Lot 355
  • 355

Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823) English, late 18th century

60,000 - 80,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Mercury in repose
  • bearing three inscriptions, partly overlapping: Mercury Modelled by Mr. Nollekens, Mercury Modelled by Nollekins and This Modell gained him the Gold Medal
  • terracotta
  • Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823) English, late 18th century


said to have been purchased in Rome
Christies London, April 9, 1987, lot 87


John Lord, ‘Joseph Nollekens and Lord Yarborough: documents and drawings’, in
The Burlington Magazine, 130.1988, pp. 915-919
John Kenworthy-Browne, ‘Terracotta models by Joseph Nollekens, RA’, in The Sculpture Journal, 2.1998, pp. 72-84


Several repaired breaks, some losses (several restored), surface abrasions and smaller restorations. Larger repaired cracks include several places on base, the neck and the helmet, and down his torso in the back. Smaller restorations include the nose, toes, some fingers, and seemingly areas in arms and legs. The piece is beautifully worked and nicely restored, and has now been applied with a terracotta colored pigment.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note


J. T. Smith, Nollekens and his Times, 1828, I, p. 83
K. A. Esdaile, ‘A Group of Terracotta Models by Joseph Nollekens’ , R. A.’, in The Burllngton Magazine, September 1944, pp. 220-223
Margaret Whinney, English sculpture: 1720 - 1830, London, 1971

Unknown until it appeared on the London art market in 1987, this very fine and carefully worked statuette is the only surviving terracotta figure by Nollekens that appears to be a finished work, perhaps made for presentation (J. Kenworthy-Browne, 1998, op. cit., p. 72). The remaining seven known terracottas by Nollekens are all small sketches or bozzetti.

Nollekens' distinctive style was developed during his years in Rome (1762-1770) where he worked in the studio of Bartolomeo Cavaceppi restoring and copying antiquities. He was hailed as a ‘talented modeller’ during his lifetime (Smith, op. cit., pp. 13-15). He followed the custom of the more established sculptors of the time and produced his models in terracotta, although he preferred the use of plaster when he later returned to London. Portrait busts and figures made in clay as final works of art were rare at the time but became increasingly popular in France with sculptors like Clodion, who Nollekens probably met during his visits to the Académie Française at the Palazzo Mancini. Upon his return to England in 1770, Nollekens set up a flourishing studio, where he became best known for his portraiture. He also produced designs for garden sculpture, funerary monuments, and mythological statues, such as his Venus of 1773 now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Santa Monica.

His marble statue of Mercury (fig. 1) was made for Charles Pelham, later 1st Baron of Yarborough, and was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1783 (no. 4640). This marble, now in the Usher Gallery, Lincoln, differs from the present terracotta in its more youthful and fleshy body type and in the position of the legs and inclusion of the purse and caduceus. The model for the statue was the young John Thomas Smith who briefly trained in Nollekens' studio from 1778-1781 and later wrote about the sculptor’s life (Smith, op. cit.). In the sale of Nollekens' estate, Christie's, July 4-5, 1823, two models of a Mercury appeared, a pensiero in terracotta and a plaster model for the Lincoln marble.

There are three inscriptions on the base of the present terracotta and according to Kenworthy-Brown, only the Mercury Modelled by Mr. Nollekens appears to be contemporary with the sculpture. The other two inscriptions, one of which spells the artist's name incorrectly, the other of which erroneously states that the model won the Gold Medal, are both probably later.

The artist most likely sold or gave this terracotta as a gift to one of the numerous members of the Society of Dilettanti who were his patrons. The great collector Charles Townley purchased antiques from Nollekens and spoke of him as ‘the first sculptor of his day’ (Smith 1828, vol. 1, op. cit., p. 263). Nollekens also secured the patronage of Lord Rockingham who ordered three statues to be juxtaposed with a restored antique figure in his collection. Lord Yarborough ordered a Venus Chiding Cupid and later the marble Mercury. Perhaps Nollekens gave or sold the present terracotta to Yarborough who, so taken with the composition, subsequently commissioned the marble.