Charles James Fox (1749-1806) was the third and favourite son of the 1st Lord Holland, after whose death in 1774 he became Whig, follower of Lord Rockingham and a statesman of increasingly radical views. The most able speaker in the House of Commons, Fox was the centre of the 'Foxite' Whigs. Famed as much for his sense of fashion, daring gambling and passionate affairs, as for his oratory gifts, Fox cut a colourful figure throughout his life and enjoyed a loyal following of admirers, including both young dandies and canny politicians.
This grisaille is after Nollekens's famous first marble bust of Fox, which was modelled in 1790, presumably to the order of Earl Fitzwilliam, and was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1791, no. 632. In June 1791, the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia requested the marble bust for her own collection; since Fox, by his eloquence, had prevented war between Britain and Russia over the Otchakoff affair. Fitzwilliam obliged the Empress, and the bust is now in the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg. A replacement marble bust, dated 1791, was sent to Fitzwilliam and placed next to the statue of Lord Rockingham in the mausoleum at Wentworth Woodhouse. At least eleven marble versions of this type are known; eight can be dated 1791-93, all (save perhaps one) having an impeccable Foxite provenance. The version now in the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art at Yale was made for one of Fox's closest friends and admirers, Lord Robert Spencer, who placed it in a classicising shrine at Woolbeding House.
This first type is not to be confused with a second type, which was modelled by Nollekens for the 4th Duke of Bedford in 1801. Kenworth-Browne noted, 'Aristocratic and extravagant in his private life, Fox inspired a devotion amongst his supporters that was best expressed at Woburn Abbey, where, in 1802, the 4th Duke of Bedford created a Temple of Liberty containing a bust of Fox accompanied by six heads of his friends' (The Treasure Houses of Britain, exhibition catalogue, Washington, 1985, no. 476, p. 539). This second type, also much reproduced and disseminated among Fox's supporters and admirers, depicts the statesman in a Roman toga, with close-cropped hair and more classical pose and expression.
Joseph Nollekens, R.A (1737-1823) was apprenticed to Peter Scheemakers in 1750, before studying in Rome during the 1760s. It was in these years that he received his first major commissions to sculpt portrait busts, including those of David Garrick, Laurence Sterne and Giovanni Battista Piranesi. He was made A.R.A. in 1771 and R.A. in the following year, and was a regular exhibitor at the Academy until 1816. After his death in 1823, the contents of his studio were sold at Christie's.
The present picture relates closely to a mezzotint by William Pether (1792), which publicised the acquisition of the bust by the Empress of Russia. Pether was one of the most successful mezzotint engravers of the day, specialising in reproductive prints after Old Master paintings--especially works by Rembrandt. A pupil of Thomas Frye and a cousin of the landscape painter Abraham Pether, William Pether also worked as a painter in oils and as a miniaturist. The inscription on his mezzotint of the Nollekens bust--'Drawn & Engraved by W Pether F.S.A.'-- may suggest that the grisaille, with its virtuoso attention to modelling and highlights, may have been painted as an intermediary stage for Pether's engraving. As a printmaker who was accustomed to working from oil paintings, it is plausible that Pether painted the present picture to fix the tonal values of the bust before translating them into the mezzotint; the work may therefore provide a special insight into the reproductive engraver's practice.