Nollekens and His Times/Volume 2/Locatelli


John Baptist Locatelli was a native of Verona, and when he came to England first lodged at No. 9, in the Hay-market, with the father of Charles Rossi, Esq. now an Academician. His next residence was in Bentinck-street, Berwick-street; and his last in England was in Union-street, at the back of Middlesex Hospital, which had been, before the year 1776, the time he entered the premises, occupied by another Italian Sculptor of the name of Angelini; and there it was that the friendly Rossi was placed under Locatelli's roof, as his pupil; but from whom, I can safely say, Rossi acquired no part of his present excellence as a Sculptor. Angelini was an artist of superior talent. He carved a group of the Virgin and Child, in marble, as large as life, and of which he unfortunately could find no better mode of disposing than by lottery. He also carved for Nollekens, and was often, to the no little mortification of his employer, mistaken by strangers as the master of the studio, not only from his superior manners, but by his dashing mode of dressing in a fashionable coat and red morocco slippers. Locatelli became an object of some notoriety, by a dispute which arose between him and his kind patron, the Earl of Orford, against whom the Sculptor was so highly enraged, that he extensively distributed an octavo pamphlet consisting of one hundred and twenty-five pages, in Italian and English, entitled, "A Dissertation of a Colossal group of John Baptist Locatelli." By this little work, which is written in some parts with the spleen and acrimony of a disappointed man, and which was printed without date, it appears that in the year 1782, the Earl of Orford bespoke a colossal group of this Sculptor, without asking what it was to come to. When the subject was named, his Lordship approved of it; but when the model was produced, he refused to take it, although he had advanced the artist 350l. on account. The design was Theseus offering assistance to Hercules.

It also appears by this narrative, that a committee of about fifteen gentlemen, among whom were Sir James Wright, Mr. Locke, Mr. Sheldon the Anatomist, (as some of the limbs were stated to have been broken, and others out of joints,) Mr. West, Mr. Cipriani, Mr. Fuseli, and Mr. Procter the Sculptor, had agreed to give their opinions upon it. Fuseli and Procter were rather severe with the Artist, particularly the latter, who certainly had produced some models of Ixion, &c. which were highly spoken of. Locatelli declared in his pamphlet, by way of setting himself off, that he had been much noticed by the English when at Verona and Venice, and that, during his residence at Milan, he was employed by Count Firmin, Mr. Tilot, and Cardinal Crescenzi, and that he had executed upwards of seventy statues and groups for the brothers Battoni, &c.

So much may be gathered from this pamphlet; but as there are always two stories, at least, to be told in every dispute, the reader is requested to put that of Lord Orford into the other scale of evidence.

His Lordship, who had been extremely kind to Locatelli when abroad, by purchasing several of his models from the antique, the size of life, at one hundred guineas each, a much better price than he had before been accustomed to receive,—particularly noticed the Artist when he arrived in England. Finding that he was unemployed, he ordered him to model the above subject, as suggested by Locatelli, never asking the price; but concluding in his own mind that the sum would be proportionally more from being modelled in England, being a much dearer country to live in than Italy. Locatelli had, by degrees, obtained money from his patron, amounting altogether to the sum of 350l. when his Lordship visited his Artist's studio to see what he was about, and to his great surprise, he found the group was colossal, and, in his opinion, very bad. A dispute then arose, and his Lordship, notwithstanding the majority of the committee had given it against Locatelli, generously paid him a farther sum, and sent the model to Houghton; where it was destroyed, when that mansion unfortunately suffered by fire.

Nollekens's remarks upon this group of Theseus and Hercules, were sometimes laughable enough: he said, "The figures look like the dry skins of two brick-makers stuffed with clotted flocks from an old mattress;" and at other times he observed, "I think Locatelli must have studied Goltzius's Hercules;" a figure well known to the collectors of engravings under the appellation of the potatoe-man, in consequence of his muscles appearing more like that root, than any thing produced either above or below the earth. Mr. Smith, the Sculptor, who designed and executed the cenotaph, erected by the munificent Citizens of London, to the memory of Lord Nelson, in their Guildhall, was the pupil of this artist; and his son, Charles, a highly-talented Sculptor, has, in his studio in the New Road, some fragments of Locatelli's models, which exhibit very little merit, particularly the portions of a small one of Lord Orford's group, above mentioned.

Robert Adam, the Architect, who occasionally gave Locatelli commissions, among other things employed him to execute a chimneypiece for Harewood House in Yorkshire.

In August 1780, Mr. Nollekens was advised to go to Harrowgate for the benefit of his health; in consequence of which, Mr. Rossi informs me, he carved, under the direction of his master, Locatelli, the basso-relievos, put up by Nollekens, on the outside of the Sessions-house on Clerkenwell Green.

Locatelli, in 1796, left England for Milan, where Buonaparte not only patronized him, but granted him a pension for life. Of his death, Mr. Rossi, my principal informant, is at present ignorant.