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William Behnes 1794-1864
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William Behnes 1794-1864

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Head and shoulders portrait bust of George Henry Fitzroy, 4th Duke of Grafton (1760-1844), dressed in a toga

Carved marble, on its original socle, height 28 inches / 72 cm. Signed on the reverse and dated 1828.

Provenance: by descent in the Wilson family collection at Dallam Tower1, near Milnthorpe in Cumbria to Brig. Charles Tryon-Wilson CBE2 (1909-2001); his executor sale, Sotheby, London, 9/7/2002 (lot 128: £9,560) where acquired by the present owner

Exhibited: Royal Academy 1828, catalogue number 1161
George HenryFitzroy, fourth duke of Grafton (1760–1844), politician, was the son son of Augustus Henry Fitzroy, third duke, and his first wife, Anne, daughter of Henry Liddell, first Baron Ravensworth. He was born on 14 January 1760. He was educated at Harrow and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became an intimate friend of the younger Pitt. On 16 November 1784 he married Lady Charlotte Maria (1761–1808), second daughter of James Waldegrave, second Earl Waldegrave. She died of bilious fever in 1808, having had three sons and four daughters. As Lord Euston he was MP for Thetford from 1782 to 1784, supporting Shelburne's ministry. In 1784, with William Pitt, he was elected as MP for Cambridge University, and held this seat until 1811, when he succeeded to the peerage.

Euston's career in the House of Commons was useful, but not brilliant. At the outset he supported the government of Pitt, but he rarely addressed the house. He was appointed lord lieutenant of Suffolk in 1790, receiver-general in the courts of king's bench and common pleas, and king's gamekeeper at Newmarket. From 1784 to 1807 he was ranger of Hyde Park and of St James's Park. In addition to these offices, conferred upon him by the prime minister, he was hereditary ranger of Whittlebury Forest, recorder of Thetford, a trustee of the Hunterian Museum, and president of the Eclectic Society of London. His seat at Cambridge was twice contested, first in 1790, and second in 1807 by Lord Palmerston, but in both cases unsuccessfully. Despite Pitt's friendship, and the patronage of the tories, Euston was unable to support all the government's measures over the war against France, and broke with Pitt when he became the centre of embarrassments. In fact, long before Pitt's death, Euston had become a whig. From his accession to the dukedom in March 1811 he steadfastly cast his votes and exercised all his influence in favour of civil and religious liberty. He did not, however, show bitterness towards his former friends, being considerate and urbane in speech and action. When the bill of pains and penalties against Queen Caroline was presented to the House of Lords, he spoke vehemently against the measure, and this was almost the last occasion on which he took a prominent part in the business of parliament. He died at his seat, Euston Hall, Suffolk, on 28 September 1844, and was buried there on 15 October. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Henry.

William Behnes was born in London, the eldest of the three sons of a piano maker, of Hanover, Germany, and his English wife. He was brought up in Dublin, whither his family had removed to establish a musical instrument business, and where he attended a public drawing-school. He returned with his family to London and enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools on 23 March 1813, when his age was recorded as eighteen, initially planning to be a painter. After he and his brother Henry received lessons in modelling from Peter Francis Chenu, they both turned to sculpture. He won silver medals at the academy in 1816, 1817, and 1819; in the same year was awarded a gold medal by the Society of Arts for inventing ‘an instrument for transferring points to marble’

From the 1820s to the 1840s Behnes was second only to Francis Chantrey as England's most prolific and successful portrait sculptor. Henry Weekes, who worked for both men, believed that Behnes possessed greater natural talent, considering him ‘the best manipulator of surface of the two … His heads … have greater freedom of handling, less mannerism, more variety and greater difference of character’ (Weekes, 303). Chantrey's greater reputation was due to his consistency and social skills, whereas Behnes exasperated even his friends who, Weekes claimed, ‘felt they had been made unfair use of’ (ibid., 302–3). Behnes suffered, moreover, from ‘evil habits’, darkly alluded to by his biographers. S. C. Hall offered a partial explanation, describing Behnes as ‘another victim to the pest of drink’ (Hall, 2.238). This was probably triggered by his decision to move in 1823 to larger London premises at 91 Dean Street, Soho, which proved impracticable to convert to a studio. He was left financially crippled and a prey to moneylenders. His waywardness probably led to his exclusion from Royal Academy membership, though he exhibited there between 1815 and 1863. His brother, the sculptor Henry Behnes (1801/2–1837), changed his surname to Burlowe about 1830 because, claimed Hall, of the ‘tarnish on the name’ .

Behnes nevertheless won the affection and admiration of the young sculptor Thomas Woolner, who worked in his studio between about 1838 and 1844. Woolner later stated that he had received his necessary artistic education from Behnes, and little in comparison from the Royal Academy Schools. George Frederic Watts was another famous pupil, while Behnes's studio assistants included several major Victorian sculptors such as Weekes, John Henry Foley, Musgrave Lewthwaite Watson, and Timothy Butler.

Behnes's work has received little art historical attention, probably because he belongs to a still underrated era in English sculpture. Yet his works vindicate his contemporaries' praise. He excelled in conveying the character of his sitters, as seen for example in his busts of Robert Vernon (Tate collection) and Richard Porson (1845, Eton College Library, Berkshire). The marble bust of Princess Victoria at the age of ten (1829, Royal Collection) radiates a baroque sense of animation. On her accession in 1837 Behnes was appointed sculptor-in-ordinary to Queen Victoria, but he received no further commissions. His church monuments are relatively few but impressive. Francis Turner Palgrave called the statue of William Babington (1837, St Paul's Cathedral, London) ‘at once grand and delicate’ (Palgrave, 223), and its crisply rendered drapery influenced Woolner. The high-relief monument to Charlotte Botfield (1825, All Saints' Church, Norton, Northamptonshire), which portrays her grieving widower, convincingly fuses Romantic pensiveness with early Victorian naturalism. Behnes's motif of guardian angels pointing heavenward in the monuments to Esther North (1825, Old Alresford, Hampshire) and John Bourne (1833, St Peter's Church, Stoke-on-Trent) influenced later funerary sculpture. His outdoor statuary is generally less successful. Behnes's best-known public monument, to Sir Henry Havelock (1861, Trafalgar Square, London, and Mowbray Park, Sunderland), is a stolidly competent example of realism. The statue of Sir Robert Peel (1852, Woodhouse Moor, Leeds) was the earliest monument erected to him and the first large-scale bronze cast in one piece in Britain.

Behnes was declared bankrupt in 1861 and moved to lodgings at 72 Charlotte Street. According to Hall, he was found one night ‘literally in the gutter, with threepence in his pocket’ (Hall, 2.238) and was taken to the Middlesex Hospital near by, where he died, unmarried, on 3 January 1864. He was buried on the 12th in Kensal Green cemetery, London. Attempts by a committee, headed by George Cruikshank, to erect a memorial sculpture over his grave foundered for want of sufficient subscriptions.3