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Public Statues and Sculpture Association

Joseph Wilton (1722–1803)

Sculptor born in London, the son of a successful ornamental plasterer. He studied firstly with Laurent Delvaux in Nivelles, Belgium, then from 1745 with Jean-Baptiste Pigalle in Paris, during which time he was awarded a silver medal by the French Academy. In 1747, he relocated to Rome and earned a comfortable living making casts and copies of antique statuary for Grand Tourists. In 1750, his Cain Killing Abel earnt him the first gold medal awarded to an English artist by the Accademia di San Luca. In 1751, Wilton moved to Florence, living in Sir Horace Mann’s guest house; in 1752, he was elected to the Florentine Accademia del Disegno. He finally returned to England in 1755, establishing his reputation in 1759 by winning the competition for the James Wolfe monument for Westminster Abbey (unveiled 1773). His appointment in 1761 as sculptor in ordinary to George III resulted in some major commissions, including an equestrian statue of the king for New York (1766–70, destroyed 1776); statues of William Pitt the Elder for Cork (1764–66), New York (1766–70), and Charles Town, West Virginia (1766–70); a funeral monument to Basil Keith, governor of Jamaica (d. 1777); and a bust of George III for Montreal (1766; now McCord Museum, Montreal). Among Wilton’s friends were Louis François Roubiliac, who made his portrait bust (plaster, c.1760; Royal Academy), and the architect William Chambers, for whose monuments to the Duke of Bedford at Chenies, Bucks (1765–7), and the Earl and Countess Mountrath in Westminster Abbey (1766–71), he executed the sculpture; Wilton’s workshop also carried out much of the architectural sculpture for Chambers’ Somerset House (1776–90). A skilled portraitist, his busts may by seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum – Dr Antonio Cocchi (1755–56) – and National Portrait Gallery – Thomas Hollis (c.1762) and William Pitt the Elder (c.1766). Wilton was, in 1768, a founder member of the Royal Academy (keeper from 1790). According to his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry, he was ‘the first academically trained English sculptor’, going on to become ‘the most distinguished sculptor of his generation’.

Bibliography: T. Cavanagh, Public Sculpture of Kensington and Chelsea with Westminster South-West, Watford, 2023, pp. 27–29; J. Coutu, ‘Wilton, Joseph (1722–1803)’, ODNB, Oxford, 2004; I. Roscoe, A Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain 1660–1851, New Haven and London, 2009.

Terry Cavanagh November 2022

Wilton, Joseph

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Joseph Wilton, 1752, oil on canvas (photo: © National Portrait Gallery, London)