Nollekens was born on 11 August 1737 at 28, Dean Street, Soho, London, the son of a painter of the same name. He studied first under Peter Scheemakers before studying and working as an antiques dealer, restorer and copier in Rome from 1760 or 1762. The sculptures he made in Rome included a marble of Timocles Before Alexander, for he was awarded fifty guineas by the Society of Arts, and busts of Laurence Sterne and David Garrick, who were visiting the city.
On his return to London in 1770 he set up as a maker of busts and monuments at 9, Mortimer Street, where he built up a large practice. Although he preferred working on mythological subjects, it was his portrait busts for which he became famous, making him one of the most fashionable portrait sculptors in Britain.
He enjoyed the patronage of king George III and went on to sculpt a number of British political figures, including George III himself, William Pitt the Younger, Charles James Fox, the Duke of Bedford and Charles Watson-Wentworth. He also made busts of figures from the arts such as Benjamin West. Most of his subjects were represented in classical costume.
Although he took great care over the modelling of the details of his sculptures, the marble versions were normally made by assistants, such as Sebastian Gahagan who carved Nollekens' statue of William Pitt for the Senate House at Cambridge, and L. Alexander Goblet. Some subjects were produced in large numbers: more than 70 replicas of Nollekens' bust of Pitt are known.
Nollekens became an associate of the Royal Academy in 1771 and a full academician the following year.
He died in London in 1823, having made a considerable fortune from his work; he left around £200,000 in his will. A biography Nollekens and his Times by his executor John Thomas Smith was published in 1828, portraying him as a grotesque miser. It has been described as "perhaps the most candid biography ever published in the English language".
- Sidney Lee, ed. (1895). "Nollekens, Joseph (1737-1823)". Dictionary of National Biography 41. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 97–99.
- Smith, J.T. (1920). "Chronology". In Whitten, Wilfred. Nollekens and his Times. London: John Lane. p. xii.
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Nollekens, Joseph". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Kenworth-Browne, J. (7 June 1979). "Establishing a reputation: Joseph Nollekens the years in Rome". Country Life: 1847.
- G.G.Cunningham, ed. (1837). Eminent Englishmen: Volume VII, Part II. A. Fullarton.
- Whinney 1971, p. 113.
- "Sebastian Gagahan". A Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain, 1660-1851. Henry Moore Institute/Paul Mellon Centre. Retrieved 6 February 2012.
- Whinney 1971, p. 155.
- Scherf, Guilhem (2007). "Sculptured Portraits 1770–1830: Real Presences". Kings and Citizens (Exhibition Catalogue). Royal Academy. ISBN 973-1-903973-23-6 Check
- John Thomas Smith. Nollekens and his Times: Comprehending a life of that celebrated sculptor; and memoirs of several contemporary artists, from the time of Roubiliac, Hogarth, and Reynolds, to that of Fuseli, Flaxman, and Blake, vol. 1 of 2, (2nd ed.), London: Henry Colburn, 1829.
- Graves, Robert Edmund (1896). "Smith, John Thomas (1766-1833)". In Sidney Lee. Dictionary of National Biography 48. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
- Whinney, Margaret (1971). English Sculpture 1720–1830 (Victoria and Albert Museum Monograph). London: HMSO. ISBN 112900836 Check
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