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Joseph Nollekens

(1737—1823) sculptor


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(b London, 11 Aug. 1737; d London, 23 Apr. 1823).

English sculptor, mainly in marble but also in terracotta. He was the son of a Flemish painter, Joseph Francis Nollekens (‘Old Nollekens’) (1702–48), who settled in London in 1733. After training under Scheemakers, the younger Nollekens worked in Rome from 1761 to 1770, making a handsome living by copying, restoring, faking, and dealing in antique sculpture. He also made a few portrait busts, including that of Laurence Sterne (1766, NPG, London), a splendid character study in the antique manner, and on his return to England it was chiefly as a portraitist that he built up his great reputation and fortune. His best portraits are among the finest of their age, vivacious and brilliantly characterized, but there are many inferior studio copies of his more popular works. He also made statues in a slightly erotic antique manner, and produced numerous funerary monuments. In addition to being very hardworking, he was an excellent businessman and something of a skinflint, with the result that at his death he left the huge sum of £200,000. A former pupil, J. T. Smith (1766–1833), who was one of his executors, received a legacy of £100, much less than he had been hoping for, and had his revenge by writing the venomous Nollekens and his Times (1828). This gives such a cruelly exaggerated picture of the miserliness and coarseness of Nollekens and his wife that it has been described by Rupert Gunnis (Dictionary of British Sculptors 1660–1851, 1953) as probably ‘the most candid, pitiless and uncomplimentary biography in the English language’.

Subjects: Art.


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