An artist of English origin, Duckett came to Australia in the 1860's. Despite befriending Eugène Von Guérard he found Melbourne hostile and moved to Sydney, where he produced a number of works before dying from consumption.
sculptor, sketcher and illustrator, was born in Kendal, England, son of the self-taught sculptor Thomas Duckett senior and his second wife, Winifred Ellwood. Duckett worked in the Preston studio of his father and later in that of the London sculptor Thomas Thornycroft. He enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools in April 1860 and exhibited sculpture at the Royal Academy between 1861 and 1867. In September 1863 he married, settling not long afterwards with his wife Elizabeth (Lizzie) in Rome. Here he became friendly with the conservative neo-classical sculptor John Gibson and hoped at one time to work in his studio. However, in 1864, at the invitation of Thomas Thornycroft, he returned to his old employment in England.
Duckett, a consumptive, sailed for Melbourne in February or March 1866 in the Winifred , leaving his pregnant wife and their daughter Lucia (b.1864) in England. Several sketches of shipboard life survive from the voyage, and he was commissioned by the captain of the vessel to execute two wooden medallions and four watercolour decorations. Settling in Melbourne, he was befriended by the artist EugèneVon Guérard 'my best friend here’ – and by August had modelled his portrait medallion. Duckett’s surviving oval pencil drawing of von Guérard dated 10 July 1866 is likely to be a study for the work. It was possibly von Guérard who suggested to his friend, the librarian Augustus Tulk, that Duckett receive the commission to design a seal for the Melbourne Public Library, but the sculptor was disappointed to find that 'the trustees do not intend to have the expense of engraving it’.
Duckett’s medallion of von Guérard was exhibited at the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition in 1866 together with three photographs of sculptures evidently executed by him in England. Having found that the Melbourne market was dominated by Charles Summers , Duckett had by then abandoned his sculptural ambitions and was working for the illustrated press. His first assignment had been for a drawing of 'Volunteer Manoeuvres by Moonlight’. He found the subject dull and was inexperienced in drawing on wood, so requested assistance from von Guérard who 'worked on the trees for me putting in magical fairily delicate touches until they had a freedom and style quite exquisite’. According to Duckett the work was 'so mauled and metamorphosed’ by the engraver “F.G.” – probably Frederick Grosse – and 'such a “horror”’ in its published state that both his and von Guérard’s efforts were ruined. His next commission from the same editor was for a drawing of Chinese wood-carvers in their studio in Little Bourke Street. A surviving sketch showing Duckett observing the carvers at work is dated 28 August 1866, while another sketch of the same date shows Duckett sketching and displaying a drawing to the Chinese artisans.
Duckett found Melbourne society little to his liking writing to Thornycroft’s daughter Helen that an ape exhibited at a local circus had been promoted as 'the nearest approach to a human being ever seen in these colonies’: 'I have not seen the individual in question but I think it very possible’. This and similarly severe pronouncements on the Melburnians were doubtless inspired by his difficulties in finding employment and by the fact that a severe winter had adversely affected his health, which had been partially restored by the voyage out. On medical advice Duckett camped at Emu Creek, Mandurang, for two months in early 1867. On 23 February he wrote to his friend Mrs Pearson in England that he had not taken up either modelling tool or pencil for two full months: 'Certainly the longest abstinence in my life’. He added that he had recently 'resumed the brush – and have made one or two sketches in colour better as far as I can judge than anything I have yet done’. Two sketches of his tent survive from this period.
For reasons of both health and economy Duckett did not return to Melbourne. By May he was in Launceston 'modelling medallions, making drawings and nursing myself’. In June he arrived at Sydney, where he had been advised he would be better able to make a living. Here he received commissions for several busts, among them those of Governor Sir John Young and Sydney merchant Thomas Barker. The portraits were modelled in plaster, the sculptor intending to cut them in marble in England or Rome at a later date. He also received a commission from Government Architect James Barnet to design and model a number of angels for the Redfern and Haslem’s Creek termini for the funerary railway line. They included the Angel of Death (holding a scroll in her left hand and the end of the drapery of her robe in her right) and the Angel of the Resurrection (holding a trumpet), which were mounted on the cusps of the west arch of the Haslem’s Creek Receiving Station (now the chancel arch of All Saints Church, Ainslie, ACT). Due to Duckett’s declining health the figures were carved in sandstone by the stonemason Henry Apperly.
By November Duckett had had a severe relapse. He planned, regardless, to return to England but in December, on receiving news of his wife’s death, embarked on a suicidal course of overwork. In January 1868 he received a commission for a series of eleven, 10 × 5 foot portrait transparencies to be illuminated in honour of Prince Alfred’s visit to Sydney. Each was designed to represent a statue in a blue niche 'with greenish tints and warm reflects, to be as like old Greek marble (no black nor white ) as possible’. He made preliminary sketches for the works 12 inches high (30.5 cm), which he then divided into squares, a method of drawing which his father discouraged 'but Overbeck, Leighton & Herbert practice it & I could not have done without it!’ A sheet with Duckett’s rough sketches for six of the series survives: they comprise, in addition to Captain Cook, Sir Walter Raleigh, Christopher Columbus, Galileo, James Watt and Sir Henry Davy.
The figures are in historical dress and hold objects appropriate to their individual achievements (with the exception of Columbus, who crosses his arms). Although rendered in a slightly informal manner, they were obviously intended as depictions of statues rather than straightforward painted representations for they are represented with pillars or other structural supports. Duckett executed these large paintings at the rate of one a day, apparently fully aware that his feeble health could not stand up to the effort. By 1 February the canvases were finished but the feat had overtired him – he wondered whether it had any precedent, intending to look up Vasari’s Lives of the Painters for confirmation – and it hastened his death, which occurred only a few months later, on 26 April 1868 at the age of twenty-nine. He was survived by Lucia and her younger sister, born while Duckett was in the colony.
Duckett’s drawings are competent and lively. Indeed, he claimed that most of his Sydney sculpture commissions had been gained through his abilities in sketching. His Sydney obituarist praised his talent in modelling, notably in sculpturing children (as evidenced by his portfolio sketches): 'We rise from them with the impression that had he lived he would have excelled in these subjects in marble, as Sant and Cope have done in colour. But he is gone; and we are left to regret that one whose taste and culture would have refined and enriched us is taken away.’ His portrait busts are sensitively modelled, with a strong interest in displaying the character of his subjects, although, as his obituarist noted, his best works are his allegorical pieces, which display fine modelling skills and a strong compositional sense. His preference for children as subjects suggests the influence of Thomas Thornycroft’s wife, Mary Thornycroft, a well-known sculptor of children of Queen Victoria, although both the modelling and arrangement of Duckett’s figures indicate that he was more directly influenced by John Henry Foley, with whom he was apparently friendly.
Duckett does not mention selling any of his allegorical pieces while in the colony, though a copy of his Night and Twilight was exhibited by Henry Dowling at the Launceston Fine Art Exhibition in 1879. The design had originally been conceived and modelled for a client in London in 1861 – possibly Henry’s brother , Robert Hawker Dowling , with whom the sculptor was friendly. Duckett’s surviving sketches in the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston (UK), include a drawing of kangaroos in a rainforest with a side vignette of two Aboriginal children drawn in Victoria in August 1866, a sketch of Rushcutters Bay dated 5 July 1867, and one of Government House and Farm Cove, Sydney dated 10 July 1867.