F.J. [Francis John] Williamson
Life beyond Elmbridge
Reputedly Queen Victoria's favourite sculptor, Francis John Williamson was born in Camden Town in 1833, the older son of Frank Edward and Mary Betsey Williamson. On his mother's side he was related to Admiral Nelson. Williamson was educated at a private school in Hampstead where he decided that he wanted to become a sculptor and was fortunate to come to the attention of John Bell (1811-1895) the sculptor of the Crimean War Guards' memorial (Waterloo Place, London, 1861) who took him on as a student at Somerset House, then the home of the Royal Academy (R.A.). Whilst there he met the Irish sculptor, John Henry Foley R.A. (1818-1874) to whom he was apprenticed for seven years. He was Foley's only apprentice and assistant and worked with him for fourteen years after completing his training. Williamson exhibited at the R.A. at the age of twenty but did not win favour with the academicians because he found it difficult to meet Exhibition deadlines! It was his connection with Foley, which brought him to Queen Victoria's notice when she personally commissioned Foley to sculpt the statue of the Prince Consort for the Albert Memorial. The Queen unexpectedly visited Foley's studio when he was not there and formed an instant rapport with his assistant that was to be of great benefit to him.
Life in Elmbridge
F.J.Williamson moved to Esher in about 1856 to recover from an illness. In 1857, he married Elizabeth Smith and their home was 'Fairholme' (later renamed 'The Bunch of Grapes' and now known as 'The Grapes') in Esher High Street. He lived in Esher until his death in 1920. Esher, of course, was close to Claremont with its many royal connections. Williamson has many statues in and around Esher. In 1870 Queen Victoria commissioned him to execute the memorial at Claremont to Princess Charlotte and her husband, Prince Leopold, afterwards King of the Belgians, now in St. George's Church; a large statue of Queen Victoria stands on The Green in Esher High Street, outside 'The Grapes'; sculptures of Prince Leopold and the memorial bust of the Duke of Albany are in Christ Church; and the charming Shrubsole Memorial Fountain, an allegorical group of a woman holding an urn and a child, is in Kingston-upon-Thames. Williamson was fortunate to live near A.B. Burton's Bronze Foundry in Summer Road, Thames Ditton as the Foundry cast at least thirty of his sculptures, including those of Andromeda, Mary Magdalene and The Gladiator's Wife.
His 1870 commission from Queen Victoria led to many more. He had sittings from nearly all members of the Royal Family and modelled the Queen several times; he lent twenty-nine Royal busts and statues to an exhibition at the Crystal Palace. Williamson executed the Jubilee bust of the Queen in 1887, replicas of which went all over the Empire. His work can be seen throughout the UK: a marble bust of the Duke of Cambridge at the Guildhall in London; statues of Sir Josiah Wright, Priestley and George Damson in Birmingham; statues of Sir John Pearson and the Rev. Hugh Stowell Brown in Liverpool and his bronze statue of Queen Victoria in Dunn Square, Paisley (1901). Williamson's most famous statue outside the UK is probably that of Queen Victoria in Christchurch, New Zealand (1903).
Francis John Williamson had an interesting, successful and fulfilling life. A chance meeting with Queen Victoria opened many doors for him professionally which led to his meeting and working with not only several members of the Royal Family, but many of the great figures of his day including Mr Balfour, Matthew Arnold, the first Lord Coleridge and Tennyson. George Meredith, the author, stayed with Williamson in Esher for many years. His work can still be seen in his own locality, throughout Britain and in the former Empire. Francis John Williamson is also commemorated by a bronze relief on green marble placed in the South porch of Christ Church, Esher by his daughter and more recently, by the first blue plaque awarded by Esher Residents' Blue Plaque Scheme, which was affixed to the wall of 'The Grapes' in Esher High Street.
- 1851 Census, www.ancestry.co.uk
- Elmbridge Museum's Archive of A.B.Burton's Bronze Foundry, Thames Ditton
- Esher Residents Blue Plaque Scheme, www.esher-residents.com
- George Thomas Noszlopy & Jeremy Beach,National Recording Project, Public Sculpture of Birmingham: including Sutton Coldfield
- Obituary of F.J.Williamson, The Times, 13 March, 1920; pg.18; Issue 42358; col.B, Surrey Libraries, The Times Digital Archive 1785-1985