20 July 2023
The eccentric sculptor
who donated his statues
of Boswell and Johnson
to Lichfield and London
Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald (1830-1925) was an Irish-born lawyer, author and critic who became a painter and sculptor later in life, and when he was in his late 70s made public donations of two major works with Lichfield connections: his statue of James Boswell in Lichfiield (1908), and his statue of Dr Samuel Johnson in the Strand, London (1910).
But who was the sculptor who completed these public works at a late stage in life?
And what inspired him to work on them?
Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald was born on 26 April 1830 at Fane Valley near Dundalk, Co Louth. His father Thomas FitzGerald, was an Irish politician and slave trader, who became wealthy in the West Indies as the owner of the slave plantation at Richmond Hill in Demerera, British Guiana (now Guyana).
Thomas Fitzgerald was a son of Christopher Fitzgerald and Anne Esmonde. He was the co-owner of Richmond Hill with his brother Laurence Fitzgerald and Thomas Fitzgerald and his business associate of Thomas Naghten were slave-factors in Demerara in the early 1800s.
When Fitzgerald returned to Ireland with a fortune from slavery and sugar, he bought Fane Valley in Co Louth in August 1823. He was elected MP for Co Louth for Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association in the 1832 general election. He was still in office when he died in 1834.
FitzGerald was the father of two sons: Thomas Christopher Fitzgerald (1820-1871), and Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald (1830-1925).
Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald was educated by the Jesuits, first at Belvedere College in Dublin and then at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, before studying at Trinity College Dublin. He was called to the Irish Bar and for a time crown he was a prosecutor on the north-east circuit and briefly served as high sheriff for Co Louth.
In 1853, and perhaps on other occasions, he made a pretentious claim to the title of ‘Knight of Kerry’, one of three unique hereditary knighthoods in the FitzGerald/FitzMaurice dynasty in Ireland, the others being the Knight of Glin and the White Knight. However, the true Knight of Kerry was Sir Peter George FitzGerald (1808-1880) of Valentia Island.
Percy Fitzgerald stood back from his legal career, and moved to London in the hope of becoming a journalist and writer. He introduced himself to the literary critic and biographer of Charles Dickens, John Forster, who had recently completed a biography of Oliver Goldsmith and was working on another of Jonathan Swift. Forster encouraged Fitzgerald to write and introduced him to Dickens in 1856.
Fitzgerald became a regular contributor to Dickens’s magazine Household Words, founded in 1850, and All the Year Round. Other contributors included William Henry Wills, Edmund Yates, Douglas Jerrold, Blanchard Jerrold, Wilkie Collins, Eliza Lynn Linton and George Augustus Sala.
Claire Tomalin, in Dickens: A Life (2011), describes Fitzgerald as an Irish lawyer with a fluent pen and one of the clever young men Dickens surrounded himself with, ‘aspiring writers who were eager to learn from him and ready to flatter.’ She describes how ‘Dickens gave them work, corrected and improved their copy, was a good friend to them and dined them well.’
Fitzgerald contributed to a variety of journals and papers, including the Temple Bar Magazine, London Society, the Art Journal, the Daily News, the Gentleman’s Magazine, Cassell’s Magazine, and the Illustrated London News.
Fitzgerald was also a drama critic for the Observer and the Whitehall Review, and wrote a series of biographies and histories of the theatre.
He edited the works of Samuel Johnson (1898), wrote biographies of Charles Dickens (1905, 1913), James Boswell (1891, 1911, 1912), David Garrick (1868), Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1886), Laurence Sterne (1864), Charles Lamb (1866), Henry Irving (1893), George IV (1881) and William IV (1884). He produced several histories of theatres and theatre companies, including the Savoy Theatre, the Lyceum and the works of Gilbert and Sullivan.
His output was prolific: at any one time he claimed to be at work on two serials and he is credited with more than 200 publications on a variety of topics including fiction, drama, history, biography, religion, and dramatic criticism. He wrote several volumes of memoirs, in which he included detailed personal recollections of Dickens and his circle.
Most of these books were published by Chapman and Hall. Although his fiction is no longer read, at the time he experienced considerable success with novels such as Bella Donna (1864), published under the pseudonym ‘Gilbert Dyce’, and its sequels, Jenny Bell (1866) and Seventy-five Brooke Street (1867).
His shorter pieces included the Foreword to Dickens’s Dream Children (1895) by Mary Angela Dickens and others.
Fitzgerald married the Hon Dorcas Olivia Skeffington, eldest daughter of John Skeffington, 10th Viscount Massereene and Ferrard, on 8 July 1869. Already, there were interesting Lichfield connections through this marriage.
The Skeffington family were descendants of the Skeffingtons of Fisherwick Hall. Dorcas was a niece of Amelia Spread Deane O’Grady, who eloped to Gretna Green as a young teenager in 1821 to marry Lord Edward Chichester (1799-1889), who became the Dean of Raphoe in 1831. Dorcas’s parents were married in the Deanery in Raphoe, Co Donegal, in 1835. Lord Edward eventually succeeded as 4th Marquess of Donegall in 1883, but he never inherited the vast estates once owned by the family that gave its name to Donegal House on Bore Street in Lichfield.
Dorcas brought her husband a fortune of £12,000. He recalled that they quickly ran through this money, but only briefly experienced financial difficulties before he inherited his father’s fortune when his elder brother died in 1871. Dorcas died on 27 September 1876.
In later life, Fitzgerald turned his hand to being an artist, illustrator, and sculptor. He completed a bust of Dickens in 1900 for the Pump Room in Bath, another in the courtyard of the Prudential Assurance building, Holborn, London, and a bust of Charles Reade, the plaster cast of which is in the National Portrait Gallery.
Most noticeably, Fitzgerald was responsible for the eccentric statues of James Boswell in Lichfield (1908), and of Samuel Johnson behind Saint Clement Danes Church on the Strand, London (1910).
In the inscription on the Boswell statue in Lichfield, Fitzgerald describes himself as the ‘Biographer of Boswell and editor of Boswell’s Johnson.’
The more than life-size bronze figure shows a jaunty, fashionably dressed Boswell, sword at his side, with a comical crown-like hat and a turned-up nose. He stands on a black marble base with a Portland stone plinth.
Three bronze reliefs show Boswell with Johnson in different scenes: travelling together in the Hebrides; Boswell being introduced by Johnson to the Literary Club in London; and Boswell and Johnson dining at the Three Crowns Inn in Lichfield.
Boswell’s name and dates (1740-1795) are on the front bronze panel on the north side, with his heraldic crest at the base. There are additonal decorative medallions with portraits of James Boswell, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds and Mrs Hester Thrale, friend and patron of Johnson and Boswell.
The inscription on the south side reads: ‘The Work of Percy Fitzgerlad MA FSA, Biographer of Boswell, also Editor of Boswell’s Johnson, presented by him to the City of Lichfield.’ Smaller lettering at the base names ‘WR Coleridge-Roberts Mayor, Herbert Russell Town Clerk, 1908.’
Fitzgerald also made the bronze statue of Johnson behind the east end of Saint Clement Danes Church in the Strand, London. The statue, which has been dismissed by critics as ‘grotesque’ and ‘quirky’ and as ‘modelled in a very rough style.’
Johnson used to worship in the church and Fitzgerald depicts him looking past the Law Courts down Fleet Street.
Fitzgerald is said to have copied Johnson’s face from a portrait by Reynolds and a bust by Nollekens. He looks stout and crumpled, as he did in life, and is commenting animatedly on a book he is reading, with two more books and an inkpot at his feet.
The main part of the inscription reads: ‘Samuel Johnson L.L.D. Critic. Essayist. Philologist. Wit. Poet. Moralist. Dramatist. Political Writer. Talker.’ On either side of the Boswell medallion are Johnson’s dates (Born 1709 Died 1784).
Below that is information about the sculptor and the erection of the monument: ‘The gift and handiwork of Percy Fitzgerald FSA and erected by the Revd S. Pennington MA, Rector of St Clement Danes 1910.’
The relief showing Johnson and Boswell in the Highlands is similar to the one on Fitzgerald’s statue of Boswell in Lichfield. A whimsical relief showing Johnson and Mrs Thrale misspells her name as ‘Mrs Thrall’.
The original plan was to have a royal unveiling by Princess Louise. But this was postponed when Edward VII died that very day. Then Septimus Pennington, the Rector at Saint Clements, died just as the statue was ready.
At Fitzgerald’s suggestion, he eventually unveiled his own work as Pennington’s body was brought into the church for lying in rest before his funeral.
Fitzgerald took his sculptures and ‘handiwork’ much more seriously than his writing, and more seriously than his critics: in An output (1912), he mentions up to 50 works.
Nevertheless, he continued to write, and he produced new editions of his biography of Boswell in 1911 and 1912.
However, it must be asked whether Fitzgerald’s sculptures were inspired by his books? Or whether his sculptures were merely an enthusiastic but amateurish and awkward effort to promote his books and their sale?
He remained loyal throughout his life to Dickens. He was in his mid-80s when he published Memories of Charles Dickens in 1914. He was the first president of the Dickens Fellowship, and he presented much of his collection of Dickens memorabilia to the Eastgate Museum in Rochester.
He was 95 when he died on 23 November 1925 at his Bloomsbury home at 37 St George Square, London. His body was brought back to Ireland and he was buried at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.