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Willcox, James Morris (1802-1859)

Willcox, James Morris

Warwick, Warwickshire; carver, cabinet maker (b.c.1802-d.1859)

Born about 1802 to a family of woodcarvers in Bath. After finishing his apprenticeship he was invited to move to Warwick to work for William Cookes. He left after two years to try his luck in London but, presumably having no success, returned to Cookes in Warwick. During the time of his second period of employment by Cookes Willcox carved a head of Bacchus in boxwood on the ‘Warwick vase’ and he took this head on a second trip to London, where he showed it to Jeffrey Wyatt, the architect who had been commissioned by George IV in 1824 to alter and redecorate Windsor Castle. Impressed by Willcox’s work, the contractors employed him. Willcox once again returned to Warwick and at the beginning of the 1830s he took over premises in Chapel Street formerly occupied by Theophilus Taylor, the building contractor at Charlecote.  Pigot’s Directory of 1835 listed him as a ‘carver’ and the business grew so that in Slater’s Directory of 1850 he was recorded as a ‘carver, gilder, cabinet maker, upholsterer, picture and curiosity dealer’. The 1851 census recorded that he employed 6 men and by the time of his death in 1859 he had a work force of about 44 men and boys. On his final return to Warwick Willcox was soon employed by George Hammond Lucy to execute carvings on panelling, doors, chimney-pieces, library chairs & bookcases in the new rooms being altered by Thomas Willement. Tradition holds that ‘Granny’s Summer-house’ at Charlecote was also built by Willcox’s apprentices. Clearly there was a good relationship between this client and Willcox, for in her biography of the family Mrs Lucy wrote in 1862 that ‘On the occasion of the Queen coming to Warwickshire [1858], Lord Leigh, and many more, proposed setting up a subscription to present her Majesty with a magnificent carved oak sideboard, then exhibited for sale by Willcox [sic] of Warwick; the price for which was two thousand pounds. But the Queen declined receiving any such token of our loyalty. I afterwards made Spencer [her son] a present of this very sideboard, and it now stands in the dining room. My dear husband was one of Willcox’s first and greatest patrons, and he employed him to execute all the carving in the library and dinner-rooms, and Willcox never forgot his kindness to him; and on Emily Fitz-Hugh’s marriage, he sent her a present of an arm-chair carved by himself, and a charming little footstool, as a token of his gratitude and regard for her late father and his family. His most anxious wish was that his sideboard, his finest work, should come to Charlecote, and in a note I received from him July 15 [1858], to acknowledge a cheque in part payment for it, he says ‘I assure you nothing gives me greater pleasure when I think the sideboard is at the place I always wished it to be. I assure you I made it to fit the room, and always hoped I might see it there’. This sideboard was known as ‘The Fruits of the Land and the Ocean’ and Willcox reputedly offered it to Mrs Lucy for £1,600; it remains at Charlecote (illus. Symonds & Whineray (1962), pls 16 & 17). John Ruskin commented that ‘it is indeed worthy of Michelangelo’. 

Willcox is known as a serious devotee to the art of carving and a lover of nature, which was reflected in his original style of naturalism. Other clients included Lord and Lady Leigh of Stoneleigh Abbey and the Rev. John Lucy (rector of Hampton Lucy). His obituary in the Leamington Courier, 12 November 1859, mentioned his other principal patrons as Lord Monson, the Earl of Warwick, the Earl of Aylesford, Lord and Lady Dormer, T. Gamber Parry of Hynham Court, Gloucester and Sir Morton Peto at Somerleyton, nr Lowestoft, as well the following carvings: ‘The Eagle’ owned by E Graves Esq, MP, ‘The Owl’ owned by Henry Bradley Esq of Leamington and ‘Dead Game’ owned by Mr Platow of Manchester.    

In addition to his furniture making Willcox was known as a furniture broker/dealer. The dealer John Coleman Isaac sold him ‘a large oak cabinet inlaid with ebony, and three spears’ for £25 in March 1836. Henry Cooke’s Historical Guide to Warwick Castle (1851) described Willcox’s shop: ‘in the present age of Elizabethan revival, it would be unpardonable on our parts to omit conducting our readers to Mr Willcox’s cabinet of Elizabethan gems, in Chapel Street. To a fine imaginary fancy Mr Willcox combines rare talent, superior execution and a keen eye to his future fame; his carvings are finished speciments, and his talents are in constant requisition by those who best know how to appreciate merit and have the best means of rewarding it. His collection of antiques, as well as his own works, is extensive and beautiful, and the kind way in which he opens the fruitful stores of his mind to please his visitors, renders his repository a pleasing report’. 

Willcox was found drowned in a butt of water at his work place; there was no suspicion of foul play and it was not believed that Willcox was in poor mental or physical health. His previous employers, Cookes, Sons and Meres, held a sale of Willcox’s stock in February 1860. This included the stock of veneers and wood, ‘highly-finished cabinet and upholstery furniture many elaborate specimens of modern carving, as, also, some exquisite examples of earlier epochs’, design books, oil paintings, bronzes and miscellaneous works of art. Willcox’s former apprentice and then carver, Thomas Henry Kendall, took over the workshops.

Sources: Aslin, 19th Century English Furniture (1962); Symonds and Whineray, Victorian Furniture (1962); Stevens, The Woodcarvers of Warwick (1980); Westgarth, A Biographical Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Antique and Curiosity Dealers (2009).