It was no stranger in the middle years of the 19th century than it would be today to see a man, dressed as a Roman emperor, riding a chariot around the streets of Southampton. That was one of the more curious habits of Richard Cockle Lucas, sculptor, ivory carver, printmaker, photographer, architect – possible genius and certain eccentric.

Lucas was born the son of a cloth manufacturer in Salisbury. His mother died very soon after and the rather unconventional upbringing that ensued might account for his later oddities.

His care was often entrusted to some of his father’s employees and they delighted in filling his head with local folk tales.

If the semi-autobiographical fairy story, “Hettie Lottie and Little Dick” is to be believed, his childhood took a darker turn when his father remarried and it was decided that he was a “bad boy” who had to be shut in the dark for lengthy periods and this is when his first ‘meeting’ with Roger Diddums, the fairy lord, is supposed to have occurred. Then Hettie Lottie became his childhood companion and the meetings with fairies became more frequent.

While he wrote about his belief in fairies throughout his life, this seems to have been an analogy for ‘beautiful’ souls, benign fairies in human form rather than the Tinker Bell kind of fairy.

Lucas was apprenticed to an uncle who was a cutler in Winchester and his ability at carving knife handles revealed his skill as a sculptor.

Unsurprisingly he had a rather less prosaic version of how his choice of career came about. He claimed that he retired to his bed, determined to remain there until his vocation became clear.

Fortunately, the idea of becoming a sculptor came to him quickly and so he was not bedridden for any length of time.

He went on to train under the architect John Nash and later exhibited hundreds of works at the Royal Academy and the British Institution.

In 1849 Lucas, with his family, decided to leave London for health reasons, and settled in Chilworth where he designed and built a house called ‘Tower of the Winds’.

A visitor described the house: “……a strange-looking building, on the top of which is an observatory, supported by a tower of fifty feet high, and which we had seen a long way off which sometimes suggested to us a church, then a castle”.

However unconventional the building, all visitors were able to agree on one thing – the views were phenomenal. Lucas said that he was able to see across the Isle of Wight and could even make out the spire of Salisbury Cathedral from his observatory room.

His major works include a statue of Samuel Johnson at Litchfield and Isaac Watts at Southampton. He seems to have held the latter affection.

He had plans for two other major works for his adopted town – the Pilgrim Fathers and King Canute with his courtiers. Neither of these materialised and critics seem to agree that he was most successful when working on a smaller scale like his medallions in ivory, wax or marble.

For such a flamboyant character it is ironic that he achieved his greatest fame after death.

In 1910, Lucas’ son Albert claimed that a work on display in a Berlin museum had been made by his father in 1846.

The bust of ‘Flora’ had been bought by the curator of the museum from a London gallery for a few pounds. He believed the work to be by Leonardo da Vinci and was jubilant at having snatched a major work of the Renaissance away from the British artistic establishment.

Albert, however, was able to describe how he had helped his father make the bust, including stuffing it. Examinations concluded that the stuffing consisted partly of a 19th century quilt.

Despite this proof, the Germans were loath to concede that it was not a genuine da Vinci and controversy continued to rage.

Article by Ally Hates - tour guide with