Friday, June 21, 2013

American Wax Figure Sculptor Patience Lovell Wright 1725-1786


Patience Lovell Wright (1725-1786), sculptor in wax, was born in Bordentown, N.J., the 5th daughter of John & Patience (Townsend) Lovell. Her father’s family, originally from Massachusetts, had long been settled at Oyster Bay, Long Island (where the painter Robert Feke was a distant cousin), but had moved early in the 18th-century to New Jersey. John Lovell was a prosperous farmer & a Quaker of firm an individualistic principles, whose singular mode of life, Patience later claimed, included not only strict vegetarianism, but also the insistence that his whole family, including a son & 6 daughters, dress in pure white from head to foot.

This regimen perhaps had a part in inclining his children to mix colors, paint pictures, & model figures in dough or clay. It may also have hastened Patience’s flight to Philadelphia in her early twenties. There, on Mar. 20, 1748, she was married to Joseph Wright, a cooper whose family had similarly migrated from Oyster Bay to Bordentown. Little is know of her life for the next 21 years, but her husband’s death on May 7, 1769, left her with 5 children, of whom the eldest, Mary (Mrs. Benjamin Van Cleef), & the youngest, Sarah, born in her widowhood, died a few years later. There remained Elizabeth, Joseph (born in 1756), & Phoebe (born in 1761).  She said of her husband that he had “nothing but age and money to recommend himself to her,” but she bore him 5 children, one of them born after her husband Joseph died. She then discovered that husband Joseph had left her (and the 5th child of whom he had no knowledge) virtually nothing in his will.

Unknown artist, Patience Lovell Wright 1782

Thrown on her own resources & with the help of her sister Rachel Lovell Wells (1735-1796), Patience Wright began a career as a modeler in wax, a medium in which she soon displayed considerable talent. Both sisters had amused themselves & their children by molding faces out of putty, bread dough, and wax. Rachel had continued her childhood hobby of modelling in wax and showed Patricia how to make life-sized sculptures in wax. These they exhibited in a traveling show, earning commissions to sculpt likenesses along the way.

The Virginia Gazette announced on October 3, 1771, that wax figures were being shown in Boston by Rachel Lovell Wells and Patience Lovell Wright. ("Daughters of the celebrated Mr. John Lovell of Long Island, who between the Years of thirty and forty engaged in the Formation of Figures in Wax Work, which they readily brought here such Perfection as has amazed Spectators of all Ranks in the respective Capitals where they have been exhibited. The Figures they have brought here show the Return of the prodigal Son, the celebrated Mr. Whitefield, and the beloved Farmer of Philadelphia. Gentlemen acquainted with those admired Personages confess their Obligations to the Skill and Industry of those Ladies, for reviving the former from the Grave, and presenting his numberless Friends in Boston with the living Image of John Dickinson, Esquire."

By 1771, aided by her sister Rachel (Mrs. James Wells), she had created a traveling waxwork exhibit or a sort previously unknown. Other workers in wax usually had attempted mostly criminal, historical, & allegorical characters, but Mrs.Wright chose living & well-known personages. Her skill in reproducing their features accurately & rapidly, together with her colorful & forceful personality, won the friendship & patronage of many of her subjects, & her was show attracted favorable comment in Charleston, Philadelphia, & New York.

The sisters had opened a wax works in Philadelphia, but in June of 1771, a fire depleted and damaged many of their works of art. On June 10, 1771, The New-York Gazette or the Weekly Post-Boy noted, "On Monday Evening about 8 o'Clock, a Fire was discover'd in the House of Mrs. Wright, the ingenious Artist in Wax-Work, and Proprietor of Figures so nearly resembling the Life, which have for some Time past been exhibited in this City to general Satisfaction...tho' most of the Wax-Work was destroyed, together with some New Pieces which Mrs. Wells (Sister of Mrs. Wright) had lately brought from Charlestown: the whole amounting it is said to the Value of several Hundred Pounds; yet she was so fortunate as to save the curious Piece of the Rev. Mr. Whitefield, the Pennsylvania-Farmer and some others, which she continues to exhibit, and we hear that she proposes to repair the loss sustained by this Fire, as soon as possible, by making some new and curious Pieces."

The sisters re-stocked and opened in Boston, where they met Jane Mecom, who was the sister of Benjamin Franklin. Jane gave Patricia a letter of introduction to her brother, and Patricia sailed to England intending to use the connection as an entree into London society so that she could meet and sculpt prominent figures of the town.

With letters of reference from important Americans, she sailed in February 1772, her children followed sometime later. In London, her new friend Benjamin Franklin introduced her to various eminent persons, including the historian Catherine Macaulay, the political leader John Sawbridge, & the painter Benjamin West. She was soon ensconced in rooms in Pall Mall surrounded by was likenesses of these persons & of assorted dukes, scholars, actors, & radicals. Her technique far outshone that of her only London competitor, a Mrs. Salmon, & the novelty of her art was matched by her amusing & incessant conversation.  When Wright moved to England in 1772, she opened a waxworks in London. One newspaper reported on "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."

The May 26th, 1772, issue of the Virginia Gazette reported on an article about Patience Lovell Wright in the London Magazine. TO Chudley court I next bent my steps, to visit the dead alive, and the living dead, at Mrs. Wright's; a Lady with the most piercing eye, and the foundest understanding, who, with an art peculiar to herself, makes men and women as natural as nature...The pencil and chissel were designed for the artists of Rome and Athens, and they, in the early hour of the world, brought them rapidly to perfection, but this peculiar excellence of forming men and women in wax was reserved by the goddess of nature for the superiour genius of America; and when we consider to what an amazing perfection she has brought this art, it rather perplexes our understanding to see compositions so immediately like ourselves. I mixed with a variety of fashionable people, who frequent this repository of curiosities, and I could not help smiling to bear and see her at work; for while the head lies upon her knee it hath so strongly a human appearance, that, at the first sight, it looks like a fresh head severed from the body. But the manner of her working up the features is wonderful; she always covers the wax with a cloth, and while the wax is warm and soft, and equal to any impression, she raises or depresses it at pleasure, and some of the strongest likenesses she hath done from memory only...

"The time I did myself the pleasure to attend her, it was whimsical to hear her call for her ingredients. She was then upon a warriour's face, which was rather weather-beaten, and every minute she was asking for tobacco spittle to darken the complexion, or for vermilion for the checks; then calling to the servant for an eye, or inquiring for the last shoulders and ears she made. It was so extraordinary to see this new Promethean compose , that I was lost in admiration and amazement. I often lamented that she had not the gift of giving senses to her figures , for then she would be a patriot in the true sense of the word; for she might retain the likeness of the King, Lords, and Parliament, and yet send them all new and better heads, in exchange for those which are the wrong heads of these wrong times. The most striking likenesses which I observed in the room, and they were perfect as life, were the King, Queen, Lord Chatham, Mrs. Macaulay, Col. Barre, Lord North, Capt Edward Thompson, Mr. Sharp, Governour Pownal, Mr. Hanway, Mr. Dingley, and she had Wilkes's head on her lap."

As her letters make plain, she lacked formal education, but this was offset by her ebullient, intuitive vigor of mind. Cultivating her reputation as a bohemian eccentric, she used profanity with gusto; she struck the proper Abigail Adams as unladylike in appearance & over familiar in manner. English society, however, was delighted with the “American Sibyl.” Even the King & Queen, it is said, enjoyed receiving her advice, addressed to them bluntly as “George” & “Charlotte.”

A letter to the printer in The New-York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury, November 9, 1772, reported "We hear from England, that the ingenious Mrs. Wright, whose surprising Imitations of Nature, in Wax Work, have been so much admired in America, by a diligent Application and Improvement in the same Employment, has recommended herself to the general Notice and Encouragement of Persons of the first Distinction in England, who have honoured her with peculiar Marks of their Favour; and as several eminent Personages, and even his Majesty himself, have condescended to sit several Times, for her to take their Likeness; it is probable that she will enrich her Collection, and oblige her Friends in America, with a View of the most remarkable Persons of the present Age, among which will be the immortal, inimitable Garrick, whom she had began; she has already compleated, and sent over to her House in this City, where they may be seen, the most striking Likeness of the celebrated Doctor Benjamin Franklin, of Philadelphia, now in London, and of Mrs. Catharine M'Cauley, so much admired for her great Learning, Writing and amiable Character."

A similar announcement appeared in as a news item from London, in the December 1, 1772, New-York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury, February 15, 1773. "We hear the ingenious Mrs. Wright from America, at No. 30, Great Suffolk-street, Strand, has lately sent over to New-York, two of her inimitable Wax Figures, representing Dr. Franklin and Mrs. Mackauley; and that she is now making, (to go by Capt. All for Philadelphia), another of a well known character in America, as a present to the America Philosophical Society."

Patience Wright was fascinated by politics, & she made good use of her friendships with British & colonial leaders. Though a firm American patriot, she enjoyed intrigue for its own sake. In the deepening American crisis of 1773-74 she passed along to William Pitt (Lord Chatham) political gossip, which he seems to have valued, though it was somewhat incoherently mingled with her adulation of him as America’s “Guardian Angel.”

With the outbreak of war she came to view Benjamin Franklin in this exalted role, but her letters to Franklin in Paris do not substantiate the claim, that they contained strategic intelligence picked up in London among the ladies of her acquaintance. She is said to have sent secret communications to members of Congress & an anonymous letter of 1785 in the Franklin Papers quotes John Hancock as having commented her efforts. One unsubstantiated but credible legend is that these communications were concealed in the fax effigies of Lord North & others which she sent to her sister Mrs. Wells, then operating a wax museum in Philadelphia.

It is , in any case, well established that she opened her London house to American prisoners of war, one of whom, Ebenezer Platt, married her daughter Elizabeth in 1777; both died a few years later while traveling in America with a waxwork exhibition.

In 1780, her remaining daughter, Phoebe, became the wife of the portraitist John Hoppner, & in that same year her son Joseph made his own artistic debut at the Royal Academy with a portrait of his mother modeling a wax head.  Joseph Wright (1756-1793), was born in Bordentown, New Jersey, where he received his first art training from his mother.  Only when his portrait was hung did shocked spectators note that the head was that of Charles I, & that 2 onlookers upon whom Mrs. Wright was casting a significant glance were George III & Queen Charlotte.

To escape the stir her son had created with his portrait, in 1781, she left England for Paris, where she modeled a bust of Franklin. Wright was longing to return to America & embark on a profile of George Washington. In 1783, she wrote a letter to Washington, inquiring if she would be granted an opportunity to model a sculpture of his likeness. He courteously replied he would be honored to sit for her. Unfortunately, Wright died in England in 1786, before she was able to have Washington pose for her.

Here she met the young American merchant Elkanah Watson, who has left a description of her as she hailed him, a stranger but a fellow American, from her hotel window: “In two minutes, she came blustering down stairs, with the familiarity of an old acquaintance. We were soon on the most excellent terms…She was a tall & athletic figure; & walked with a firm, bold step; as erect as an Indian. Her complexion was somewhat sallow; her cheekbones, high; her face, furrowed; & her olives eyes keen, piercing & expressive. Her sharp glance was appalling; it had almost the wildness of a maniac’s. The vigor & originality of her conversation corresponded with her manners & appearance. She would utter language, in her incessant volubility, as if unconscious to whom directed, that would put her hearers to the blush. She apparently possessed the utmost simplicity of heart & character” (Men & Times of the Revolution, p. 137).

Unable to open a wax figure exhibition in Paris, where Philippe Curtius (uncle of the famous Madame Tussaud) had preempted the market, Mrs. Wright returned to England in 1781, consoled for the failure of her revolutionary schemes by the victorious conclusion of the war. One of her last major efforts was a reproduction in wax of the meeting of the peace commissioners.

The last notice of Mrs Wright appeared in New York City newspapers on October 20, 1785, when the New-York Packet advertised "Wax Works. To Be Seen at No. 100, the upper end of Queen-Street, at the House formerly occupied by Mrs. Wright, the Story of Bell and the Dragon, as large as life, with several other curious Figures. Admittance from nine in the Morning till nine at Night. Money received at the door, price, three shillings."

She fell out of favor with the royals during the American Revolution due to her fervent support of the colonies.  Her popularity in London having waned, she yearned again for her native land, stating that she could not be “content to have her bones Laid in London.” Laid in London they were, however, following her sudden death there in 1786, after a fall. Her sister Rachel, living in semi-retirement at Bordentown with a company of 33 wax figures, survived her by 10 years.

This posting based, in part, on information from Notable American Women edited by Edward T James, Janet Wilson James, Paul S Boyer, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1971