This marble bust is one of a number of copies of a prime version by Joseph Nollekens. It was made in 1813, seven years after William Pitt’s death. From the bust, we gain an impression of Pitt’s aloof, somewhat remote and serious personality. He was a lonely man, known for his personal integrity. Devoting himself entirely to politics, he had little time for the social scene outside that arena and never married.
Pitt was a statesman of exceptional precocity. In 1784 at the age of 24, he became Britain's youngest prime minister, and when he left office 18 years later, he was still younger than any other prime minister in history beginning their first term. At the beginning of his term of office Pitt was derided by senior politicians, particularly by Charles James Fox, who said that Pitt’s term would not last more than a couple of weeks.
One of Pitt’s first tasks in office was to restore the nation’s finances by a variety of financial reforms after the expense of the War of American Independence. He subsequently introduced income tax to offset the expense of the French Revolutionary wars.
Among Pitt’s more far-reaching political acts was the union of Britain with Ireland to form the United Kingdom in 1800. He was ahead of his time in trying to pass an emancipation act for Catholics, the issue on which he resigned in 1801. Pitt was persuaded to return in 1805, in spite of failing health. He formed a short-lived coalition against Napoleon with Russia, Austria and Sweden; but despite the defeat of the French at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Napoleon’s power was still growing when Pitt died the following year.
Joseph Nollekens, son of Joseph Francis Nollekens, a painter from Antwerp, was born in Dean Street, Soho. He studied under the sculptor Peter Scheemakers, before attending William Shipley’s drawing school on the Strand. In 1762 he travelled to Rome where he worked as an antiques dealer, restorer and copier, as well as sculpting portraits of English tourists. By 1771, he had returned to London and taken a house in Mortimer Street, Marylebone. He was elected a Royal Academician in 1772. He sculpted several church monuments and mythological subjects but it was his portrait busts which grew in popularity throughout his career. His final years were plagued by ill health and by 1816 he was almost deaf. He died at the age of 85.
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