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The DIB & the Cunningham Medal

07 March 2017

Read the DIB entry on William Mossop, and his son William, both engravers and designers of medals, by Daniel Beaumont and David Murphy, below.

Mossop, William (1751–1805), and his son William Stephen (1788–1827), engravers and designers of medals, were born in Dublin. William Mossop was born as William Browne; when he was a child, his father (a Roman catholic) died and his mother – after her second marriage to William Mossop (probably related to Henry Mossop (qv), the popular actor and stage manager who worked in Dublin and London in the 1750s and 1760s) – changed his name, and almost certainly changed his religion to anglicanism. He was educated at the Dublin Blue Coat School and started his apprenticeship c.1765 with Mr Stone, a die-sinker who specialised in making dies for seals and buttons for the Dublin linen board. After Stone's death Mossop took over the business until 1781, when the linen board no longer required his services. In c.1782 Mossop was asked by a friend to examine a collection of medals that were for sale in Dublin. Mossop was so excited by what he saw that he bought the collection himself and soon began designing his own medals. He was encouraged by the scientist Dr Henry Quin (qv) and was probably in contact with James Tassie of Scotland, the inventor of glass-paste medals, when he visited Ireland. Mossop's first recorded medal (c.1782), of the actor Thomas Ryder (qv), was not a commercial success, and it is likely that the bulk of his income in the 1780s came from engraving other metal objects at his residence on Essex Quay, Dublin. In 1793 he was employed by Camac, Kyan, & Camac of Dublin to make copper halfpenny tokens (known as ‘camacs’). The financial failure of this firm in 1797 meant that Mossop had to work once again on private commissions for medals and seals.

Though Mossop was unable to concentrate exclusively on medal making, he was by far the best medallist working in Ireland in the late eighteenth century. A versatile craftsman, he could work with a variety of materials including gold, silver, bronze, copper, and white metal as well as wax, ivory, and precious stones. On occasions he borrowed the designs of his friend Edward Smyth (qv), the Dublin-based sculptor. From c.1782 he was a member of the committee that selected new pupils at the Dublin Society schools. Mossop designed and struck medals for a number of Irish organisations including the RIA (the Cunningham medal), the Dublin Society, and the Friendly Brothers of St Patrick, as well as medals to commemorate events such as the defeat of the Bantry Bay expedition and for individual patrons such as John Beresford (qv) and Richard Robinson (qv). Mossop died on 28 June 1805 at 68 Mecklenburgh St., Dublin. He married (c.1780) Letitia Parker (d. 1840); they had at least one son, who was born while they were living at 4 Bull Lane, Dublin.

The son, William Stephen Mossop (1788–1827), was baptised on 22 May 1788 at St John's church, Dublin. Educated at the academy of Samuel Whyte (qv) in Grafton St., he entered (1802) the Dublin Society schools, where he studied under Francis West (qv), the master of figurative art. The death of his father in 1805 meant that he had to cut short his training and take over the family business. He later wrote how he was ‘inadequately prepared to commence the practice of my art’ (Gilbert, 128) and had by this time made only one medal, for the Incorporated Society for Charter Schools of Ireland (1804). In 1804 he had also received the contract for cutting the punches of the Dublin Goldsmiths’ Company, a contract he held until 1825.

His next medal, for the Farming Society of Ireland (1806), was his first signed work and shows that he was already a very accomplished designer and craftsman. In 1810 he designed and struck a medal to commemorate the fiftieth year of the reign of George III, and this enjoyed a brief period of good sales. A short visit to London in the same year seems to have given him further inspiration, and he exhibited his ‘Impression of a medal for the Cork Institute’ at the artists' exhibition in Hawkins St., Dublin. He received in 1813 and 1814 premiums from the Society of Arts in London; his design for a school medal for the Society was purchased by the Feinaglian Institution in 1816 and was used thenceforth as their prize medal. In 1816 he designed and cut a medallic portrait of Daniel O'Connell (qv). This was the first made of O'Connell and, although a good likeness, it did not sell well. He designed further medals for the Orange Association (1817), the 77th Foot, the Rifle Brigade, and the 22nd Regiment (1818). In 1820 he began a series of medals in which he planned to commemorate forty distinguished figures from Irish history. Having completed the medallic portrait of Henry Grattan (qv) and the dies for four others (Archbishop Ussher (qv), Lord Charlemont (qv), Dean Swift (qv), and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, (qv)), he encountered a total lack of public interest, and abandoned the project. His next successful medal was a portrait of George IV, cut to commemorate the royal visit of 1821, and this enjoyed a short period of good sales. A founding member of the Royal Hibernian Academy (1823), he served as its secretary until his death. In 1826 he exhibited some pieces at the RHA's first exhibition, including ‘A head of Sir Charles Geisecke in wax’ and ‘A mould of Hibernia in wax’. He also designed and partly executed the silver trowel used by Francis Johnston (qv) to lay the first stone of the RHA house in Abbey St. However, 1826 was the last year in which he exhibited his work. Increasingly frustrated by the lack of public recognition, and also dragged down by financial worries, his mind was affected and he was eventually confined in the Richmond lunatic asylum. He died there (11 August 1827) after a fit of apoplexy, and was buried beside his father in St Andrew's churchyard.

The chemicals then used in the processes of medal making may have contributed to the relatively early deaths of both Mossops. In the case of William Stephen Mossop, this was particularly tragic due to the artistry of his work; ‘the painter-like skill with which he regulated the relief of his figures or groups was exquisite’ (Gilbert, 129). His later commissions included ‘The Derry Medal: with a portrait of George Walker’, completed for the Apprentice Boys of Derry Club; a small medal (or ‘medallet’) of the duke of Wellington (qv) made for Mr West, a goldsmith of Skinner's Row; and the medal of the North-West of Ireland Society (c.1822). He also cut seals for the Waterford harbour commissioners, Derry and Strabane corporations, the bishop of Ardagh, and, ironically, the Richmond lunatic asylum. The RIA and the National Museum of Ireland both hold small collections of his medals, dies, and wax models. His works were usually simply signed ‘Mossop’. He wrote a sketch of his father's life and work, briefly mentioning his own work, and this later appeared in Gilbert's History of the city of Dublin, ii (1861).

He married (1813) Elizabeth Meara and left three sons. A self-portrait etching, in profile, was published in 1838 (NGI), and a portrait miniature of him is reproduced by A. E. J. Went (qv) (1978).

NLI, MS 33369 (4); Henry Dawson, ‘A memoir of the medals and medallists connected with Ireland’, RIA Trans., xix (1843), 13–18; J. T. Gilbert, A history of the city of Dublin (3 vols, 1861), ii, 128–32, app. viii; William Frazer, ‘The medallists of Ireland and their work’, RSAI Jn., xvii (1885–6), 443–66; DNB; Strickland, ii, 138–143 (portr.); National Gallery of Ireland: illustrated summary catalogue of prints and sculpture (1988), 377; Oliver Snoddy, ‘Two military medals by William Mossop (1751–1805)’, Ir. Sword, vi (1964), 252–6; vii (1965), 176–7; E. J. Pike, A biographical dictionary of wax modellers (1973), 95; A. E. J. Went, Irish coins and medals (1978), 15; L. Brown, British historical medals, i (1980) (plates); Ann M. Stewart, Royal Hibernian Academy: index of exhibitors and their works, 1826–1879 (3 vols, 1986), ii, 295; John Turpin, A school of art in Dublin since the eighteenth century: a history of the National College of Art and Design (1995), 65, 87, 95; Jane Turner (ed.), The dictionary of art, xx (1996), 199

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