Biography

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Grapes House, Williamson's home and studio. Click on thumbnail for larger image.

Francis John Williamson (1833-1920), who is reputed to have been Queen Victoria's favourite sculptor, trained under John Bell and J.H Foley, becoming Foley's assistant. He was patronised by the Queen and produced many statues of her. A plaster cast of his bust of Tennyson (1893) is currently on display in the National Portrait Gallery. A number of his works can be seen in or near the small town of Esher, Surrey, where he lived for most of his life, and which the Queen often visited. However, as his obituary in the Times of 13 March 1920 pointed out, replicas of his Jubilee bust of the Queen in 1887 "are in all parts of the Empire," and his work is widely distributed both in this country and abroad — Jacqueline Banerjee, with thanks to John Sankey CMG, PhD, for providing a copy of the obituary.

M. H. Spielmann's British Sculpture and Sculptors of Today (1901) makes quite clear that he believed Williamson a hack, who "well understood a certain side of what is liked in semi-official work," and who produced "cold" sculpture that tended toward "feebleness":

The fact that Mr. Williamson was the private sculptor to her late Majesty Queen Victoria is known to all who take an interest in the art, and has served to keep his name before the public. He was the pupil of John Bell and the apprentice for seven years of John Foley, with whom he remained as assistant for twenty years. Introduced to the Queen by the Princess Louise, Mr. Williamson, who had settled at Esher in what was once "The Grapes" inn and coaching house, was favoured by frequent commissions, and there has modelled, it is said, all the members of the Royal family, excepting the King and Queen Alexandra. In the intervals of these works Mr. Williamson has turned out more than two hundred busts of people for the most part distinguished, besides a considerable number of public statues and memorials. Chief among these are the statues of Queen Victoria, the original replicas of which are in London, Australia, Rangoon, India, Ireland, and elsewhere; they have the reputation of being excellent likenesses. Perhaps the most successful of Mr. Williamson's works is the memorial to Dean Milman in St. Paul's Cathedral. Of his statue of "Sister Dora" it is said that at the time of its erection it was the only statue in the country of a woman other than of a royal personage. The bust of Lord Coleridge is another curiosity, inasmuch as it was modelled, at the sitter's request, to range with busts of Plato and other sages and jurists of antiquity in the judge's study, so we have here a modern antique of strange effect.

Left to right: (a) Lord Tennyson. (b) Hypatia. (c) His Royal Highness Prince Edward of York. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

The statuettes of Princess Alice of Albany as a child and of the infant Prince Edward of York — the first-named having been exhibited at the Royal Academy "by Command" — ” are examples of a treatment much appreciated by her late Majesty, not dissimilar in sentiment from some of the work of the late Mrs. Thornycroft. Among M. Williamson's ideal work are the "Hetty and Dinah," which was bought by the Queen, and the nude "Hypatia," of which the most effective view is here presented. The latter was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1891, and in its coincidence of pose and attitude reminded many of the picture which, under the same title, Mr. C. W. Mitchell contributed to the Grosvenor Gallery six years before. Probably the best of the sculptor's busts is the dignified head of Lord Tennyson, executed in 1894. It is doubtless owing to Mr. Williamson's legitimate desire to give pleasure to his Royal patron that he carried so far his skill in working out texture of draperies and the details of embroideries and lace, and slurred over the hard facts of a face, as may be seen in his busts of the Dukes of Connaught and Albany; for the elaboration of the first and the "smoothed-outness" of the last are contrary to the genuine sculptor's aims and to his knowledge of what is needful.

Mr. Williamson's work, even though it be cold, is usually well carved from well-chosen blocks, and the drapery, lace-work, and so forth, are very dexterously worked. Modelling must never be lacking in decision, or design in strength, otherwise the whole is apt to become unsympathetic in character and the result tends to the side of feebleness. While Mr. Williamson cannot be said to add greatly to the strength of the British school, he has well understood a certain side of what is liked in semi-official work. [17-19]

Works

References

Bob Speel's F. J. Williamson (UK site, 31 August 2006)

Spielmann, Marion Harry. British Sculpture and Sculptors of Today. London: Cassell, 1901. Internet Archive. Web. 22 December 2011.

Steggles, Mary Ann. Statues of the Raj. Putney, London: BACSA [British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia], 2000.


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Last modified 29 August 2012