OXFORD DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY

Watson, Samuel (bap. 1662, d. 1715), sculptor, was born at Heanor in Derbyshire, the son of Ralph Watson (d. 1713), husbandman of Heanor, and his wife, Bridget Townsend (d. 1718); he was baptized there on 2 December 1662. Little is known of his early life until he was apprenticed to Charles Oakey, a carver of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. He probably worked under Oakey about 1683 as a woodcarver on the first duke of Beaufort's house at Badminton and is known to have worked under another London carver, Thomas Young, for the earl of Exeter at Burghley House, and briefly for George Vernan at Sudbury Hall. Grinling Gibbons, who also worked at Badminton, Burghley, and Sudbury, had a great influence on Watson's subsequent work.

The earl of Exeter passed on Young and Watson to his brother-in-law the fourth earl (first duke in 1694) of Devonshire, and they arrived at Chatsworth in 1690–91. In 1692 Watson became the principal carver there when, following a dispute over their wages, the earl dismissed his architect, John Talman, and most of the London and foreign craftsmen. He retained Watson until 1711, and the carver became an assistant to Sir Christopher Wren in his independent valuation of the work done by Talman's team. His outstanding carvings at Chatsworth, especially in the chapel, are in limewood, stone, alabaster, and marble and his skill was praised by his contemporary George Vertue who described him as ‘a most engenious artist’ (Walpole Society, 20, 1931–2). Watson also executed commissions for other clients, including vases for the gardens at Melbourne Hall and an unidentified monument for the duke of Newcastle.

Watson's work at Chatsworth has traditionally been attributed to Grinling Gibbons; this theory, first advanced by the earl of Egmont in 1744 and by Horace Walpole in 1760, is still current among contemporary commentators. The myth has prevailed despite the fact that many payments to Watson are recorded in the accounts at Chatsworth and his various preparatory drawings survive there. Among the latter are drawings by Watson of work by Gibbons, which have confused scholars; Gibbons himself was certainly never at Chatsworth.

Most prominent among Watson's works at Chatsworth are the famous limewood cravat and the portrait medallion in a glass case, first claimed as Gibbons's work by Horace Walpole. The medallion is of special interest, as it may well bear the only surviving likeness of the carver. Watson was married to Katherine Greensmith (c.1679–1739) of Pilsley, a Chatsworth estate village, and they retired to Heanor, where he died of a stroke; he was buried at Heanor on 31 March 1715. He left two sons, Henry (1714–1786), and the posthumous Samuel the younger (1715–1778). Both were trained as carvers, as too was Samuel the younger's son White Watson (1760–1835), who designed his grandfather's monument in Heanor church. Drawings by Watson are held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and at Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, but the main collections of his designs are at Chatsworth, and the Derbyshire Record Office at Matlock.

Trevor Brighton

Sources  

S. Glover, The history and gazetteer of the county of Derby, ed. T. Noble, 2 (1833) · Chatsworth building accounts, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, Chatsworth MSS · Samuel Watson's accounts and drawings, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, Chatsworth MSS · Samuel Watson's drawings, Derbys. RO · parish registers, Heanor, Derbys. RO · Samuel Watson's will and inventory, Lichfield diocesan RO · D. Green, Grinling Gibbons (1964) · G. Beard, The work of Grinling Gibbons (1989) · Vertue, Note books, vol. 2 · G. Jackson-Stops, ‘Duke of creation’, Country Life, 188/14 (7 April 1994), 52–7 · R. Gunnis, Dictionary of British sculptors, 1660–1851 (1953); new edn (1968) · F. Thompson, Chatsworth (1949) · D. Esterly, Grinling Gibbons and the art of carving (1998) · T. Brighton, ‘Samuel Watson not Grinling Gibbons at Chatsworth’, Burlington Magazine, 140 (1998), 811–18 · T. Brighton, ‘A monument to Samuel Watson’, Journal of Bakewell and District Historical Society (Jan 1999)

Archives  

Bodl. Oxf., account and sketch book (with Henry Watson) · Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, Chatsworth MSS, accounts and drawings |  Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, Chatsworth MSS, Chatsworth building accounts

Likenesses  

medallion (S. Watson?), Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

Wealth at death  

£159, excl. his house and some lead on the docks at Bawtry: inventory, Lichfield Diocesan RO

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Trevor Brighton, ‘Watson, Samuel (bap. 1662, d. 1715)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/28864, accessed 3 Dec 2018 ] Samuel Watson (bap. 1662, d. 1715): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/28864