Blue Plaque – Francis J Williamson

Francis John Williamson 1833-1920 Sculptor and Artist

His plaque was erected on “The Grapes Cottage”, 79 The High Street, being the first plaque erected under our scheme in 2010

Francis Williamson was reputed to be Queen Victoria’s favourite sculptor. He moved to Fairholme – later named “The Bunch of Grapes” (now known as The Grapes) in the High Street, Esher and he lived there for more than 60 years.

He was born in Camden Town, related on his mother’s side to Admiral Nelson, educated in private school at Hampstead where he decided he wanted to become a sculptor.

John Bell a famous sculptor of his day noticed Williamson and took him on as a student within Somerset House, the home of the Royal Society at that time. Williamson was the only pupil and assistant that Foley ever engaged. Foley was commissioned by Queen Victoria to make a statue of the Prince Consort as the centre piece of the Albert Memorial. During Foley’s absence from the studio, Queen Victoria paid an unexpected visit and met Williamson and formed an instant rapport.

At the age of 20 he was exhibiting in the Royal Academy – and although never popular there due to his inability to meet exhibition deadlines, the Queen’s influence opened doors for him.

Williamson moved to Esher when about 23 to recuperate from an illness. He stayed at Fairholme and it was at this time that he met his future wife Elizabeth Smith. They were married in 1857 and shared the house of his mother-in-law. Williamson died at Fairholme in 1920.

Williamson had many famous people passing through the doors of his studio in The Bunch of Grapes. Apart from royalty and many notable people, George Meredith the renowned writer stayed for many years.

Francis Williamson has many sculptures in and around Esher. A large statue of Britannia with a memorial to Queen Victoria stands on the green in Esher High Street outside The Grapes. His sculpture of Prince Leopald and the memorial bust of the Duke of Albany are in Christ Church, Esher. The grade II listed tomb of Viscount and Viscountess Esher are in the churchyard of Christ Church and the memorial to Prince Leopold and Princess Charlotte are in St. George’s Church, Esher. There is a charming Shrubsole Memorial Fountain, an allegorical group of a woman holding an urn and a child, in the market place in Kingston upon Thames. A plaster cast of his bust of Tennyson is on display in the National Portrait Gallery.

Williamson’s statues are scattered around the country and worldwide. They may be found in Wakefield, Birmingham, Croydon and Hastings. Probably the best known, unveiled in 1903, stands in Victoria Square, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Following his death, a bronze relief on green marble has been placed by his daughter, on the left hand side of the south porch to Christ Church Esher.