Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Towne, Joseph

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TOWNE, JOSEPH (1808–1879), modeller, third son of Thomas Towne, a dissenting minister, was born at Royston, near Cambridge, on 25 Nov. 1808. As a child his great amusement was modelling animals in clay. His first work of any importance was the model of a human skeleton, measuring thirty-three inches in height, which now stands in the museum of Guy's Hospital. This he made secretly and by night when he was seventeen from such drawings and bones as could be found in a village. His father saw the work only when it was nearly complete, and then sent him to Cambridge with a letter of introduction to William Clark (1788–1869) [q. v.], the professor of anatomy. Towne was so favourably impressed with his reception at Cambridge that he determined to come to London. He arrived by coach at one of the old inns in Bishopgate Street in February 1826, and called, without introduction, upon Sir Astley Paston Cooper [q. v.], then the leading surgeon in London. Cooper, recognising the boy's capacity, gave him a letter to Benjamin Harrison (1771–1856) [q. v.], the great treasurer of Guy's Hospital, by whom he was immediately retained in the service of that charity. The skeleton which he had brought with him from Royston was offered in competition at the Society of Arts, where it obtained the second prize in 1826, but in the following year Towne executed some models of the brain in wax, which gained him the gold medal of the society. From 1826 until 1877 Towne occupied rooms in Guy's Hospital, where he was engaged continuously in the practice of the art which he originated and brought to perfection, though it died with him. He constructed during this period more than a thousand models of anatomical preparations, from dissections made by John Hilton (1804–1878) [q. v.], and of cases of skin disease selected by Thomas Addison [q. v.] Most of these models are preserved in the museum of Guy's Hospital, but many fine specimens of his work are to be seen at Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, New York, as well as in the various towns of Alabama, New South Wales, and Russia. Towne was awarded a prize for his work at the first International Exhibition of London in 1851.

Towne was a sculptor as well as a modeller, and executed the marble busts of Sir Astley Cooper and Dr. Addison which now adorn the museum of Guy's Hospital. In 1827 he made an equestrian statue of the Duke of Kent, the queen's father, which was afterwards deposited in the private apartments of Buckingham Palace, and a little later he made a statuette of the great Duke of Wellington, while an excellent bust of Bishop Otter, first principal of King's College, London, came from his hands, and was placed in Chichester Cathedral in 1844. He died on 25 June 1879. Towne married, 20 Sept. 1832, Mary Butterfield, and by her had several children.

Mr. Bryant says of his work: ‘There can be no question that as models, whether anatomical, pathological, or cutaneous, they are not only lifelike representations of what they are intended to show, but that as works of art they are as remarkable as they are perfect. Not only are they accurate copies of different parts of the body, but they are among the very first attempts which have been made in this country to represent the different parts of the human body by wax models, and they are the more remarkable when it is borne in mind they are the outcome of an entirely self-taught genius.’

In 1858 Towne delivered at Guy's Hospital a short course of lectures on the brain and the organs of the senses and of the intellect. These lectures were elaborated into a series of suggestive papers ‘On the Stereoscopic Theory of Vision, with Observations on the Experiments of Professor Wheatstone,’ which commenced in the Guy's Hospital ‘Reports’ for 1862, and ended with one on ‘Binocular Vision’ in the volume for 1870.

[Obituary notice by Mr. Bryant in the Guy's Hospital Reports, 1883, xli. 1; biographical notice in the History of Guy's Hospital, by Wilks and Bettany, 1892; additional particulars kindly given to the writer by Thomas Bryant, esq.]

D’A. P.