Patience Lovell Wright Full Biography
I was born on Long Island in 1725, but came to live in Bordentown, New Jersey at the age of four. My father, John Lovell, was a devout Quaker and brought up his children “to acknowledge no distinction between men, but that which is produced by superior virtue or distinguished merit.” He also taught us to be strict vegetarians and avoid using animal-made products like leather, and always dress completely in white, symbolizing purity.
By age twenty-one, I had become so passionate about art, especially sculpting, that I disobeyed my father for the first time and left our farm to move to Philadelphia, the center of the American art world. I had trouble making ends meet though, so when fellow Quaker Joseph Wright asked me to marry him I accepted, though he had little but “age and money” to recommend him, and we moved back to Bordentown. Joseph died unexpectedly in 1769 while I was pregnant with our fifth child. My older sister Rachel, also a widow, suggested we start a business making sculptures out of wax – a newly popular material. Our Bordentown neighbor, Francis Hopkinson, offered to back us financially.
We soon had two thriving waxwork salons; Rachel’s in Philadelphia and mine in New York City. Jane Mecom, Benjamin Franklin’s sister, suggested that I move to London where Ben could introduce me to all the important people. I took her advice and my London waxworks salon was soon full of politicians and celebrities, all wanting me to sculpt them. While they posed, I entertained each one with stories drawn from my sculptures of New Jersey people from my childhood such as my parents and Bordentown area Indian Chief John Pombelus, as well as expressing my views on current events. I shared my views openly and honestly with people of all stations in life, even the King whom I addressed plainly as “George.”
As tensions grew between the British government and the American Colonies, I strongly supported William Pitt who pushed Parliament to adopt a more pro-American policy. After the Boston Tea Party, he hoped for reconciliation and repeal of the laws punishing Boston. Pitt asked me to find information he could use to support his arguments for repeal. I was able to report to him that the destroyed tea had been “three years old, moldy, unsellable.” More importantly, I compiled a list of American merchants who had been willing to compensate the British government for the destroyed tea in order to prevent the passage of the harsh “Intolerable Acts.” They had also “begged time to bring the offenders to justice and not punish the innocent with the guilty.” However, this offer was rejected by Prime Minister Lord North. Pitt’s efforts were in vain and war came, ending my friendship with George III, who I wrote had hardened his heart like Pharoah of the Bible. For the rest of my life I referred to George III as “Pharoah” in my correspondence.
Throughout the conflict, I sent letters to the Continental Congress reporting whatever military and political news came my way in my many business and social conversations. I smuggled out some of these letters by inserting them inside the heads of wax statues that I sent to Rachel’s salon in Philadelphia. Rachel forwarded the letters to the Congress. I tried my best to give accurate information, but I could not verify everything and I may have been given misinformation. I just couldn’t tell.
I also wrote to Benjamin Franklin about the plight of American prisoners languishing in British jails. Although prisoner exchanges were difficult, Franklin used his contacts to assist escapees, supplying them with money and clothing so they could make their way to France and freedom. I even opened my home as a temporary shelter for these refugees. One of my obituaries stated that “those men able to escape and take sanctuary under her roof, will join us in lamenting her loss; … and her generous and indefatigable attention to the prisoners in distress will render her regretted and her memory revered by her country.”
While I supported American independence, my heart went out to American Loyalists who lost their homes and property due to the Revolution. I wrote Franklin supporting his efforts to compensate “those well-meaning honest men who now suffer for their loyalty to the disgrace of Kings.” Meanwhile, I hoped that King George would resign, or be peacefully overthrown, and England could join America in a democratic union. This vision never came to pass.
I died in London in 1786 from a sudden fall after a visit to the home of United States Ambassador John Adams, where I was a frequent guest. I had hoped to purchase a burial plot in New Jersey, but my death came before this was accomplished and my burial site is now unknown. My only surviving full-size wax statue is one of my great friend William Pitt, in the museum of Westminster Abbey in London.
Dunlap, William. History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States. (New York: 1834), Vol.1, p.132.
Fabian, Monroe H. Joseph Wright: American Artist, 1756-1793. (City of Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985).
Hans, Nicholas. Franklin, Jefferson and the English Radicals at the End of the 18th Century. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 98, number 6, December 23, 1954.
Hart, Charles Henry. “Patience Wright, Modeler in Wax”. The Connoisseur: An Illustrated Magazine for Collectors, Vol XIX, September-December 1907, pp. 18-22.
New York’s Daily Advertiser, May 16, 1786 – for her obituary
Sellers, Charles Colman. Patience Wright: American Artist and Spy in George III’s London. (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1976).