John Cheere’s reduction of Peter Scheemakers’ life-size Figure of William Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey was almost certainly taken from Scheemakers’ original terracotta maquette (now lost). Scheemakers was a Flemish artist who worked very successfully in England for the majority of his life. His sculpture of William Shakespeare was the work which made his reputation. The cult of Shakespeare grew rapidly in the first half of the 18th century, and in 1739 it was thought that the Bard should be commemorated with a monument in Westminster Abbey. The overall design was given to William Kent and Scheemakers was able to manoeuvre that he should be given the commission without competition. The likeness of Shakespeare was taken from ‘The Chandos Portrait’ (not in the National Gallery) which was thought to have been painted from life by the actor Richard Burbage. Scheemakers succeeded in infusing the work with a life which the painting, despite its period authenticity, lacked and in doing so made himself one of the most celebrated sculptors in England. The popularity of both Shakespeare and Scheemakers’ statue was massively augmented when the statuette was taken up by the Derby Porcelain factory around 1758 and reproduced on a rococo scroll base. The figure continued to be reproduced in various ceramic bodies throughout the second half of the 18th century. Examples are known made in Biscuit Porcelain, Copeland Parian and Staffordshire Salt Glaze Stoneware. Thomas Wedgwood also made a version in Black Basalt in 1769 probably as a merchandising response to the Shakespeare Jubilee.
The publication of sculpture often bridged the gap between high culture and mass culture. One sculptural medium which was always on the fringes of artistic respectability and which frequently relied on serial reproduction to sustain its practitioners was wax modelling. One of the technical advantages of wax modelling was that it could be reproduced relatively easily by making an intermediate plaster from which further waxes could be cast. The nature of the medium’s subject matter, the portrait-required that sculptors rely on other means than the reputation of their works to solicit commissions. Wax modellers were, usually independent practitioners who often lead almost itinerant lifestyles. Setting up makeshift studios in the premises of other businesses, jewellers, booksellers or toymakers, they would take orders and execute likenesses of sitters in a fraction of the time that a portrait painter would need.
Samuel Percy used the local press to advertise his services, announcing to prospective clients of Tunbridge Wells that he ‘has now arrived & shall now receive orders for likenesses for a short time…at the Great Rooms on the Walks, where numbers of specimens may be seen of Subjects taken from life and after demise’. Percy continues, ‘the shortness, cheapness and similitude to the human face, give [waxes] the preference to any method attempted in the miniature way. In Gore’s Liverpool General Advertiser 1782 we find ‘No formal sittings [are] necessary, nor half the time taken up which professional portrait painters are obliged to use’. Percy was born in Dublin in 1750. In 1780 he came to England and worked the fashionable provincial towns like Brighton, Chester, Liverpool and Tunbridge Wells before settling in London and specialising in Wax Tableaux Vivants featuring such scenes as ‘The Death of Voltaire’ and ‘Frederick the Great in his last Illness’. Percy was also an accomplished portraitist as his likeness of Richard Reynolds shows.
Reynolds was an important Quaker philanthropist, a member of the new class of wealthy self made industrialists in 18th century England amongst whom the realism of Wax Portraiture found favour against the fashionably heroic classicising tendencies of contemporary portraiture. That Reynolds’ portrait was reproduced is not at all surprising. In an age before the invention of photography, wax modelling was frequently a less expensive alternative to painting, and more informative than cut silhouettes. T. R. Pool, one of Percy’s contemporaries, charged 10 guineas for a portrait modelled from life, but made ‘free of expense the Head of a Gentleman, on receiving a guarantee for twenty Copies’.