The sculptor with a heart of stone
Typically, misers live a life of solitude and obscurity, and their wealth is revealed after their passing. However, Joseph Nollekens, considered to be the best British sculptor of the late-18th century, had many friends and was well known for his large fortune. Yet, his life was no better than that of a pauper.
Born in Soho, London, in 1737, he first studied under a Flemish immigrant and sculptor, Peter Scheemaers, before going on to work as an antiques dealer, restorer and copier in Rome from 1760 or 1762. Some of his sculptures made in Rome include a marble of Timocles before Alexander, for which he was awarded fifty guineas by the Society of Arts, and busts of Laurence Sterne and David Garrick, who were visiting the city.
He added to his income by smuggling stockings, gloves and lace inside the hollow busts that he used to sculpt. He had a ragged appearance, and his table manners were just appalling.
On his return to London in 1770, he established a large practice. Eventually, he rose to be widely regarded as the finest sculptor at that time. Although he preferred mythological subjects, he became famously known for his work on portrait busts, including busts of George III, William Pitt, Dr Johnson, Charles James Fox, the Duke of Bedford, Charles Watson-Wentworth and even figures from the arts such as Benjamin west.
However his austerity that extended into his professional life as well. Nollekens would intentionally model a bust with the head looking over the shoulder, so that he could use pieces of marble rejected by other sculptors as too small.
His miserliness was unparalleled. At home, he would sit in the dark. Whenever guests visited him, he would make them ‘comfortable’ by lighting a small fire-only to quickly put it out when they left.
That’s not all. When dining at the Royal Academy, where he was an associate and a full academician, he would snuff his pockets with pepper and salt from the table…and he would borrow pinches of snuff, saying that he had left his snuff box in another coat.
And by the way, Mrs Nollekens was no better than her spouse. She was just as stingy. She kept her servants on low pay and haggled with tradesmen over the most trivial and basic items. Once she traded the handle of a worn out mop while purchasing a new one.
Joseph Nollekens died in 1823, leaving behind a fortune of £200,000. (now worth over 27 million dollars!)