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Wilton, Joseph (1722–1803), sculptor, was born in Hedge Lane, Charing Cross, London, on 16 July 1722, son of William Wilton (d. 1768), a successful ornamental plasterer, and his wife, Elizabeth. His father had a large papier mâché workshop in Edwardes Street, Cavendish Square. Wilton was educated at boarding-school in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, and was originally intended to be a civil engineer but chose instead to become a sculptor. Accordingly, his father sent him to study with Laurent Delvaux in Nivelle where he remained until December 1744. He then went to Paris to study with Jean-Baptiste Pigalle at the French Académie de Peinture et Sculpture, where he distinguished himself by winning a silver medal. While in Paris he was arrested as a Jacobite in 1746; little else is known of this episode.

Wilton left France in October 1747. By the end of that year he was in Rome, where perhaps through links with resident French sculptors such as Augustin Pajou, he embarked upon a lucrative career in the trade of casts and copies of antique statuary. The English and Irish grand tourists were Wilton's primary market. His father acted as a landing agent for the sculptures in England on at least one occasion. Wilton won a first-class gold medal for his Cain Killing Abel from the Accademia di San Luca at Pope Benedict XIV's silver jubilee in 1750. He lived in the Palazzo Zuccari in the strada Felice with Matthew Brettingham the younger, Thomas Patch, and Simon Vierpyl, fellow artists at that time in the casts and copies trade. In 1751 he moved to Florence where he lived in Horace Mann's guest house. He was ‘puffed’ by Mann to several potential patrons and he guided them and others, including the young Robert Adam, through the great collections; Adam also recorded skating with Wilton on the River Arno. He was elected to the Florentine Accademia del Disegno on 9 January 1752. Among the works Wilton executed in Italy were copies of the Venus de' Medici for Lord Rockingham and Lord Charlemont; a Bacchus ‘of his own invention’ (Walpole, Corr., 20.397–8) and a Flora for Lord Tynley; a bust of Homer; a bust of Dr Cocchi for Lord Huntingdon (1755; V&A), a bronze copy of which adorns Cocchi's tomb in Santa Croce, Florence; and a bust of Oliver Cromwell from the death mask preserved in the Uffizi. William Lock of Norbury Park and Charles Lennox, third duke of Richmond, were also significant early patrons.

Wilton left Italy for England in May 1755, although Joshua Reynolds had urged him to return as early as 1753 ‘to begin a Reputation in London’ (RA, Wilton MS 785.B). Wilton returned in the company of William Chambers, Giovanni Battista Cipriani, and G. B. Capezzoli, perhaps at the promise of work from the duke of Richmond. In 1758 the duke opened his academy of plaster casts and copies after the antique in his house in Privy Gardens, Whitehall. Wilton procured most of the casts and copies (his marble copy of the Apollo Belvedere is now in a priv. coll.) and he and Cipriani served as directors. Among Wilton's early English works are the grand chimney-piece for the duke of Northumberland's Raphael gallery (1756; V&A) and several statues of the Muses for the gallery of antiquities at Kew for George, prince of Wales (c.1757). Wilton secured his reputation by winning the competition for the monument to Major-General James Wolfe in Westminster Abbey, called for by William Pitt the elder in parliament in November 1759 (unveiled 1773). He was chosen over the far more experienced L. F. Roubiliac, J. M. Rysbrack, Henry Cheere, and Peter Scheemakers, his youthfulness and Englishness fitting well with the patriotic spirit of the time. As the first academically trained English sculptor, Wilton went on to become the most distinguished sculptor of his generation. In 1761 he was appointed sculptor in ordinary to George III and was, in effect, sculptor to the empire, designing major works for various colonial administrations. These included an equestrian statue of George III for New York (1766–70, des. 1776); statues of Pitt the elder for Cork (1764–6), New York (1766–70), and Charles Town (1766–70); a funeral monument to Basil Keith, governor of Jamaica (d. 1777); a bust of George III erected in Montreal (1766; McCord Museum, Montreal) and several elaborate privately commissioned funeral monuments in the British West Indies.

Upon his return from Italy, Wilton opened a workshop and lived at his father's house in Charing Cross. About 1761 he moved to a large workshop in Queen Anne Street East and lived nearby in Great Portland Street. He produced an extensive array of designs: highly individualistic monuments and busts; elaborate figural stock-in-trade compositions, such as the mourning Genius of Death with torch extinguished in the Ottley monuments (1767; cathedral of St John's, Antigua), the Okeover monument (1764; Okeover church, Staffordshire), and the Elibank monument (1762; Aberlady church, East Lothian); and simple bas-relief urns and chimney-pieces. The workshop also supplied marble to other sculptors.

Wilton was friendly with Roubiliac who honoured him with a portrait bust (c.1761; RA) and Wilton may have repaid the compliment with one of Roubiliac although the identification of the latter (NPG) is problematic. By the late 1750s Wilton was often considered the ‘heir apparent’ to the ageing sculptor and at Roubiliac's death in 1762 two of his assistants, Nathaniel Smith and Jonathan Atkins, moved to Wilton's workshop. Wilton also maintained a professional and personal relationship with William Chambers throughout his career. Through him he won the commissions for George III's royal state coach (1760–62; Royal Collection) and the large monuments to the duke of Bedford at Chenies, Buckinghamshire (1765–7), and to the Earl and Countess Mountrath in Westminster Abbey (1766–71), all designed by Chambers. Wilton also designed and supplied numerous chimney-pieces, marble tables, carved heads, and the statues of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America for Somerset House.

Wilton was an early proponent of the neo-classical. His antique-style portrait busts are his most successful works: bare-shouldered or wrapped in a toga, they were highly naturalistic and intimate. Examples include Pitt the elder (1759; Scot. NPG), Lord Chesterfield (BM), Cocchi (1755; V&A), the earl of Huntingdon (c.1750; Gov. Art Coll.), Thomas Hollis (c.1762) and Baron Dartrey (1770s; Yale Center for British Art, New Haven). By contrast, Wilton was often unable to translate successfully the living classicism of his busts into his figural compositions: the Wolfe monument, for instance, is a confused concoction of contemporary narrative and classical allegory although this may have been exacerbated by the competition brief. Less complex designs, such as the monument to Temple West (1759), Admiral Holmes (1761), or to the earl of Bath (1765–7), all in Westminster Abbey, are more satisfying despite the tendency to attenuate the figures. Wilton was harshly criticized for his statue of George III for the Royal Exchange (des.) for its awkward attenuated pose. His best monuments are those to Lady Anne Dawson (1771–4) in the family mausoleum (designed by James Wyatt in 1770) in co. Monaghan for which he was paid £1200 and to Archbishop Tillotson in Sowerby church, near Halifax (c.1790–96; model in Hunt. L.).

Wilton was a member of the Society of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, and the Society of Artists, where he exhibited regularly until 1768. He strongly believed in the education of young artists through drawing after the antique, as his involvement in the duke of Richmond's academy indicates. When the Royal Academy was founded in 1768 Wilton, Chambers, and Reynolds were, in effect, the sculpture–architecture–painting triumvirate of British art: the three men were represented as such in the triple portrait of 1782 by Jean-François Rigaud, now in the National Portrait Gallery [see ]. His unequivocal adherence to the antique ideal and the suspicion that he had risen to a position above his talent resulted in a stinging caricature by Isaac Cruikshank of Wilton as an ass, published in 1794. In 1790 he became keeper of the Royal Academy, maintaining that position until his death. He was one of the most vocal critics of James Barry whose relationship with the academy deteriorated following a number of outspoken attacks on both it and individual members; Wilton was instrumental in Barry's expulsion from the academy in 1799.

Wilton married Frances Lucas on 9 June 1757; they had at least two sons, one of whom was William Joseph (b. 1759), and one daughter, Frances (b. 1758). Wilton was a man of considerable means, having inherited a substantial sum from his father; preferring the life of a gentleman, he left most of the carving to his assistants. In addition to the house in Great Portland Street, J. T. Smith recalled Wilton owning a house in Snaresbrook and living in another in Hammersmith in 1785 (Smith, 2.171). He also owned a villa in Wanstead, Essex. He was noted for his gentlemanly manners and regularly entertained his friends, among whom were Lord Charlemont, William Locke, Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, Chambers, Joseph Baretti, and Richard Wilson. In personal appearance, a contemporary recalled, Wilton was ‘in height about five feet ten inches, portly and well-looking’ (ibid., 181). He dressed fashionably, wearing for many years a heavily powdered bag-wig which he replaced late in life for one with a long tail. On 8–9 June 1786 he sold much of his stock, although he designed some of his finest monuments after this date. On 22 June 1793 he was reported bankrupt yet this seems not to have interfered with his mode of living. Wilton died in his apartments at Somerset House on 25 November 1803 at the age of eighty-one, and was buried in the parish church in Wanstead, Essex. His sons had been educated at university and his daughter married Sir Robert Chambers, who became chief justice of Bengal.

Joan Coutu

Sources  

R. Gunnis, Dictionary of British sculptors, 1660–1851 (1953); new edn (1968) · J. T. Smith, Nollekens and his times, 2nd edn, 2 (1829) · Hunt. L., Katharine Ada Esdaile Collection · J. Ingamells, ed., A dictionary of British and Irish travellers in Italy, 1701–1800 (1997) · J. Coutu, ‘Eighteenth century British monuments and the politics of empire’, PhD diss., UCL, 1993 · J. Coutu, ‘William Chambers and Joseph Wilton’, Sir William Chambers, architect to George III, ed. J. Harris and M. Snodin (1996), 175–85 · Walpole, Corr. · RA, Wilton MSS 785.A–B · GM, 1st ser., 73 (1803), 1099 · ‘Bankrupts: from the Gazette’, Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, 92 (1793), 472 · Graves, Soc. Artists · Somerset House accounts, RIBA BAL, CHA 3/1–3 · E. Hardcastle, ed., Somerset House Gazette and Literary Museum, 1 (1824), 39–40 · E. Edwards, Anecdotes of painters (1808); facs. edn (1970) · NA Scot., Clerk of Penicuik MSS [Robert Adam], CD 18 · Lee papers, Yale U., Osborn MS 52, box 3 · M. Whinney, Sculpture in Britain, 1530 to 1830, rev. J. Physick, 2nd edn (1988)

Archives  

RA, Wilton MSS, 785.A–B |  NA Scot., Clerk of Penicuik MSS, CD 18 [Robert Adam] · TNA: PRO, Horace Mann MSS, SP 105 · V&A, department of prints and drawings · W. Sussex RO, Goodwood estate archives · Yale U., Beinecke L., Osborn MS 52, box 3


Likenesses  

J. Reynolds, oils, 1752, NPG · F. Hayman, oils, c.1760, priv. coll. · L. F. Roubiliac, terracotta bust, 1760, RA · L. F. Roubiliac, marble bust, 1761, RA · J. H. Mortimer, group portrait, c.1766, Yale U. CBA · C. Grignion, chalk drawing, c.1773, NPG · attrib. J. H. Mortimer, oils, c.1778, RA · J. F. Rigaud, group portrait, oils, c.1782 (Joshua Reynolds, William Chambers and Joseph Wilton), NPG · J. Cawse, pen-and-ink caricature, 1793, BM · G. Dance, pen-and-ink drawing, 1793, RA · I. Cruikshank, caricature, 1794, Yale U., Farmington, Lewis Walpole Library · J. Cawse, ink caricature, 1799, BM · J. Zoffany, group portrait, oils (Royal Academicians, 1772), Royal Collection