Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bacon, John (1740-1799)
BACON, JOHN, R.A. (1740–1799), sculptor, was born in Southwark, 24 Nov. 1740. He was the son of a cloth worker of that place, and the descendant of an old Somersetshire family. At the age of fourteen Bacon was apprenticed to a Mr. Crispe, of whom there is but little known except the fact that the young artist modelled groups of figures for him, and was employed in painting upon his plates and dishes. After two years of this service Bacon was able to make all the models required for Crispe's factory. His term of apprenticeship expired in 1762. The accounts of his later connection with Coades's artificial stone works are vague. 'By his art,' says Redgrave, 'he was the means of restoring Coades's manufacture, then falling into disuse.' Anyhow, in 1762 and afterwards, we find him at work in this 'lithodipra' factory, and may believe the repeated assurances that he did much to improve the invention, and stood high in favour with his employers. 'Groups and statues as large as life, coats of arms, sculptured key-stones, wreaths of flowers, and all that species of work known by the general name of ornamental, were here modelled and burnt.' Whilst still an apprentice Bacon gained (1758) a premium from the Society of Arts for a small figure of Peace. Nine times altogether he secured the award of this society, obtaining on one occasion fifty guineas for an emblematic figure of 'Ocean.' On the foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768 Bacon entered as a student, and removed at the same time from the city to a lodging in Wardour Street. A colossal head of Ossian was the first of his works to attract attention. In 1769 he received from the hand of Reynolds the first gold medal for sculpture awarded by the Royal Academy. His subject was a bas-relief representing 'Æneas escaping from Troy.' He further increased his reputation by a statue of Mars. This work obtained for its artist the gold medal of the Society of Arts, and his election (in 1770) as an associate of the Royal Academy. It attracted the attention also of the Archbishop of York, and so led to a commission for a bust of the king for the hall of Christ Church, Oxford. From that time Bacon's career was one of unbroken prosperity. He was successful in fifteen out of the sixteen public competitions in which he took a part. Amongst his works may be mentioned the monuments to Pitt in the Guildhall and in Westminster Abbey; to Dr. Johnson, and to Howard, the philanthropist, in St. Paul's; to Blackstone at All Souls College, Oxford; the bronze statue of George III, and the two groups and colossal figure of the 'Thames' in Somerset House; and the monument to Mrs. Draper (Sterne's Eliza) in Bristol Cathedral. Bacon wrote the article 'Sculpture' for Rees's 'Cyclopædia.'
Bacon was, to a great extent, a self-taught man. It was said that he had no knowledge of the antique, or power of producing work of a classic character. But this charge he was able to refute by a sculpture which his brother artists mistook for a genuine fragment of antique skill. It was true, however, that his natural bent was not towards classic art. He had no imagination, and little fire of genius; but he had good sense and a quickened commercial instinct, which led to a just apprehension of what was wanted to be done. These qualities, with a delicacy of handling which he owed perhaps to his early employment in the potteries, gave to his works, according to the ideas of his time, a certain quality of simplicity and good taste.
Bacon died in the prime of life from inflammation of the bowels, at his house in Newman Street, on 4 Aug. 1799. He was buried in Whitfield's Tabernacle. His grave bore the following epitaph, written by himself:— 'What I was as an artist seemed of some importance while I lived; but what I really was as a believer in Jesus Christ is the only thing of importance to me now.' He was twice married: (1) to a Miss Wade in 1773, who died in 1776: and (2) with undue haste, as his enemies represented it, to Martha Holland, immediately on the death of his first wife. He left 60,000l. to be divided among his five children.
Bacon was agreeable in person, suave in manner, and a methodist of high doctrine and blameless life. His biographer, Cecil, a humble admirer, considers him to have exhibited in all essentials a pattern of excellence. Allan Cunningham's more disparaging view was considered by Bacon's relations to have been coloured by personal prejudice.[Cunninghain's Lives of the Painters; Memoir by Robert Cecil, M.A.; Jewitt's History of the Ceramic Art in Great Britain; Chaffers's Marks and Monograms on Pottery and Porcelain; Redgrave's Dictionary of English Artists; Nollekens's Life and Times.]