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Extra-illustrated Life of Nollekens

Call Number: MSS 10

Scope and Contents

This collection comprises an extra-illustrated copy of the second edition of Nollekens and His Times, comprehending a life of that celebrated sculptor: and memoirs of several contemporary artists, from the time of Roubillac, Hogarth, and Reynolds, to that of Fuseli, Flaxman, and Blake (London, Henry Colburn, 1829). It includes two volumes, extra-illustrated with numerous letters, sketches and prints. All sheets are unbound.

The present extra-illustrated copy was compiled by the celebrated antiquary and autograph collector William Upcott (1779-1845). Upcott selected a large number of items which have a direct relevance to the work, many of them clearly having come from the collection of John Thomas Smith himself. For example, there are 26 letters to Nollekens (many on the subject of his busts), four letters by Nollekens, and three sketches by Nollekens of church monuments. In addition, there are over 50 letters to and from Smith, a number concerned with his publication or Nollekens' will, and many others dealing with paintings, prints, and contemporary scultpors and artists.

When the present copy was originally compiled, there was also an additional Blake interest in the extra material. As the son of Ozias Humphry, Upcott had possession of Blake's letters to Humphry. When the present work was offered in Upcott's sale in 1846, it seems to have been in much the condition it is now: "unbound ... most profusely illustrated with views, portraits and autograph letters ... so as to increase it to 4 vols." It then passed into the collection of Joseph Mayer of Liverpool, and was sold again at his sale in 1887, by this time "enlarged into 9 vols ... loose in boards ... and extra illustrated with about 200 autograph letters and over 450 fine portraits." At that stage it is said to have included four letters from Blake to Humphry--letters which cannot be accounted for by the three Blake-Humphry letters printed by Keynes in his edition of the collected letters, nos. 108-109 (they all seem to have a separate provenance dating from before 1887, so could not have been in the Mayer sale that year). These Blake letters have since been removed, and their present whereabouts is unknown.

There remain a number of interesting manuscript letters in the collection, including: a letter from Lord Bristol to his agent Alexander Day; a letter from Nollekens' future sister-in-law Anne Welch, about art collecting in Italy; a letter from James Forrester to Nollekens, about British painters in Italy; as well as examples of letters from artists such as Fuseli, Westmacott, Anne Damer, May Anne Flaxman, Sir William Beechey, Abraham Pether, and others. The collection also features letters from collectors, patrons, and anecdotists such as Malesworth Phillips, Richard Gregory of Colle, Charles Townley, William Seward, and Laetitia Matilda Hawkins.

A small group of additional autograph letters, mainly to Smith and concerning the biography, is found at the end of the collection. These were perhaps intended to be distributed at appropriate places in the volumes at a later date.

In addition to the autograph letters, the work has been extra-illustrated with approximately 300 engravings of people, places and works of art mentioned in the text, including portraits of many artists (Nollekens, Blake, Fuseli, Canova, Northcote, Flaxman, Barry, Rembrandt, Richard Wilson, and Paul Sandby, among others), writers and politicians. Also represented are prints of a number of busts and monuments designed by Nollekens and his contemporaries. About two-thirds or the engravings were separately published prints (some trimmed to the margins) while the remainder are extracted from publications (including eight by or after William Blake). There is also a series of unmounted prints at the end, presumably--like the unmounted letters--intended to be inserted in the text volumes when finally bound.

Almost every manuscript and extra illustration has been annotated with a small note in graphite, indicating its appropriate place in the printed work.


  • 1708-1875
  • Majority of material found within 1768 - 1836


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The collection is the physical property of the Yale Center for British Art. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Paul Mellon Fund, June 2006.


Item numbers (e.g. 1-179) refer to the volume and page numbers of the printed work, next to which the extra-illustrated material is placed. Item numbers beginning '3' were not interfiled in the two-volume work.


2 Linear Feet (6 boxes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


This collection comprises an extra-illustrated copy--with many engravings and original manuscript letters--of the second edition of John Thomas Smith's Nollekens and his times, comprehending a life of that celebrated sculptor: and memoirs of several contemporary artists, from the time of Roubillac, Hogarth, and Reynolds, to that of Fuseli, Flaxman, and Blake (London : Henry Colburn, 1829).

Biographical / Historical

As one of the leading sculptors of his day, Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823) was responsible for immortalizing many notable contemporary figures, from Laurence Sterne and Samuel Johnson to George III and Charles James Fox. Apart from the flow of individual commissions, Nollekens also produced a line of stock busts of such figures as Wellington and Pitt. With the additional activity of sculpting church monuments--perhaps the most famous being the monument to the Three Captains in Westminster Abbey--his artistic success led Nollekens to amass a vast fortune, estimated to be £200,000 on his death.

Nollekens left a will that was eagerly awaited by a number of interested parties. It turned out to be a complex document full of codicils and different bequests. One of the people with severely dashed expectations was his future biographer, John Thomas Smith (1766-1833). By profession a topographical draughtsman and antiquary, Smith had been appointed in 1816 to succeed William Alexander as Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. Smith had grown up almost as one of Nollekens' family, and had anticipated a generous sum from his friend; however, although he was co-executor with Francis Douce and Sir William Beechey, his bequest turned out to be a mere £100 (compared with Douce’s estimated £50,000). He immediately set to work to compile a discursive biography, Nollekens and His Times (first edition 1828; reprinted 1829), which quickly came to be considered as "perhaps the most candid biography ever published in the English language" (DNB).

Apart from dealing with the central figure of Nollekens, Smith widened the scope of the biography to give an overall view of numerous other artists of the period. Foremost among these was William Blake, who received by far the largest treatment. For this reason, the work has always been highly valued, as Smith's was one of the few first-hand accounts of Blake to be published.

Guide to the Extra-illustrated Life of Nollekens
compiled by Laurelin Kruse, edited by Francis Lapka
June, 2011
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Yale Center for British Art, Rare Books and Manuscripts Repository

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