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British bronze sculpture founders and plaster figure makers, 1800-1980 - O

An online resource, launched in 2011, selectively updated twice yearly. Last updated March 2020. Contributions are welcome, to Jacob Simon at volunteerjsimon@npg.org.uk.

Introduction Resources and bibliography

Bronze sculpture founders: a short history Plaster figure makers: a short history

Samuel Euclid Oliver (b.1744, active 1769-74), London. Plaster figure maker.

Outside the time frame of this online resource but see Clifford 1992, Roscoe 2009. For abbreviations, see Resources and bibliography.

Luke O'Neil, Edinburgh by c.1784, Campbell’s Close, Canongate 1794,firework maker (‘fireworker’). (Luke) O'Neil & Son (& Sons 1804, 1830-34), Brown’s Close, Canongate by 1797-1810, 225 Canongate 1811, 125 Canongate 1812-1825, Bull’s Close, Canongate 1829, 106 Canongate (‘immediately opposite the old premises’) 1829-1834, figure and firework makers, from c.1823 also statuaries and phrenologists. Luke O'Neil junr, 125 Canongate 1824-1828, 106 Canongate 1835, Bull’s Close, Canongate 1837-1839, sculptor, modeller and artist to the Edinburgh Phrenological Society. Anthony O'Neil, 17 Prince’s St, Edinburgh 1800,125 Canongate 1826-1835 (residence in 1830s), 16 West Register St 1830-1849, figure maker, statuary and firework maker.

The O'Neil business has been studied by Timothy Clifford, to whom this account is indebted (see Clifford 1992 p.61). The family was of Italian origins and appears to have operated over two or three generations, Luke O'Neil (c.1743-1823), Anthony O'Neil (c.1767/9-1849), probably his son, and Luke O'Neil junr (c.1789-1839), perhaps the son of Luke senr or of Anthony.

In March 1794, ‘Luke Onell, a native of Italy’, was recorded in the ‘Declarations of Foreigners’, as stating that he had left Italy about 30 years ago and had lived in Edinburgh for the last 10 years, making fireworks, that he intended to remain in Edinburgh ‘in the prosecution of his line as an Artist’, and that he resided in Campbell’s Close, Canongate (Edinburgh City Archives, SL115/1/1, kindly communicated by Helen Smailes). As Luke O'Neil he was in business by 1786 when he can be found supplying fireworks (National Archives of Scotland, GD224/365/61, Dalkeith Household Accounts). Luke O’Neil, statuary, died in Canongate in July 1823, his age given as 80 (Scotland’s People).

Apparently the earliest record of a phrenological bust being published in Britain is a work by Luke O’Neil for the Phrenological Society in Edinburgh in 1821 (Kaufman and Basden, p.143, see Sources below). O’Neil was made figure caster to the Society the following year, subject to certain conditions (Matthew Kaufman, Edinburgh Phrenological Society: A History, 2005, p.48). As Luke O'Neil & Son, statuaries at 125 Canongate, artists to the Phrenological Society, Edinburgh, the business produced an 8-page catalogue in 1823 of their collection of casts (National Library of Scotland, Combe 5(3)). In this catalogue they offered to take life and death masks and to model busts. ‘Casts of Heads from Nature’ include those of various criminals but also of Thomson the poet, the Scottish radical MP Joseph Hume, the juvenile actress Clara Fisher, and William Pitt from a Flaxman bust. Casts of face masks include Brunel, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, Oliver Cromwell, Edwards ‘an engraver’, Benjamin Franklin after Houdon, George III, George IV, Benjamin Robert Haydon, William Herschel, John Hunter, Samuel Johnson, Isaac Newton, William Pitt after death, Alexander Pope, Joshua Reynolds, William Roscoe, William Shakespeare, Laurence Sterne, John Horne Tooke, Toussaint, Voltaire, John Wilkes, David Wilkie and William Wordsworth. Casts of skulls are mainly of criminals and of ethnic types but include King Robert the Bruce and Raphael of Urbino.

In 1825 the business advertised that it had ‘just published a complete set of PHRENOLOGICAL BUSTS, Five in number, consisting of the busts of a Gentleman and a Lady, a Boy and a Girl, both about 10 or 12 years of age, and a bust of John Pallet, executed for the murder of James Mumford’. Sets were available at £1, or in a case with a lock and key, for an additional 7s.6d; busts could be obtained separately at 5s each (Phrenological Journal, vol.2, 1825, accessed through Google Book Search).

In 1829, Luke O'Neil advertised that he had moved to a new ware-room at 106 Canongate, immediately opposite his old premises, and in the same advertisement Luke O'Neil & Son announced their move from their old premises in Brown’s Close to a new ware-room opposite, apparently in Bull’s Close, ‘where casts of executed criminals may be seen’ (Scotsman 31 January 1829).

Luke O'Neil junr was described as a statuary of 104 Canongate, married to Robina Wood, when their son, also Luke, was born and baptised in Canongate in September 1826 (Scotland’s People). He brought a case for ‘scandal’ (slander) against another Edinburgh figure maker, Gaetano Regali, in 1832, for allegedly calling him ‘a Thief, a Rogue and Vagabond’ at the home of the figure maker, Bernardino Lucchesi; three other figure makers appeared as witnesses, Joseph Tinnis or Tennis, servant to the pursuer, aged about 28, Fortunato Leonardo, aged about 22, and John Bernasconi, aged about 30 (National Records of Scotland, CC8/6/2201). Luke O'Neil died age 50 in January 1839, described as a figure maker of Bulls Close, Canongate, (Scotland’s People).

Anthony O'Neil, figure maker, can be found in the 1841 census living at Brown’s Court, 125 Canongate, as a statuary, age 72 (Scotland’s People). His age was given as 82 at the time of his death in September 1849 (Caledonian Mercury 10 September 1849; see also Scotland’s People). In 1832, he claimed to have been in the firework manufactory business for upwards of 45 years (The Scotsman 7 July 1832). In 1834, as a statuary and fire worker at 16 West Register St, he produced a 7-page catalogue, somewhat similar to that of 1823 discussed above, entitled Catalogue of casts of skulls of different nations, selected from the Museum of the Phrenological Society, Edinburgh (National Library of Scotland, Combe 5(5)). In 1841, various heads and skulls were identified as obtainable from him including a head of Courvoisier and a skull of Pierce, a convict and cannibal (Phrenological Journal, vol.14, 1841, p.103, accessed through Google Book Search). He was in business right up to the end of his life, advertising in 1849 from 16 West Register St a phrenological cast of Rush the executed murderer (The Scotsman 12 May 1849).

Works in plaster: Examples of the business’s phrenological plaster heads include a cast of a skull, marked: Publ O Neils Nov 1820, and a head of a child, marked: Published at Edinb by O Neil & Son, 14 Dec 1821 (both William Ramsay Henderson Trust coll., repr. Kaufman and Basden, pp.152, 154, see Sources below). Other works include two bronzed plasters of seated figures, reductions after James Thom, Tam O’Shanter and Souter Johnny, 1829, marked: PUBd BY/ Anthy O’Neil/ 1 MAY 1829/ 125 CANONGATE/ EDINr. (Castle Howard, Yorkshire, see Clifford 1992 p.61).

Sources: Clifford 1992 p.61; M.H. Kaufman and N. Basden, ‘Marked Phrenological Heads: their evolution with particular reference to the influence of George Combe and the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh’, Journal of the History of Collections, vol.9, 1997, pp.139-59, with references to other phrenological heads produced by the O’Neils. For abbreviations, see Resources and bibliography.

Updated January 2017
*John O'Neill, 84 Berwick St, Soho, London W 1881-1882,57 Poland St, Oxford St 1884-1896, 5 Tottenham Mews, Tottenham St, W1 1911-1955. Gold, silver and figure caster, brass founder from 1885.

John James O'Neill (1855-1931), born in White Horse Yard, off Drury Lane, was the son of John O'Neill (b.1830), boot maker, and the grandson of another John O'Neill (1779-1858), also a boot maker but better known as a poet (his portrait after Cruikshank was engraved). These details are more precise than those given in the first edition of this history, thanks to birth, marriage and death certificates kindly supplied by John James O'Neill’s great-grandson, Alan O'Neill, August 2016.

John James O'Neill can be identified as the ‘Jack O’Neill’ (Gilbert 1990 p.65), who worked for the sculptor, Alfred Gilbert. Named as John James O’Neill, brass founder, he married Elizabeth Giles in January 1879 at St Andrew and St Philip, Kensal Green. He was recorded in successive censuses as a brass founder (brass moulder in 1901), in 1871, age 15, in his father’s household in St Clement Dane; in 1881 as John O'Neil, age 25, at 33 Berwick St, with his wife Elizabeth and six-month-old son, John; in 1891, age 34, at 65 Poland St, with his wife and son; in 1901, age 45, with his wife and son (described as a brass moulder) at 4 Blackburn Road, West Hampstead; and in 1911, age 60, at 3 Blackburn Road, working at home on his own account, by now a widower, with a daughter, Elizabeth Jane.

In 1911 O’Neill set up his own business as a brass founder at 5 Tottenham Mews, Tottenham St, in Fitzrovia, which he and then his son, John O’Neill (1880-1945) and grandson, also John O’Neill, continued at this address until 1955. O'Neill advertised from 5 Tottenham Mews in 1936 as a bronze founder, established 1880, promoting ‘fine false cored & figure castings’ (St Pancras Past and Present, 7th ed., c.1936, p.3, see www.flickr.com/photos/71256895@N00/4327627086/in/photostream/).

Work for Alfred Gilbert: John O’Neill began working for Alfred Gilbert in 1897 (or possibly 1896 for which year Gilbert's studio diary is missing). He was helped by his son, also John O’Neill (1880-1945), and possibly by his father, also John O’Neill, who was described in the 1901 census as a brass founder (labourer), age 71. He continued to work for Gilbert on small-scale castings in gold, silver and bronze until the sculptor’s bankruptcy in 1901 and flight to Belgium.

The O’Neills’ close involvement in the intricate process of fabrication can be illustrated from Gilbert’s studio diaries. ‘How many gold medals have you cast’, Gilbert queried on 26 May 1897, possibly referring to the Lawrence medal (Gilbert 1992 p.54). To quote further extracts: On 21 January 1899, ‘O’Neill brings waxes of Lothian key. Takes away the front of the dress of Eliz. of Hungary [St Elizabeth of Hungary]. This is brought back Sunday’ (Gilbert 1987 p.31). On 12 May 1899, ‘O’Neill (junr.) calls to announce that the pouring of the “Vacher” [Sydney Vacher?] figure was a failure, the mould having collapsed probably owing to insufficient pins. This pouring has been delayed for some months owing to the illness of O’Neill senr.’ (Gilbert 1987 p.51). On 10 January 1900, ‘O’Neill delivers 6 bronze casts for the 2nd. pedestal of Vivian’s [William Vivian] and its pattern, also 2 silver casts of little “Cupid” belonging to “The Offering to Hymen”, and its pattern.’ (Gilbert 1990 p.24). On 21 February 1900, ‘O’Neill delivers 2 left feet in brass for the “Victory” and the model in aluminium’ (Gilbert 1990 p.31).

O’Neill helped Gilbert experiment with casting work on his own premises in September 1899, bringing sand and two crucibles and building up furnaces in the studio for casting purposes (Gilbert 1987 pp.69, 73). He lent further assistance to Gilbert in setting up his own foundry in April 1900, commencing in house casting work later in the month, ‘O’Neill casts here a spoon in tin.’ (Gilbert 1990 pp.37, 39, 41).

Following Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, there are references on successive days to O’Neill casting in brass both sides of the 1887 Jubilee medallion (see above), and to delivering the obverse and reverse to the silversmith and jeweller, Heming of Conduit Street (Gilbert 1990 p.93; see also Laurence Brown, A Catalogue of British Historical Medals 1760-1960, vol.3, 1995, p.271, no.3693A).

Found a mistake? Have some extra information? Who should be added to this directory? Please contact Jacob Simon at volunteerjsimon@npg.org.uk.