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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Illingworth, Nelson William (1862–1926)

by Noel S. Hutchison

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Nelson William Illingworth (1862-1926), sculptor, was born in August 1862 at Portsmouth, England, son of Thomas Illingworth, plasterer, and his wife Sarah, née Harvey. With his parents he migrated as a child to the United States of America. At 14 he returned to England, was apprenticed to a plasterer at Brighton and studied drawing and modelling at the art school there. After completing his articles, he was employed as a model-maker and modeller in the art department of the Royal Doulton potteries, Lambeth, London, for nine years. He also studied at the City and Guilds of London School of Modelling, under the noted teacher of sculpture W. S. Frith. On 20 July 1884 at St Barnabas Church, Kensington, he married 16-year-old Hannah Elizabeth Martha Johnson.

Illingworth and his family arrived in Sydney on 28 February 1892. He was employed as instructor in modelling at Sydney Technical College but was retrenched in 1893 and set up his own studio. Unable to make a living by sculpture alone, he set up the Denbrae Fine Art Pottery at Forest Lodge to manufacture a large range of flowerpots, fernpots and statuettes. Among his early works were the figure-head for the pilot-ship Captain Cook and heads of Aboriginals. From 1895 he exhibited portrait busts, including a series of heads of Aboriginals, and statuettes with the Society of Artists, Sydney, and later with the (Royal) Art Society of New South Wales. Despite producing notable busts of Victor Daley and Cardinal Patrick Moran in 1899, chronic rheumatism hampered his work and he was declared bankrupt in 1900. He had recovered his health by 1902.

From the 1890s Illingworth produced portrait busts of such notable men as (Sir) Edmund Barton, (Sir) George Reid, (Sir) Thomas Hughes, Archbishop Saumarez Smith, Lord Hopetoun and (Sir) Denison Miller. His medallion portrait, statuette and life-sized figure of Sir Henry Parkes were executed between 1895 and 1902. He was commissioned by the New Zealand government to produce a bust of R. J. Seddon and in February 1908 Illingworth accepted a commission for ten portrait busts of Maori chiefs at fifty guineas each. He lived with Maori tribes while working on the busts, but his commission was terminated after he had completed eight; this led to an acrimonious exchange on copyright with the New Zealand solicitor-general. Returning to Sydney, Illingworth produced, among others, the excellent bust of Henry Lawson in 1915 and the unorthodox informal life-size statue of James Manifold erected at Camperdown, Victoria, in 1921. He held an exhibition at Anthony Hordern's Fine Art Gallery in 1924.

A smallish, stocky man, Illingworth generally wore his unconventional 'long curly hair flowing over a poncho-like cape, and a turned down collar'. He was a genial, lively and notable Sydney Bohemian who enjoyed life to the full, but his reputation as a sculptor probably suffered as a result. Much of his portrait work is vigorous and very perceptive, although usually composed for a single viewpoint. He was preparing a design for the Lawson monument when he died suddenly of heart disease on 26 June 1926 at Harbord; he was buried in the Roman Catholic section of Northern Suburbs cemetery. His wife, two sons and two daughters survived him; Nelson, his elder son, was well known as a singer before going to the United States.

Illingworth's portrait by Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo is held by the Art Gallery of South Australia and a bust by Paul Montfort by his family; his own work is represented in the major Australian galleries.

Select Bibliography

  • G. A. Taylor, Those Were the Days (Syd, 1918)
  • K. Parkes, Sculpture of Today, vol 1 (Lond, 1921)
  • R. Lindsay, Model Wife (Syd, 1967)
  • K. W. Scarlett, Australian Sculptors (Melb, 1980)
  • Australian Society for Historical Archaeology, Newsletter, 7 (1977), no 2, p 9
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 May 1937
  • bankruptcy file 10/23292 (State Records New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Noel S. Hutchison, 'Illingworth, Nelson William (1862–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 27 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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