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Watson, Musgrave Lewthwaite (1804–1847), sculptor, was born at Hawksdale Hall, near Carlisle, on 24 January 1804. He was one of six children of Thomas Watson (1754–1823), a farmer and ironmonger, and his wife, Mary Lewthwaite (c.1770–1829). Although he showed early artistic promise, at his parents' insistence Watson spent two reluctant years (1821–3) training as a solicitor in Carlisle following his attendance at Raughton Head School, Cumberland. Immediately after his father's death in 1823 he abandoned his legal career and went to London, where he visited John Flaxman. Following Flaxman's advice, Watson briefly studied at the Royal Academy Schools which he entered on 31 March 1825 when his age was given in the register as nineteen and also worked in the studio of the sculptor Robert Sievier. Watson then spent almost three years in Italy (1825–8) where he worked as a cameo engraver, etcher, and watercolourist as well as a sculptor. On his return he showed six works at the Carlisle Exhibition (1828) and carved two significant church monuments in the locality. The relief commemorating his father (St Mary's, Sebergham) was regarded by Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘one of the most effective monuments of the 1820s in all England’ (Pevsner, Cumberland, 36). It reflects the strong influence of the romantic classicism of Henry Fuseli's painting The Three Witches (1783; Royal Shakespeare Museum, Stratford upon Avon). A more pensive note is struck by Watson's monument to his schoolmaster and mentor, the Revd Robert Monkhouse (Raughton Head parish church).

Watson returned to London in 1829. With characteristic pride, he initially refused to work for anyone, but by 1833 poverty had forced him to approach the leading portrait sculptor of the period, Sir Francis Chantrey. Shortly afterwards he received an offer from Chantrey's main rival, Sir Richard Westmacott, and for a while evidently put in sixteen-hour working days assisting them both. Although Chantrey admired Watson's abilities as a modeller, he refused to raise his wages. Watson angrily handed in his notice, but in the process he earned the respect of Allan Cunningham, Chantrey's chief assistant. Watson subsequently assisted the sculptors William Behnes and Edward Hodges Baily, and for two years worked as a modeller in terracotta at the Lambeth factory of William Croggan.

Although Watson first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1829, it was several years before his work became known to a wide public. Lack of encouragement—and of private means—often meant that his sculpture did not progress beyond the plaster model stage. Two such examples are a wittily realistic statuette of the inebriated Jolly (or Crutched) Friars and the more lyrical and elegant relief Sleep Bearing off the Body of Sarpedon (1844) (both Carlisle Museum and Art Gallery). Watson's belated breakthrough came in 1842 with his frieze for the Royal Exchange building, Threadneedle Street, City of London (later relocated to Napier Street, Islington). This work successfully fused classical traditionalism with contemporary references to commerce and was admired by the architect C. R. Cockerell.

Following Chantrey's sudden death in 1841, Cunningham helped to secure Watson the commission for the colossal seated marble group of the brothers Lord Eldon and Lord Stowell (1842–54; University College, Oxford). Unfinished at the time of Watson's death, the statue was completed by George Nelson and this perhaps explains Pevsner's terse verdict: ‘very cold’ (Pevsner, Oxfordshire, 212). Watson's most prominently located work was also posthumously completed, the bronze Battle of St Vincent, for the Nelson memorial in Trafalgar Square, London (1850). One of four reliefs, it reveals Watson's emergence from dependence on Flaxman's neo-classicism into a more robust realism. In this respect it anticipates the work of the leading mid-Victorian sculptor John Henry Foley. At the time of his death, Watson had almost finished a seated marble sculpture of Flaxman (1843–7; University College, London), foregoing proper payment for the work, generosity that he could ill afford.

Watson died of tuberculosis and heart failure at his home, 13 Upper Gloucester Place, Marylebone, Middlesex, on 28 October 1847 and was buried in Highgate cemetery. He was unmarried, but there is some evidence that he lived with a woman possibly called Helen, a publican's daughter, as his common-law wife, and that they had a child (Lonsdale, 38, 51–2, 89–90). Physically he was slightly built and his delicate constitution was strained by overwork in the damp and draughty conditions of a sculptor's studio. He also suffered from what may today be diagnosed as bulimia nervosa and depression. In a mood of self-criticism shortly before his death, he destroyed many of his studio models despite the protests of friends. As with many artists, critical recognition and major commissions came too late for Watson to appreciate them. Echoing Watson's contemporaries, Rupert Gunnis believed that ‘had he lived he would assuredly have been one of the greater sculptors of the nineteenth century’ (Gunnis, 415). The sensitively written and well-documented biography by Watson's fellow Cumbrian, Henry Lonsdale, The Life and Works of Musgrave Lewthwaite Watson, Sculptor (1866), rescued him from obscurity and helped to establish his art-historical status.

Mark Stocker

Sources  

H. Lonsdale, The life and works of Musgrave Lewthwaite Watson, sculptor (1866) · B. Read, Victorian sculpture (1982) · R. Gunnis, Dictionary of British sculptors, 1660–1851 (1953); new edn (1968) · Cumberland and Westmorland, Pevsner (1967) · M. Stocker, ‘Watson, Musgrave Lewthwaite’, The dictionary of art, ed. J. Turner (1996) · DNB · J. Darke, The monument guide to England and Wales (1991) · Art Union, 10 (1848), 27 · Oxfordshire, Pevsner (1974) · S. C. Hutchison, ‘The Royal Academy Schools, 1768–1830’, Walpole Society, 38 (1960–62), 123–91, esp. 177–8

Likenesses  

G. Nelson, marble relief effigy on monument, c.1850–1855, Carlisle Cathedral; repro. in Lonsdale, The life and works of Musgrave Lewthwaite Watson, frontispiece