Born in London, Joseph Nollekens was the son of a Flemish genre painter. He trained with a Flemish sculptor in London before going to Rome in 1762. Gaining employment in Bartolomeo Cavaceppi's workshop, he restored ancient sculptures as well as terracottas by such artists as Michelangelo and Giambologna. In this venerable city, Nollekens learned from the antique, perfecting a Neoclassical style that soon earned him a reputation and a small fortune. He was particularly popular among the English tourists who visited Rome on the Grand Tour.
Returning to England in 1770, Nollekens soon became a member of the Royal Academy. While he was a prolific tomb-maker, he is best known for his portrait busts in plaster or marble. His own favorites were the rare mythological statues he carved, particularly the goddesses, whose elegance recalls Mannerist sculpture. Despite his wealth and reputation, Nollekens was known for his parsimonious and eccentric ways. A former student, who claimed to have been deceived into believing that he would inherit Nollekens's fortune with several other of Nollekens's associates, wrote a spiteful biography about him.