Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

'That Ingenious Artist, Mr Percy': The Wax Tableaux of Samuel Percy

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

'That Ingenious Artist, Mr Percy': The Wax Tableaux of Samuel Percy

Article excerpt

Samuel Percy (c. 1753-1819) was the son of a sculptor and always saw himself as a sculptor, albeit one who had opted to work in coloured wax. He grew up in Dublin, a city that had no established community of wax modellers, but it is likely that he developed his skill at modelling while growing up in the environs of John Van Nost III's sculpture yard, for he became an extremely competent portrait artist, and it is mainly for his likenesses that he is known today.1 In a letter to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, written in 1802, Percy claimed to have executed nearly 2000 portraits, exclusive of his tableaux figures.2 By the time he was in his early thirties, he had begun to develop a different genre, creating the wax tableaux of figures that are the subject of this article. The article provides the opportunity publish new information about his life extrapolated from his advertisements, which contributes significantly to what little is known about him. The appendix, an inventory of known tableaux compiled by the author, brings together those works that have been overlooked.

The pace of change in Britain during the Industrial Revolution was such that it seemed to carry all before it, but it was not just industry that was affected; in this time of prosperity the arts prospered too. Sculptors and painters benefited from the fact that beyond the aristocracy a rising middle class of successful men and their families had money to spend on adorning themselves and their houses. It is perhaps not surprising that the later years of the eighteenth century have become synonymous with a golden age of portraiture. Towns and cities felt a new civic pride and commissioned elegant public buildings and public sculpture. Dublin was among them, and in the late 1740s John Van Nost III was invited to Dublin from London to decorate its public spaces.3 Nost in turn seems to have brought Samuel Percy's father to Dublin to assist him, as Samuel explained to Sir Joseph Banks: 'my Father was taken to Ireland near Sixty years since to Execute all the Public Metal Statues of that Kingdom for John Van Nost as a Modeller'.4

No records have been found relating to Samuel's birth in Dublin, but when he was buried in Chelsea in November 1819 his age was recorded as 66, which would mean that he was born in 1753.5 The only formal training he is known to have received was in the Dublin Society's Drawing Schools, having been admitted to the Ornamental Drawing School in May 1770 and the School for Figure Drawing in December 1772.6 The next phase of his life was spent in perfecting his 'likenesses', which he did by travelling round Ireland, returning from the country to Dublin from time to time. His return to Dublin in January 1777, for example, was heralded with the news that:

PERCY, being returned to this City for a short Time, will take Likenesses, Miniature, either Profile or full Length, or as large as Life; will repair such as have met with Accidents, or alter the Dress to the present Mode, is much improved, having had four years Practice, is now capable to vie with any. Specimens may be seen at No. 19, Grafton-street, the Corner of Dukestreet. - N.B. Statues antique, modern, or Fancy done in Lead, matched or mended; in short, any Thing in the Statuary Business.7

Then in January 1781 he announced:

TO THE CURIOUS. MR PERCY is now in Town and will take likenesses in coloured Wax at one Guinea and Half (for one Month only); his pictures are executed on a much smaller Scale than any hitherto practised and protected from Accidents in a Manner quite new - Dead Wax Likenesses, done Bracelet Size, after the Manner of the Roman Coins, at only one Guinea each, are quite the Stile in France and Italy. As he will shortly leave this Kingdom, will for the short Time he has to stay, repair India Figures, being the only Person who knows their Texture. To be seen at No. 24 Dame-street.8

Percy leftDublin for Liverpool later that year, and after spending some time in Liverpool and visiting other northern and Midland towns, he reached London in 1784, announcing his arrival in the way he always did - in the newspapers:


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