The Civic Society column with David Winpenny
Perhaps the most remarkable monument in Ripon Cathedral is to be found against the south wall of the south transept, adjacent to the staircase up to the library.
It is in memory of William Weddell of Newby Hall, who died on 30 April 1792; the text on the monument describes it as ‘a faint Emblem of his refined Taste.’
The form of the memorial is pure Greek; it is a version of a monument that still stands in the Agora – the marketplace – of ancient Athens and is known as ‘the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates’. It dates from 334BC and was put up by Lysicrates to commemorate his role as sponsor – choregos – of the winning troupe of performers in a dance-drama competition.
Lysicrates’ monument was well known to cultured 18th century gentlemen like William Weddell from the illustrations in a seminal book, ‘The Antiquities of Athens’, published in 1762 by a Scot, James Stuart, and his colleague Nicholas Revett.
The Choragic Monument may have been in the mind of Weddell’s wife, who had his memorial in the cathedral put up, because her husband had recently used the design to build a greenhouse.
The replica of the Athens monument frames a portrait bust of William Weddell. It stands on a plinth copied from an original antique one that was bought by Weddell from the artist Piranese and is still in the sculpture gallery at Newby Hall. The bust itself is by the most famous of 18th-century English sculptors, Joseph Nollekens.
Nollekens came from a family originally from the Low Countries – his father and grandfather were both born in Antwerp, but Joseph was born in London.
He learned to draw well at an early age, and was then apprenticed to another Antwerp-born man, the famous sculptor Peter Scheemakers (the golden statute of King William III in Hull is his work).
Joseph Nollekens was described as ‘a civil, inoffensive lad, not particularly bright’; he seems to have spent more of his youth bellringing than learning to sculpt.
Nevertheless, his ability was such that he won prizes for his work from the Society of Arts. With the most lucrative of these he was able to travel to Italy; he arrived there on his 25th birthday.
In Rome he was taken on by the sculptor Cavaceppi, working on restorations and copies of antique statues.
This was the great age of the Grand Tour, when travellers from Northern Euporie were very keen to get their hands on genuine antique sculptures. There were many sculptors ready to supply them, not always with authenticated works.
Nollekens came into contact with the somewhat-shady dealer Thomas Jenkins. It was through Jenkins that the Barberini Venus (or the Jenkins Venus) was sold to William Weddell in 1765; the price was reputedly the highest ever paid for an antiquity in the eighteenth century.
It stood in the Sculpture Gallery at Newby Hall until it was sold in 2002 for £7.9 million; there is a laser-made copy now in its place in the Gallery. It is said that Nollekens was responsible for supplying a new head from another old sculpture in place of the missing original.
Nollekens’ reputation was increased in England by a chance meeting in Rome with the actor David Garrick, who recognised him. Garrick said, ‘Are you the little fellow to whom we gave the prize at the Society of Arts?’ and invited Nollekens to make a bust of him.
He was paid 12 guineas.
In 1770 Nollekens set off back home, where he set up a studio. By 1771 he had been made an associate of the Royal Academy, and was a full RA the following year.
He married in 1774; his wife was of a higher social status, and rather looked down on him – his manners were rough and his spelling rougher. In addition, she was tall and willowy, he short and stumpy.
They were matched, though, in their parsimony; rather than buy meat to feed their dog, she would take it round the market to gobble up scraps from the butchers’ stalls. He would take home food discarded after dinners at the Royal Academy.
This meanness probably accounts, at least in part, for the huge fortune of £200,000 Nollekens left at his death.
Despite these unattractive traits, he was rapidly becoming the man to go to for portrait busts and funerary monuments. Among his most important clients was the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, who was one of William Weddell’s mentors (Weddell married the Marquess’s half-sister).
For his home at Wentworth Woodhouse, Rockingham commissioned four sculptures – of Venus, Minerva, Juno and Diana. On meeting Mrs Nollekens for the first time, the Marquess said, ‘I now see from where you get your model for Venus, Nollekens’ – though that was probably just aristocratic humour. In later life Mrs Nollekens put on much weight and could barely move without help.
When the Marquess of Rockingham died in 1782, Nollekens was commissioned by the heir, the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, to sculpt one of his finest work, the life-size statue of Rockingham now in the Rockingham Mausoleum at Wentworth Woodhouse. At Wentworth, too, is a series of portrait busts by Nollekens, including his most famous, of Charles James Fox; there are more than 30 copies known to exist.
The original, meant for Wentworth, was appropriated by Catherine the Great of Russia, a Fox admirer.
As well as the Weddell monument in Ripon, Nollekens was also responsible for more than 100 other memorials, including the monument to Bishop Trevor in the chapel at Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland, and another to three naval heroes in Westminster Abbey.
After Nollekens’ death in 1823 one of his pupils, John Thomas Smith, published ‘an entertaining and venomous’ biography of his master, emphasising his devious ways and retailing malicious gossip about him; this was Smith’s revenge for having been almost overlooked in Nollekens’ will.
But Nollekens’ best legacy is the many brilliant sculptures he left – including that of Weddell in his Greek temple in Ripon Cathedral.