of her skin. In his eightieth year he made an unsuccessful offer of marriage to Mrs. Zoffany, the painter's widow. The ministrations of a kind-hearted woman named Holt, formerly his wife's companion, insured him a certain degree of comfort for the last two years of his life. He died in his house in Mortimer Street on 23 April 1823, and was buried in Paddington parish church. He had remained through life a member of the church of Rome, but was never a rigid observer of its forms. His will was a curious document, with many codicils. The bulk of his large fortune, after deducting a host of small legacies, he left to Francis Russell Palmer, Francis Douce, and Thomas Kerrich [q. v.] Sir William Beechey and John Thomas Smith, afterwards keeper of the prints in the British Museum, a former pupil, who became his master's biographer, were appointed executors, each receiving a legacy of 100l. All the tools and marble on the premises were given to his carver, Alexander Goblet. His collection of antiques, busts, and models were, under his directions, sold by Christie in Mortimer Street on 3 July 1823, and at the auctioneer's own rooms in Pall Mall on the two days following (see Sale Catalogue in the British Museum with the prices realised on the first day). His prints and drawings were sold by Messrs. Evans of King Street.

In person Nollekens was grotesquely ill-proportioned. His small stature gained him the nickname of ‘Little Nolly’ among his intimates; but his head was of unusual size, his neck short, his shoulders narrow, and his body too large. His nose, we are told, ‘resembled the rudder of an Antwerp packet-boat,’ and his legs were very much bowed.

The record of Nollekens's artistic activity is long and honourable. From 1771 to 1816 he was a constant contributor to the Royal Academy. His last works shown there included busts of Mr. Coutts the banker, Lord Liverpool, and the Duke of Newcastle. He was a most industrious worker, rising always at dawn to water his clay and begin his day's labour. Even when infirmities had reduced him to dotage he was fond of amusing himself by modelling, and shortly before his death executed a little group from a design by Beechey. Among his sitters for busts were George III, the Prince and Princess of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of York, the Duke of Cumberland, the Duchess of Argyll, Sir Joseph Banks, the Duke of Bedford, Dr. Burney, George Canning, Lord Castlereagh, Lord and Lady Charlemont, Charles James Fox, Lord Grenville, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, Dr. Johnson, General Paoli, William Pitt, the Empress of Russia, and the Duke of Wellington. By his ‘stock pieces,’ the busts of Pitt and Fox, he made large sums. Pitt would never consent to sit to him, and the bust was modelled from a death-mask and from the well-known portrait by Hoppner. Nollekens is said to have sold seventy-four replicas in marble at 120 guineas each, and six hundred casts at six guineas. His statue of Pitt in the Senate House at Cambridge, for which he received altogether 4,000l., was carried out from the same materials.

His work as a sculptor of monuments was considerable, the best known being the monument to ‘the three captains’ in Westminster Abbey, and that to Mrs. Howard in Corby Church, Cumberland. The ‘Captains’ monument was left in his studio for fourteen years, waiting for the inscription. Nollekens lost patience at last, and forced a conclusion by a personal appeal to George III. Of his ideal statues the most popular were the nude female figures, technically known as ‘Venuses,’ the best of which were perhaps the ‘Venus chiding Cupid,’ executed for Lord Yarborough; the ‘Venus anointing her Hair,’ bought at the sale by Mrs. Palmer; the ‘Venus with the Sandal,’ and—his own favourite production—the Venus seated, with her arms round her legs, the model of which was bought by Lord Egremont, and carved in marble after its author's death by Rossi. It is now at Petworth. For Townley he restored the small Venus now in the British Museum by the addition of a pair of arms. A figure of Mercury, modelled from his pupil Smith, and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1783, Walpole describes as ‘the best piece in the whole exhibition—arch—flesh most soft.’ An indifferent draughtsman, and possessing but the scantiest knowledge of anatomy, Nollekens combined taste with felicity in seizing upon the characteristic points of a sitter. His busts are never without vitality. In more ambitious things his treatment of the marble is excellent; his conventional draperies are well cast, and his management of the stock motives of his time is governed by a real sense of decorative coherence. Modern ideas find no presage in his work, but he treated those of his day with skill and intelligence.

Two portraits of Nollekens—one by Lemuel F. Abbott and the other by James Lonsdale—are in the National Portrait Gallery. A third picture, by Harlow, belonged to the Baroness Burdett-Coutts; and a fourth, by an anonymous artist, is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

[Nollekens and his Times, by John Thomas Smith, keeper of the prints in the British Museum (a candid and uncomplimentary biography, from which some deductions have to be made; for the author, although intimate with the sculptor, did not, as he probably expected to do, benefit under his will), 1829—a new edition edited by Mr. Edmund Gosse, 1894; Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. Hill; Leslie's Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, continued by Tom Taylor; Redgrave's Dictionary of Artists of the British School; Catalogue of the Sale of Nollekens; Hints to Joseph Nollekens, esq., R.A., on his modelling a Bust of Lord Grenville; Princess Lichtenstein's Holland House; Walpole's Letters.]

W. A.