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Joseph William Swynnerton

Epithet: Stonemason and sculptor (1848-1910)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

The building of King William's College just outside Castletown (1830-33) saw a number of artisans coming to the Island to work on this major project. Amongst them was Charles Swinnerton, born in Liverpool as part of a family going back to Aslen, Lord of Swynnerton, whose name appears in the Domesday Book.

Charles took up lodgings at Castletown whilst he dressed limestone blocks for the building of the college. He met Mary Callister of Cronk Rhenney who kept a small school in the St Marks area. They married in St Mary's Church, Castletown, on 13th August 1834 and moved to Douglas where Swynnerton worked as a stone cutter and monumental mason for Messrs Quiggin. Eventually he set up in partnership with Daniel Creer and then as a sole trader.

The couple's fourth son, Joseph, was born on 6th July 1848 and brought up in the family home at 60 Fort Street, close to the rear of St Barnabas' Church. Joseph was educated in part at the Middle School in Dalton Street, Douglas. He left at the age of fourteen in 1862 to be apprenticed to his father, who at that time employed two masons and five labourers. Joseph's eldest brother Mark had already emigrated to Australia, his next brother Charles had obtained a first class degree and after a brief period of teaching at Ramsey Grammar School had been ordained, later becoming a government chaplain in India,and brother Robert who was three years hissenior had been apprenticed to a local watchmaker, later taking over the business.

Joseph worked on headstones, carving the small lettering which was a particular feature of his father's work and distinguished it from the work of all other monumental masons on the Island. Charles was capable of more than just lettering, and examples of his ability to carve can be seen on the 'cholera' headstone in St George's Churchyard, with its scene from the last day of judgement, and in Braddan Cemetery where the headstone of a ship's captain has sail, anchor, guns and the stern of a ship all cleverly portrayed. There are many other examples throughout the Island, and Joseph learned at his father's side, without any formal or artistic training but showing a natural talent.

In 1868 Joseph carved the plaque to be erected on the widows' houses in Muckles Gate,Douglas and also the angel heads that acted as dripstone bosses on the front of Finch Hill Congregational Church and the Revd William Carpenter's memorial in St Barnabas' Church. He relied on art books and journals for his inspiration and had many a discussion on art matters with John Miller Nicholson.

At the age of 20, at the behest of his father, he went to Edinburgh for a few months to study at the Academy. Here he learned to model in clay, gaining a prize for his expertise. On returning to the Island he executed busts of his father, brother Robert and Mr Brearley the chemist. He also carved a bust of High Bailiff Samuel Harris which was put on show in the window of booksellers Mylrea & Allen before being presented to His Worship. He continued to work for his father for a few months and in his spare time studied anatomy from books.

When he was 21 Joseph entered the Academy of St Luke in Rome. In his first year he won Pope Pius IX's silver medal and the following year he won the gold medal, both for his sculpture. On leaving the academy he executed a half-lifesize statue of 'Cain' which drew commendations from Ruskin and was exhibited in the Royal Academy. It was also exhibited in Manchester, resulting in several commissions from local businessmen including Abel Heywood, whose bust still stands in Manchester Town Hall where he was once Lord Mayor.

Joseph brought 'Cain' to the Isle of Man where it was exhibited the following year next to his 'Cupid and Psyche'. He was elected a member of the Manchester Literary Society and the Manchester Academy of Art. He worked from his studio in the Piazza Trinity Monti in Rome where over the years he was visited by his father, John Nicholson, Arthur William Moore and Deemster Richard Sherwood. From time to time he read the poems of the Revd Thomas Edward Brown for relaxation. He became a member of the Italian Alpine Club and with its members he climbed the highest peaks of the Apennines.

Joseph Swynnerton produced many statues of both a religious and secular nature. Examples can still be seen in the Jesuit Church in Farm Street, London and St Winifred's in Holywell. Several examples were in Peel Park, Manchester, and a colossal statue of Queen Victoria was set up at Southend-on-Sea. His work was purchased by some of the major collectors and was admired by Burne Jones, Alma Tadema and Holman Hunt.

On trips back to the Island he carved busts of many local dignitaries, and several of these works are now displayed in the Bay Room Restaurant in the Manx Museum. His marble bust of Deemster Sherwood is to be found in Douglas Town Hall, but his plaster bust of Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine which stood for many years in the entrance hall of Douglas Public Library was regrettably destroyed in an accident.

In 1883 Swynnerton married Annie Robinson, born the youngest of seven children in Salford where her father was a solicitor. She had studied in Paris and Rome after her formal training at Manchester School of Art. It was whilst she was in Rome that she met Joseph and theymade their home there until his death in 1910 when she returned to live in Britain. She was the founder of the Manchester Society of Women Painters, along with Isabel Dacre, and was the first woman elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1922.

Joseph's younger brother Frederick was also an artist and had a deep interest in things antiquarian, particularly those connected with the Isle of Man. Both brothers decided to revert to the old spelling of the family name with the letter 'y', whereas the rest of the family continued with an 'i'. When his father retired from business he built a house for himself at the Smelt on Rhenwyllan, Port St Mary. The house incorporated a first floor studio with proper north light and this proved to be of use to the artistic members of the family when they visited.

It was here that Joseph carved portrait busts of some local dignitaries or produced plaster models such as that of Pierre Henri Joseph Baume. Not long before his death he was commissioned to carve a bust of A.W. Moore, late Speaker of the House of Keys, to be placed in the Keys Chamber along with that of former Speaker Sir John Goldie-Taubman which he had previously executed.

Joseph Swynnerton suffered from a heart complaint and in the summer of 1910 he travelled from Rome to London to see a specialist. He returned to The Studio a dying man and it was there that he died on 10th August. He was buried in Kirk Maughold Churchyard where some years previously he had expressed a wish to lie.

Biography written by Peter Kelly.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.435-7.)

Culture Vannin


Gender: Male

Date of birth: 6 July 1848

Date of death: 10 August 1910

Place of death: Isle of Man

Name Variant: Swynnerton, Joseph W.


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