Mar 142015
 

wax works visitMy ancestor’s diary entry recording a visit to Mrs Wright’s Waxworks in Chidley Court, Pall Mall.

Mrs Wright was an interesting character, and one who played a part in the American War of Independence. She was born into a particularly strict Quaker sect as Patience Lovell, in around 1725, probably on Long Island, New York. She was the fifth of nine daughters born to a farming family, and as a child she and her sisters apparently made model figurines out of clay and dough, which they then coloured and dressed in clothing.

aa Patience_WrightIn her twenties she ran away to Philadelphia and married Joseph Wright in 1748. She said of her husband that he had “nothing but age and money to recommend himself to her” but she bore him five children, one of them born after Joseph died. She then discovered that Joseph had left her (and the fifth child of whom he had no knowledge) virtually nothing in his will. She turned to her sister Rachel Lovell Wells for assistance. This sister had continued her childhood hobby of modelling and showed Patricia how to make life-sized sculptures in wax. These they exhibited in a travelling show, earning commissions to sculpt likenesses along the way. Eventually Patricia had her own permanent exhibition in New York, but a fire in 1771 destroyed most of the exhibits. With the help of her sister she re-stocked and opened in Boston, where she met Jane Mecom, who was the sister of Benjamin Franklin. Jane gave Patricia a letter of introduction to her brother, and Patricia came to England intending to use the connection as an entree into London society so that she could meet and sculpt prominent figures of the Age.

 

Portrait courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

London society flocked to have their likenesses made, including the King and Queen whom she addressed as ‘George’ and ‘Charlotte’ in true egalitarian fashion appropriate to a colonial! Well, she did until the King  withdrew his support for her when she became too strident in her support for the Americans in the War of Independence. But by then she was famous and crowds clamoured to see her models, often full size, because of their uncanny likeness and life-like qualities. Apparently her party piece was to install one of her models in a reception room and then wait for people to realize that they were talking to a dummy!  Walpole welcomed her into his circle of friends, calling her ‘the artistress’

By all accounts she was no great oil painting, with sallow complexion and masculine features, but she soon became famous for her quick wit and coarse language. Not everyone liked her – the outspoken Abigail Adams, who later became the First Lady when her husband John became the second President of the United States (and a woman well known for a choice ‘bon mot’) succinctly  called her “the Queen of sluts.”

A London newspaper of the day reported that “the ingenious Mrs. Wright, whose Skill in taking Likeness, expressing the Passions, and many curious Devices in Wax Work, has deservedly recommended her to public Notice.” Another described her as ‘Promethean’ and another as ‘the American Sybil’ because of her almost magical ability in seeming to catch the soul of the sitter. She made models of royalty, the nobility, scientists and politicians – and on her own admission would secrete plans and overheard gossip about British plans for America and its preparations for war, and put them inside the wax models before shipping them Stateside to her sister.

In 1780 her daughter Phoebe married the English painter John Hoppner, and in the same year her son Joseph Wright (not to be confused with his namesake who chose to be known by the epithet  ‘Joseph Wright of Derby’) had his first picture exhibited at the Royal Academy. It showed his mother, apparently making a wax effigy of the head of Charles 1st immediately prior to his execution, while casting a meaningful glance at portraits of King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte in the background. That didn’t go down too well, and Mrs Wright hurried off to Paris to escape the fuss engendered by the portrait, taking her son in tow. Both made likenesses of Benjamin Franklin and after the war was over Joseph headed back to America to paint the portraits of the new leaders. His mother longed to follow but first of all returned to London in 1782. To her dismay she was no longer in demand, and people dismissed her as mad or bad, or possibly both. She made enquiries to see if her help as an informant, i.e. in passing on British plans, might be rewarded with a gift of a small piece of land back in her homeland. She also wrote to George Washington and gained his approval for the idea of her making a model of him. But alas for poor Patience it was not to be: she had a bad fall after visiting the American Embassy, and died in London on February 25th 1786.

aa Patience_Wright-William_Pitt-1779Very few of her wax models survived her, but there is this one of William Pitt the Elder, full-sized, still on display in Westminster Abbey. There is a likeness of Admiral Howe  attributed to her, made in about 1770, and held in the Newark Museum.

We may never know the truth about her espionage activities, but she was certainly well-connected as a result of her link to Benjamin Franklin: who is to say what indiscretions passed the lips of politicians and military men as they sat before her, while she moulded and scraped the warm wax which she kept covered by her apron?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The wall plaque in Patience Wright’s home town of Bordentown, New Jersey.

  6 Responses to “Another look at a visit to the waxworks, America’s first sculptor and a spy….”

  1.  

    Thanks for this postI had not known about America’s wax sculptor. This is a very interesting story. A Antique dealer friend bought a pair of late 18th century framed American wax profiles at a estate sale. He left them in his car going to the next sale and by the time he got back the figures had melted.

  2.  

    Fascinating post. What a pity her waxes did not last, and her son seems a bit dopey painting his mother in such a controversial way – or perhaps he was trying to cash in on her notoriety by whipping up a bit of publicity for himself in the process? Seems to have worked for him but sadly not for her.
    Andrew – I do feel sorry for your antique dealer friend, but your post made me laugh!
    Thanks for sharing!

  3.  

    What a brilliant read, chockful of interesting bits I’ll be thinking about for the rest of the evening. Thanks!

  4.  

    That “dopey” son of Patience, Joseph Wright (1756-1793), was born in Bordentown, New Jersey. He did go on to become a painter & sculptor as well as an engraver.

    After his father’s death in 1769, Joseph, Jr. was probably taken by guardians, Manuel Eyre & his wife, who lived in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. In that year, Joseph began studies at The College, Academy & Charitable School of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania.

    Six years later, in 1775, Joseph, Jr. joined his mother in England; & became the first American-born student to matriculate in the Royal Academy of Arts at Somerset House in London, where he studied for 6 years, until 1781.

    In 1781, Joseph, & his mother, traveled to Paris; & while there, he painted several portraits of Benjamin Franklin. After 7 years abroad, Wright returned to America in 1782, where he became the 1st of just 2 artists to make a plaster mold of George Washington. After an introduction to General Washington in 1783, he created a plaster mold of his face, using this to create a bronze bust. A wax of Washington by him is presently at Mount Vernon.

    Thomas Jefferson judged Joseph Wright’s portrait of George Washington very highly. “I have no hesitation in pronouncing Wright’s drawing to be a better likeness of the General than Peale’s,” he wrote in 1795. Wright painted a portrait of Washington for Jefferson in 1784, & planned to have a drawing, which was made at the same time, engraved in London by his mother Parience Wright.

    In January 1786, the engraving still had not been made. Jefferson wrote: “before the painter would agree to draw it for me, he made me promise not to permit any copy of it to be taken till his mother in London should have time to have an engraving from one which he drew out at the same time, & also to dispose of the engravings. Twenty months have now elapsed, & I can neither learn that they have made any engraving from the picture, nor get an answer from the painter.” Wright’s mother died in London in 1786.

    Wright made a small drypoint etching of Washington in New York in 1790, & Jefferson acquired two of them. He purchased the first on 10 June, noting in his Memorandum Book, “pd for print of the President by Wright 8/.” & the second on June 23, “pd. for another engraving of General Washington by Wright 8/.” On June 27, he sent one to his daughter Martha: “I now inclose you an engraving of the President done by Wright who drew the picture of him which I have at Paris.”

    Wright stayed in New York City in 1785, before moving back to Philadelphia. On December 5, 1789, Wright married Sarah Vandervoordt in Philadelphia.

    Meanwhile, President, George Washington & Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, diligently sought after talented European engravers to design the first United States coins. However, they failed in this endeavor. They finally decided that Joseph Wright, would become the “unofficial” Mint Engraver in 1792.

    He began working there at the nascent U. S. Mint in the second half of 1792. In August, 1793, Joseph was designated as the Mint’s “First Draughtsman & Diesinker.” Wright was responsible for the design of the Liberty Cap half & large cents. These designs were based upon the obverse of the Libertas Americana medal on which Wright is believed to have been the designer. Large Cent varieties of 1793 are his creations.

    It was a short lived post as Wright contracted Yellow Fever, less than a year into his new post, in 1793. The Yellow Fever epidemic struck Philadelphia hard that year & prompted, all who could, to leave the city. It shut-down mint operations for a time. Wright, contracted yellow fever & died on September 13, 1793. His wife Sarah also died from the fever.

    Paintings by Wright are presently owned by the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC; the Smithsonian Instituion in Washington DC; the New York Historical Society; the Massachusetts Historical Society; the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; Denver Art Museum; Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco; Mead Art Museum at Amherst College; & Evansville Museum of Arts, among others.

    See Joseph Wright American Artist, 1756-1793 published by
    DC. National Portrait Gallery. Catalog by Monroe H. Fabian Washington

  5.  

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  6.  

    Enjoyed reading your bio of dear Patience Lovell Wright of Bordentown. Even learned a few new facts about this colorful character for your blog. I believe a large part of her American collection had been purchased by showman P. T. Barnum , for his huge American Museum in Manhattan. Unfortunately for
    Her sculptures, and everything else in the museum, a colossal fire destroyed everything. What a shame.
    It was filled with may unusual items and oddities, from around the world. Barnum was an extraordinary collector and capitalized on gaining the public’s attention for amusement, edification and willingness to spend money.
    Your project sounds like a fascinating one with lots of discovery, along the way. Please send me an email address and I will gladly forward a poem I wrote some years ago about Patience Wright. Incidentally, her
    Reported Spying, I feel certain, was more gossip than anything else.
    Cheers! E r I k

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