British bronze sculpture founders and plaster figure makers, 1800-1980 - D
An online resource, launched in 2011, selectively updated twice yearly. Last updated March 2020. Contributions are welcome, to Jacob Simon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
James De Ville from 1803,Deville & Dowding 1816, James De Ville 1817-1846, Deville & Co from 1847. AtLittle Pulteney St, Soho, London from c.1803, 7 Great Newport St, Leicester Square c.1805-1815, 367 Strand 1814-1870, subsequently at other addresses. Plaster figure maker, lamp and lustre manufacturer, phrenologist.
James De Ville (1777-1846), or Deville, was a plaster figure maker, lamp manufacturer, publisher of marked-up phrenological busts and owner of a museum of phrenological casts. Much of our knowledge of his life comes from a lengthy obituary by Dr James P. Browne in the Phrenological Journal in October 1846 (see Sources below). De Ville’s work has been studied by Timothy Clifford, to whom this account is also indebted (Clifford 1992 pp.52-3). He is sometimes given the middle initial, ‘S’, as James S. De Ville or James S. Deville, as apparently first found in Graves’s Royal Academy Exhibitors (1905).
According to Browne, James De Ville was born at Hammersmith in 1777, the grandson of a Swiss refugee from religious persecution, and the son of James Louis De Ville and Mary Bryant. Browne provides further details. De Ville was removed from school at the age of eight and placed with a maternal uncle, who was a brickmaker. Four or five years later, De Ville took a job at the Edinburgh Castle Tavern in the Strand, where he attracted the attention of a Mr Harris [Charles Harris (qv]], a statuary and worker in plaster of Paris, who was then carrying on a large business across the street and who took De Ville as an apprentice, a position in which he continued until Harris’s death in 1795, thereafter working as a journeyman moulder in plaster.
De Ville married Jane Smith in 1797 at St Martin-in-the-Fields and they had five children including William in 1798 and George in 1806, both christened at St Anne Soho, and Emily christened in 1809 at St Martin-in-the-Fields. According to Browne, two of De Ville’s sons were drowned, one in the Seine near Paris in 1825, the other in the Thames at Hammersmith in 1835. De Ville was an executor in 1815 of the will of the sculptor James Smith, who was perhaps related to his wife, Jane.
In 1803, De Ville began business on his own account, purchasing some of the stock and moulds of John Flaxman senr (qv), father of the sculptor, presumably at his posthumous studio sale that year. De Ville started selling plaster figures in Little Pulteney St, Soho, moving to larger premises in Great Newport St, Leicester Square about two years later, soon employing eight workmen, besides a modeller in clay. As a young man he was employed by Joseph Nollekens to make casts from moulds (John Thomas Smith, Nollekens and his times, 1828, vol.1, p.400).
De Ville made purchases of busts, moulds and some figures at sales at Christie’s, including those of the sculptors, Thomas Scheemakers and Thomas Banks, both in 1805, and in another sale in 1809 (Clifford 1992 pp.52-3). From the Scheemakers sale, he acquired busts and moulds of Admiral Keppel, General Honeywood, Dr James and Lord Despencer, among other figures. From the Banks sale, he acquired a mould of a bust of Warren Hastings as well as other figures. De Ville purchased moulds of many of Nollekens’ busts from the sculptor’s pupil, Lewis Goblet, who had been left them by his master at his death in 1823 (John Thomas Smith, Nollekens and His Times, 1828, vol.2, p.71; for details of Nollekens’ works as stocked by De Ville, see below).
A short-lived partnership between James Deville and Robert Dowding, trading at 367 Strand as lamp, lustre and bronze figure manufacturers, was dissolved as at 31 December 1816 (London Gazette 11 January 1817). In London directories, Deville appears as a composition bust figure maker in Kent’s 1818 directory. Apparently, he had other premises at 4 Lancaster Place, Strand, which were the subject of an insurance policy in 1825 (London Metropolitan Archives, Sun Fire Office policy registers, 509/1037198). He was a customer of the composition ornament maker, George Jackson & Sons, in 1842 (see Jackson’s account book, V&A Archive of Art and Design, AAD/2012/1/2/3). For Jackson, see British picture framemakers on this website.
De Ville took an active part in the Society for the Encouragement of Arts and in the Institution of Civil Engineers, to which he was elected an Associate in February 1823 (Minutes of Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, vol.6, 1847, p.5, obituary). He supported charities including the Society for the Suppression of Juvenile Vagrancy and the Artists’ Benevolent Fund (The Times 28 April 1832, 11 May 1833). He was a popular lecturer and addressed the Society for the Encouragement of Arts on the subject of bronzes in 1840 (The Times 28 October 1840).
Browne states that about forty of De Ville’s workmen attended his funeral following his death on 6 May 1846. A posthumous sale was held at Christie’s of his antique, cinquecento and French bronzes in 124 lots on 25 June 1846 (Clifford 1992 p.53; sale catalogue in V&A National Art Library). In his lengthy will, made 23 September 1836 and proved 18 August 1846, James De Ville of 367 Strand divided his estate between his three daughters and the children of his deceased son, William, singling out one of his daughters, Jane, wife of William Matthews, to carry on his business with her husband subject to certain conditions, one of which related to making weekly payments to his brother, Elijah De Ville, foreman of his business. In this way, his business seems to have been continued by William Matthews, trading as Deville & Co. This company was trading as late as 1899.
Works in plaster: De Ville’s works in plaster includes a pair of torchères supported by three female figures in bronzed and gilt plaster, 1806 (repr. Clifford 1992 p.45; see also Leeds 1992 p.85), a set of four wall lights with lustres, 1808 (Clifford 1992 p.53) and a painted plaster lamp, Athena, holding candle nozzle, 1818 (Christie’s South Kensington 13 September 2005 lot 161). He also produced a painted plaster bust of Nelson, signed: Published By/ Js Deville/ March 1st 1806 (Sotheby's 20 May 2015 lot 69).
According to Browne, it was early in 1821 that De Ville began to take casts from the life. To do this as quickly as possible, and with the least inconvenience to his sitters, he invented a new method of moulding from the living head, involving a copper receptacle, filled with prepared plaster, which received and moulded the hind parts of the head and neck, whilst the moulding of the face and other parts was going on, with the person undergoing the operation resting nearly recumbent on a specially designed portable couch. By this process he was enabled to remove the plaster from the face in four or five minutes. The results of this process can be seen in De Ville’s head of William Blake (see below). Again according to Browne, his collection included about 80 casts of poets, novelists and other literary men, numerous casts of mathematicians and engineers, and extensive series of dramatists, actors, musicians, painters and sculptors, about 50 casts from persons devoted to religious pursuits, about 30 of eminent travellers and navigators, several of prize-fighters and an extensive series of statesmen and orators.
De Ville exhibited busts and some other work at the Royal Academy, 1823-6, and at the Society of British Artists, 1825-6. His plaster head, William Blake, was published in 1823 (National Portrait Gallery, see Walker 1985 p.50; what may be the original cast is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, see David Bindman (ed.), William Blake. Catalogue of the Collection in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 1970, pp.58-60). Busts in plaster include Sir George Airy, published 1823 (Cambridge, Observatories Syndicate, see J.W. Goodison, Catalogue of Cambridge Portraits, 1955, p.161) and John Shute Duncan, published 1825 (Ashmolean Museum, see Penny 1992 p.34).
In 1828, De Ville was offering casts of busts by Nollekens, including Thomas Anson, the Duke of Bedford, Lord Bessborough, Mrs Bradell, Admiral Burney, M.D. Burney, Rev. Dr Burney, George Canning, Lord George Cavendish, Lord Charlemont, Mrs Cornelli, Lord Cowper, Lady Darnley, Lord Erskine, Gen. Fitzpatrick, Lord Gainsborough, George III, Lady Gower, Marquis Granby, Lord Grenville, Thomas Greville, Lord Gwydir, Lord Holland, Dr Johnson, Lord Liverpool, Lord Mansfield, Lord Milton, Lord Mulgrave, the Duke of Newcastle, Spencer Perceval, William Pitt, Lord St Helens, Laurence Sterne, Mr Taylor, the Prince of Wales, the Princess of Wales, Lord Warwick, Pole Wellesley, William Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, Samuel Whitbread, William Wyndham, Sir W.W. Wynne and the Duke of York (John Thomas Smith, Nollekens and His Times, 1828, vol.2, pp.71-5). Deville also stocked a bust of Sir Isaac Newton from Rysbrack and busts of Hampden, Sidney and Cromwell after Roubiliac (Clifford 1992 p.53).
De Ville as a phrenologist: Deville took a strong interest in phrenology, a fashionable subject at the period. Bryan Donkin and his associates in the Phrenological Society turned to De Ville to help form a collection of casts, initially in January 1817, according to Browne. As recorded in De Ville's own books, now lost but to which Browne had access, De Ville took his first post mortem cast of a man's head in July 1817 and continued to mould skulls and casts over the next three years. Subsequently, De Ville actively collected casts as evidence of phrenology, publishing his Outlines of Phrenology in 1821, which went through several editions by 1841. De Ville maintained links with Luke and Anthony O’Neil (qv), the leading Edinburgh phrenological cast makers.
De Ville gave demonstrations on phrenology twice a week at his own house, and his ‘very extensive collection of casts, comprising subjects of every nation and of every character’ became one of the sights of London in the 1820s (Leigh's New Picture of London..., 1827, p.358, accessed through Google Book Search). De Ville’s phrenological collection amounted to some 2450 specimens, according to Browne, approaching 1500 of which he had taken from the life at his own house. His collection of casts included the skulls of many criminals, as well as the insane, and ‘aborigines of various parts of the globe’. He also owned about 3000 animal crania. Further details of his collection and on his interest in phrenology is given in Browne’s obituary.
An example is his phrenological bust, James Cardinal, the skull greatly enlarged, published April 1828 (Christie’s South Kensington 13 December 2001 lot 5).
De Ville as a bronze and metal worker: According to Browne, De Ville diversified into casting metal, becoming a lamp manufacturer and obtaining a contract to furnish the new Drury Lane Theatre with lamps. He was then faced with legal action for following a trade in which he had not been apprenticed, but members of the theatre’s committee, including Samuel Whitbread, obtained an Act to remove these restrictions. Again according to Browne, in 1816 De Ville began to construct lamps for lighthouses, supplying the oil-gas apparatus at Holyhead Lighthouse, the first of its kind, in 1818. He was listed as a lamp and lustre manufacturer in Robson’s 1819 directory and as ‘Bronze and metal manufacturer, light-house & signal-light manufacturer, oil and gas apparatus manufacturer’ in the Post Office 1822 directory and subsequently.
Deville was appointed bronzist to William IV in 1830 (National Archives, LC 3/69 p.162). He completed some of the external and internal metalwork at Buckingham Palace left unfinished when Samuel Parker (qv) was declared bankrupt in 1832, including mounts for doors and doorcases and the balustrades of the two main staircases (see Geoffrey De Bellaigue, ‘Samuel Parker and the Vulliamys, purveyors of gilt bronze’, Burlington Magazine, vol.139, 1997, p.30). De Ville published A catalogue of antique, ancient and Italian works of art in bronze, on view and sale at Mr. Deville's rooms, No. 367, Strand, 1834 (accessed through Google Book Search), and he advertised this collection extensively (Morning Chronicle 16 June 1834 etc).
Sources: James P. Browne, ‘Memoir of the late Mr James De Ville’, Phrenological Journal and Magazine of Moral Science, vol.19, October 1846, pp.329-44 (accessed through Google Book Search). See also ‘On an Improved Mode of taking Casts from the Head. By Mr. James Deville.’, The Technical Repository, ed. by Thomas Gill, 1822, pp.375-6 (accessed through Google Book Search). Roscoe 2009. For abbreviations, see Resources and bibliography.