Sculpture 31 Who is the sitter in this bust by Eli Johnson (1850–1881)?

Topic: Subject or sitter

This man appears to be wearing academic robes. The sculpture was accessioned by an unknown man and the collection has no record of the sitter. They believe it dates to c.1880 and to a London studio. Eli Johnson lived at 11 Hugh Street, Eccleston Square, Pimlico SW1, from around 1878 to 1881.

Is any more known about the artist? His exhibitions are listed at ‘Mapping the Practice and Profession of Sculpture in Britain & Ireland 1851–1951’.

RA exhibition catalogues checked: 1878, no. 1530, Robert Chettle, Esq.’, bust (posthumous); 1879, no. 1540, ‘William Collins, Esq.’; 1880, no. 1591, ‘George Palmer, Esq., M. P.’, bust, marble.

Marion Richards, Art Detective Manager, Entry reviewed by Art UK


Gregory Burgess,

Eli Johnson was born in 1850 and died 14/1/1881 at the early age of 31 years. He was an English sculptor, who was a pupil of J E Boehm, and was a successful sculptor, and was one of the twelve sculptors invited to compete for the Sir Rowland Hill Memorial.
American Art Review; The British Friend, p. 76, 1875 and The Artist magazine, Feb. 1, 1881

Martin Hopkinson,

The museums have 20 works by this sculptor. Did his widow or heirs give them the contents of his studio? The local newspapers c. 1881-2 perhaps will provide information. Is the sitter wearing municipal rather than academic robes?
There is a monument in Reading to George Palmer MP unveiled in 1891 - he was the Palmer of Huntley and Palmers. He had a full head of hair.

Martin Hopkinson,

Is Robert Chettle really Chettlefield? see Mapping the practice and profession of sculpture...
all the other sitters listed on Mapping ... are not bald in the NPG's holdings of their likenesses

Gregory Burgess,

Northants burial records suggest an 1851 birth year and 30 years at passing.

Gregory Burgess,

I haven't got a subscription to a ancestry company but I can confirm that Eli Johnson was born in Northamptonshire and in the 1851 cesus he is aged ten months which means he was born in May 1850. Someone with access to the record should find his details. Father's name also Eli; Mother was Hannah.

Gregory Burgess,

Ok this is my last contribution to the matter. In the 1851 census (30 March) Eli Johnson is 10 moths old. His father is also Eli and is described as a Master Confectioner. His parents were from Buckinghamshire. They are in the Parish of Northampton All Saints. In 1871 census Eli is apprenticed as a cabinet maker. No records as yet for him in London as apprentice to J E Boehm.
The Guardian newspaper for January 14 1879 reports that the previous day a marble bust of the late Mr Charles Gilpin MP by Eli Johnson was presented to Northampton Museum by subscription. The next record I can add is a report in The Northern Echo, 2nd February 1881 is the death of Eli Johnson, sculptor in Northampton. he probably died at his parents' home in the Parish of St. Giles. Johnson had a very short but prolific career.

Kieran Owens,

Attached is the probate record for Eli Johnson, who died on the 14th January 1881, at, as you guessed correctly Gregory, his father's house at 45, Victoria Road, Northampton.

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Kieran Owens,

Hi birth in Northampton is registered in the 2nd quarter of 1850.

Kieran Owens,

Martin, some of the 20 works in the Northampton collection were donated to the Museum by Eli Johnson's mother in 1901 and a large number of works were bequeathed through his sister's will in 1913. The Johnson family were Quakers. One newspaper report states that a large proportion of his work consisted of posthumous busts.

Osmund Bullock,

Martin, it *is* Chettle (not Chettlefield). The RA-exhibited bust was of Robert Chettle (c.1814-1877) of Kettering, Northants, a well-to-do farmer and grocer, but also (inter alia) a vice-chairman of the Board of Governors of Kettering Union Workhouse (1871), and a sidesman (assistant churchwarden) at his local church (1871-5). I can imagine either of those positions requiring a simple gown in Victorian times - in fact I have an image in my mind of a churchwarden in my youth wearing just such a gown over a suit, and carrying his official 'wand' - perhaps they still do. The bow-tie and unusual frilled shirt in ours is a bit worrying, but he's still a possible.

Attached is a newspaper article (Northampton Mercury 4/5/1878) that mentions the Chettle bust, along with several other works by Johnson, including busts of Charles Gilpin (referenced by Gregory above), C H Spurgeon, (Joseph) Bevan Braithwaite and W H Holmes 'of the Royal Academy of Music'. Gilpin had a very big beard (, Spurgeon a beard and thick hair (, Braithwaite also plenty of head hair ( I can't find an image of Chettle.

W(illiam) H(enry) Holmes was a musician & composer, and Professor of Piano at the RAM ( He probably fits the clothes and gown bill better than Chettle, but unfortunately I can't find a picture of him either.

Osmund Bullock,

Just noticed that in the RA exhibitors' book Chettle's bust is described a terracotta. Johnson may have done a plaster from the terracotta as well, but I suppose it slightly reduces the chances of this being him.

The 'William Collins Esq' one exhib RA in 1879 is of William Collins (1792-1876) of Monk's Park, Northampton (another quaker, and posthumous again) - see attached newspaper report. Need a picture of him, and to know something of his life vis a vis the gown making sense or not.

The same 1879 article mentions another bust in progress, of 'the Rev. Dr Moffatt'; this probably refers to Dr Robert Moffatt the African missionary, as I see that Northampton also has an 1875 plaster portrait tondo of his son-in-law Dr Livingstone by Johnson. Moffatt was at this period another very hairy man (, so not our sitter.

Martin Hopkinson,

Are we sure that this is by Johnson and not by one of his friends and contemporaries? Is it inscribed or dated? Exchange of works between friends is far from unknown artists

Martin Hopkinson,

Does Northampton Museum and Gallery have photographs of all the busts and statues which are in the Town Hall?

Many thanks for sharing your thoughts on the sitter and information on Eli Johnson. It is really useful to hear the various theories on this. I've just had a look at our digital records and photos of the sculptor and unfortunately it doesn't seem to be inscribed by Johnson whereas the majority of sculptures by him in our collection are. Equally I don't have a donor for the work listed but this may be in our paper based records. The index card is written in the same hand and at the same time as many of our Johnson busts' index cards so it is likely it was accessioned at the same time and thus could have come in with some of the other works by Johnson, but I can't be sure on this. Our registrar is on annual leave but I will ask him to look into the accession registers on his return to see if we can find out when it came in to the collection and who donated it.

Hi Martin,
Yes we do have photographs of the busts in the museum's collection I have attached an example of an inscribed bust of Moses by Eli Johnson and the back of this bust of an unknown gentlemen.

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I have also found further information on the artist that fits the biographical details that you have discovered, and thought I would share these (taken from a museum label):

Eli Johnson was born in Northampton in 1850 and lived in Victoria Road in the town centre. Although he was initially apprenticed as a cabinet maker he began to show a talent for sculpture. After studying at the school of Science and Art he was introduced by his patron Earl Spencer to the prominent London sculptor Sir Joseph Boehm and soon began exhibiting at the Royal Academy. Johnson died of congestion of the lungs at age 31 so his talent as a sculptor is magnified by the fact that his career only spanned 10 years.

Martin Hopkinson,

My question was about photographs of the sculpture in Godwin's magnificent Town Hall. Does the museum and art gallery have photographs of them in its files?
In my opinion this bust does not look like the work of an artist who trained with Boehm.

Thanks for your opinion on the artist Martin and apologies, no we don't have photographs of the sculptures in the Guildhall, the courtyard sculptures will be photographed as part of the Art UK photography project in due course. If you are referring to the statues in the façade of Godwin's original building, these can be seen quite well on Google maps:,-0.8947971,3a,77.9y,29.48h,106.63t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1sGNvmDOP0ML0XpX9xwbozQg!2e0!6s//!7i16384!8i8192

Apologies the link above doesn't take you straight to street view but on street view you can clearly see the façade

Osmund Bullock,

A very good question, Martin. Of those attributed to Eli Johnson, and so far photographed by and uploaded to Art UK (, the only portrait bust certainly by him is this terracotta self-portrait of 1880: There are nine other images of it accessible on the same page, and the style is certainly very different from our one. I suppose it's possible that he sculpted in a very different manner for his 'official' busts, especially the posthumous ones (?intended for memorials), but the difference is pretty dramatic.

A new Sculpture Group will be added soon, led by Katharine Eustace, our current group leader for 'Portraits: British 20th C'. Until the new group goes onto the website, I will add the few sculpture discussions to Katharine's group so that she can see them all.

Osmund Bullock,

I've managed to find just two images of other works by Johnson online. One is an 1879 statue (nearly 4 ft high) of the Queen of Sheba that went through Bonham's a few years ago –; the other, and perhaps more useful, is the marble bust of George Palmer, MP, that was exhibited at the RA in 1880 (commissioned in 1879), and is part of the Huntley & Palmer collection at Reading Museum (though not on their website) –

It would be of course be enormously helpful if we could also see even quick digital snaps of any or all of the other busts in the Northampton collection – those of Charles Gilpin (X645) and George Ward Hunt (X584), both 1877; the two different unknown men of 1878 (X468 & X469); and the 1874 marble of Prince Albert (X482, if that is a bust). I have also emailed the Courtauld's Conway Library to see if they have a file on Johnson with photos – if so I will visit.

However, even on the sparse evidence we already have, I think Martin is right to suspect that the work under discussion may not by Eli Johnson at all. Attached is a composite of ours with his self-portrait and the bust of Palmer, and you can see how utterly unlike them it is in style and technique – note particularly the completely different way of depicting the hair and eyes (also seen in his Queen of Sheba statue). If ours is by Johnson, too, then it would seem that either it is a work from before his training with Boehm, or it must have been an experiment (or commission) in a deliberately different, rather Graeco-Roman style.

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Osmund Bullock,

You are absolute stars, Northampton, thank you: that is the fastest and most helpful response imaginable. It may well now be possible to identify all the anonymous sitters, as I've found a newspaper report that lists all the Eli Johnson works that had just been bequeathed to the Corporation by his sister Annie Johnson, along with those that it already held. More of that later.

To focus on the discussion's work, I now believe this portrait bust *is* by Johnson after all! The key evidence is the 1874 marble bust of Prince Albert (x482), which is several years earlier than any of the others. In it you can see that the treatment is more akin to ours - again note the hair and (especially) eyes. The whole bust is in a somewhat naive, untrained version of early C19th British classical style portraiture; there is no sign yet of the more relaxed and fluid handling that he learned from Boehm, and that characterizes his works of 1877-80. Attached is a side-by-side comparison of Albert with our bust.

So I think the reluctant hypothesis in my last post may actually be right. This is a work by the young Johnson, then a cabinet maker and wood carver who is just beginning to work with stone. This and Prince Albert are the sort of works that caused Earl Spencer to be so impressed with his natural ability that he introduced him to Boehm; and under whose guidance, as the obituary relates, Eli "made rapid progress".

I will deal with who the sitter might be (and the same for the others) in another post - but see the attached 1913 article which holds the key to unravelling their identities. What we need now is to find evidence that his training under Boehm took place at some point between 1874 and 1877.

Martin Hopkinson,

Indeed the hair and beard of the
is bust of Prince Albert do look similar to those in this bust of an unknown man

Northampton Museums & Art Gallery, I wonder whether the excellent images of the busts (attached above, '1 day ago') have been shared with the Sculpture Project Coordinator for your region? It would be very good to try to add them to Art UK. Some of them appear to be against a professional backdrop, others more like snaps in the store?

You are most welcome Osmund, we really value everyone's contributions and research into this bust so if we are able to help then we are most happy to! Will be interested to hear more on who you think the sitter may be soon. But I am glad to know that it may indeed be by Eli Johnson after all, and being able to roughly date the work to his early period is most useful!

Thank you Marion, I will get in touch with our Regional Coordinator to see if they may be added to the website. I think they may have seen some of them previously and they weren't of high enough resolution/ quality but will see if they are allowing 'record shots' to be shared on the website.

Gregory Burgess,

I have attached a birth certificate record for Eli Johnson. He was born on the 27th May 1850 .
His father Eli is listed as a confectioner. His mother's maiden name is Hannah Baines. (handwriting not v clear though).
We've managed to gather together a deal of information in just over a week which is gratifying. I do enjoy this website.
Thanks Marion

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Osmund Bullock,

Thanks for that, Gregory. I think the mother's maiden name reads 'Barnes' rather than 'Baines' - this ties in with the civil marriage index, which records a marriage for Eli Johnson and Hannah Barnes at Northampton in 1847 (1st quarter). To complicate matters she is also indexed as 'Hannah Burnes', but with the evidence of your birth certificate this seems likely to be a mistake. Eli père sadly long outlived his artist son (his only one), dying at Northampton in 1893.

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