Behnes, William (DNB00)

BEHNES, WILLIAM (d. 1864), sculptor, the date of whose birth is unknown, was the son of a Hanoverian piano manufacturer, who married an English wife and settled in London. William Behnes, the eldest of three sons, learned the mystery of piano-making. His taste, however, was all for drawing. The family being for a time settled in Dublin, he there entered a public drawing-school, and distinguished himself by the accuracy and finish of his studies. Returning to London he continued to make pianos, yet still pursued his art as best he might. At this early date he is said to have drawn portraits very beautifully upon vellum. Fortune determined him towards sculpture. He gained, with his brother Henry, some 'casual instruction in modelling' from a Frenchman who was their fellow-lodger, and in 1819 we find him exhibiting portraits as well in clay as in oil colour. At this time he was a student of the Royal Academy, 'and in practice of a highly remunerative kind as a portrait draughtsman.' He now took finally to sculpture, removed to No. 31 Newman Street, and was soon fully employed. Between 1820 and 1840 his reputation was at its highest, and he executed some important public works. High in repute, and excellent indeed in his art, he yet regretted that he had not made painting his profession rather than sculpture. Probably he was justified in this regret. The drawings from his hand are of the highest excellence. One specimen only is preserved in the British Museum, a delicate and highly finished portrait in chalk of Thomas Frognall Dibdin, the bibliographer; but this is such a drawing as gives at one glance a very high idea of the artist. 'I should like,' he said, 'to paint a picture before I die.' Diligent in early life, he was not found equal to the trial of prosperity. He fell, as commissions multiplied, into unsatisfactory habits. He neglected his pupils and did scant justice to his sitters, and forced his respectable brother (known now to art as Henry Burlowe) to change his name. The confusion of the names of the two brothers in the public mind is also given as a reason for this act of repudiation by the younger Behnes. A valuable biographical and critical account of Behnes is preserved in the memoirs of the sculptor, Henry Weekes, who was pupil successively to him and to Chantrey. Behnes excelled in the modelling of children, and, whenever he attempted it, of female heads, and generally in portrait busts. From 1822 and onwards his exhibited works were of the portrait class. The bust of Clarkson by him is described as especially fine, as well as those of Lord Lyndhurst, D'Israeli, Macready, and others. There is a certain large simplicity, and a character of essential truthfulness which contrasts most favourably both with the vapidity of the older heroic portrait sculpture and with the niggling veracity of that English school of painter-sculptors who followed the fashion of France. Weekes inclines, a little doubtfully, to rank Behnes above Chantrey in point of true genius for art. But Chantrey was a careful as well as a talented man, and rose easily high in his profession. 'By the time that Behnes had come to the same point he was tossing about in a sea of trouble. ... The vivid impulses which served him in his busts hardly helped him in works that required longer and more mature consideration. His statues, with the exception of two, Dr. Babington in St. Paul's Cathedral, and Sir William Follett in Westminster Abbey, are bad. ... His talent, however, still shone forth by fits and starts in lesser efforts his beautiful statuette of Lady Godiva, for instance though they were but the momentary flashes that indicated the expiring flame.' In 1861 Behnes was bankrupt, and at an unknown age he died, picked up from the street, in Middlesex Hospital, 3 Jan. 1864.

[Art Journal, 1864; 'Weekes's Lectures on Art; Redgrave's Dictionary of Artists of the English School.]

E. R.