Sculptor born in London, the son of Antwerp-born painter Joseph Francis Nollekens (1702–1748). On showing early promise in modelling, in 1750 young Nollekens was placed with the sculptor Peter Scheemakers (1691–1781), another immigrant from Antwerp. During his years with Scheemakers – seven as an apprentice and five as journeyman – Nollekens developed and refined his skills at William Shipley’s drawing school in the Strand, had further lessons in drawing in William Henry Spang’s studio, and drew and modelled from antique casts in the Duke of Richmond’s Gallery, Whitehall (opened 1758). Between 1759 and 1762 the premiums he won in competitions staged by the Society of Arts funded his ambition of travelling to Rome to study – as his biographer, J.T. Smith, recalled – ‘the works of Michel Angelo, and of other great men’. Nollekens financed his stay in Rome (1762–70) working in the studio of Bartolomeo Cavaceppi (c.1716–1799), sculptor, and copier and restorer of antique sculptures. Nollekens made a considerable sum from this line of business, building up at the same time, immensely useful contacts with the nobility of England on their Grand Tours. One such commission was his 1767 copy (of a plaster cast in the French Academy in Rome) of the heavily restored first century bce group Castor and Pollux for Thomas Anson of Shugborough Hall, Staffs. Although Nollekens’ group was included in the Shugborough Hall sale in 1842 and is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, a second copy, albeit with an uncertain attribution to Nollekens, now stands in its place at the Hall. While in Rome, Nollekens produced his first portrait busts: David Garrick (1764), Laurence Sterne (1767) and the powerfully expressive, G.B. Piranesi (c.1769). He was made a member of the Academy of St Luke in Florence in June 1770 but at the very end of the year returned to England. He set up a studio in Mortimer Street, Marylebone, in early 1771 and that summer made his first appearance at the Royal Academy with three pieces, his election to Associate Royal Academician following on 27 August. On 1 February 1772 he was elected a Royal Academician, his Diploma Work a delightful oval relief in marble, Cupid and Psyche. He continued to exhibit regularly at the RA, some years with multiple works, until 1816. Before long he established himself as the leading portrait sculptor of his day. His busts of Charles James Fox – two versions, the first, commissioned in 1791, showing the subject bewigged (now Hermitage, St Petersburg); the second, 1802, with short-cropped hair (Woburn Abbey, Beds.) – and William Pitt the Younger, 1806 (Dalmeny House, Lothian) were reproduced by his studio on an industrial scale. He was also in demand for funerary monuments: of his 140 or so commissions, his Monument to Mrs Maria Howard (1800, Holy Trinity, Wetherall, Cumbria) is generally held to be his masterpiece in this field. Despite the pressing demand for portraiture, he nevertheless continued to produce occasional poetic works, important examples being the figures of Venus, Minerva and Juno (1773–76) for Lord Rockingham (now Getty Museum, Los Angeles). By the time of his death, Nollekens had amassed a personal fortune amounting to £200,000. John Thomas Smith, the son of one of Nollekens’ assistants, had been repeatedly promised a legacy. On receiving only his fee of £100 for his role as one of the executors, he published in 1828 the malicious, though highly entertaining, Nollekens and his Times. Luckily for Nollekens’ personal reputation, just two years later, Allan Cunningham published a more balanced account in his Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors and Architects.
Bibliography: D. Bilbey, with M. Trusted, British Sculpture 1470 to 2000. A concise catalogue of the collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2002, pp. 95–107; R. Cocke, Public Sculpture of Norfolk and Suffolk, Liverpool, 2013, p. 267; D.A. Cross, Public Sculpture of Lancashire and Cumbria, Liverpool, 2017, pp. xiii, 140, 185–87; A. Cunningham, Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors and Architects, London (6 vols, 1829–33), vol. 3, 1830, pp. 122–99; J. Kenworthy-Browne, ‘Nollekens, Joseph (1737–1823)’, ODNB, (2004), 2014; R. McKenzie, Public Sculpture of Edinburgh (2 vols), Liverpool, 2018, vol. 1, pp. 271–72; E. Morris and E. Roberts, Public Sculpture of Cheshire and Merseyside, Liverpool, 2012, pp. 53–55, 78–79; G.T. Noszlopy and F. Waterhouse, Public Sculpture of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire, Liverpool, 2010, pp. 238–39; G.T. Noszlopy, Public Sculpture of Staffordshire and the Black Country, Liverpool, 2005, pp. 107–08, 109, 110–12; I. Roscoe et al, A Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain 1660–1851, New Haven and London, 2009; J. Seddon et al, Public Sculpture of Sussex, Liverpool, 2014, p. 102; J.T. Smith, Nollekens and his Times, London, (1828), 1986; M. Whinney (rev. J. Physick), Sculpture in Britain 1530–1830, London, (1964), 1988, pp. 287–302; D. White and E. Norman, Public Sculpture of Sheffield and South Yorkshire, Liverpool, 2015, pp. 270–73.
Terry Cavanagh November 2023
Lemuel Francis Abbott, Joseph Nollekens, oil on canvas, c.1797, NPG 30 (photo: © National Portrait Gallery, London). Nollekens is shown modelling the 1791 bust of Charles James Fox.