Jefferson described William Coffee (c.1774-c.1846) as "an English gentleman of eminence in the arts of sculpture and painting."1
He has been for some time an intimate with us at Monticello, having been engaged in making the busts in plaister of myself and all the grown members of our family. He has done the same at mr Madison's and some other families of the neighborhood, and much in Richmond.2
Coffee sculpted the busts of Jefferson and his family between 1818 and 1820, and was intermittently hired for various tasks until Jefferson's death in 1826.
Coffee first arrived in the United States about 1817 from his native England. There he had worked in several porcelain factories, and eventually owned his own company, where he produced china, terra-cotta ornaments, and figurines. He was also a painter, and exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1808, 1811, and 1816.3
He must have made contact with Jefferson shortly after his arrival in the United States. His first visit to Monticello took place before March 4, 1818, when he wrote to Jefferson thanking him for his hospitality. Coffee added that he would again be visiting Jefferson for two or three days.4 He arrived at Monticello on April 5, 1818, and within the course of a week, he completed busts of Jefferson, his daughter Martha, and granddaughter Ellen, for which Jefferson paid him $105.5 At the same time, Jefferson ordered a copy of James Madison's bust, which Coffee had yet to sculpt, and twelve copies of his daughter's bust, apparently one for himself and each of her eleven children.6
Possibly at this same time, or on a later visit, Coffee executed busts of "Mr. Randolph,"7 and Jefferson's granddaughters Cornelia Randolph and Anne Cary Randolph Bankhead.8 Coffee also branched out to other area families, such as the Coleses of Enniscorthy.9 Jefferson wrote a letter of introduction for Coffee to Madison:
Mr. Coffee ... is a Sculptor lately from England, and really able in his art. He makes busts in plaister or terra cotta, he came from Richmond to take your bust and mine, and gives less trouble than any artist, painter or sculptor I have ever submitted myself to ....10
By July 1818, Coffee had sculpted busts of Madison, his wife Dolley, and her son John Payne Dodd.11
Jefferson employed Coffee to provide classical architectural frieze ornaments in lead and composition for the University of Virginia and his Bedford County retreat, Poplar Forest.12 Coffee was also engaged to "repair" Jefferson's painting collection at Monticello.13 In the opinion of Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge, Coffee's work was "ruthless," and one of several reasons why Jefferson's paintings were in such poor condition at the time of his death. "[Coffee's] brush has been traced on several of them where after scratching off the old paint he has daubed on new."14 Coffee, who resided in New York, also assisted Jefferson with commissions in that state, such as procuring Roman cement for the cisterns at Monticello, and engaging the New York engraver Peter Maverick to execute plans of the University of Virginia.15
4. William Coffee to Jefferson, March 4, 1818, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.
5. Jefferson to Wilson Cary Nicholas, April 5, 1818, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society; Jefferson, April 14, 1818, in MB, 2:1343.
6. Jefferson, April 14, 1818, in MB, 2:1343. Jefferson paid five dollars for each bust on May 18, 1819. Neither Coffee's original terra-cotta busts nor plaster copies of Martha Jefferson Randolph or James Madison survives.
14. Ellen Randolph Coolidge to Virginia Randolph Trist, May 13, 1828, Jefferson-Coolidge Family Collection, University of Virginia.
15. For Roman cement, see Jefferson, May 15, 1818, in MB, 2:1355, and March 4, 1821, in ibid., 2:1372; Jefferson to William Coffee, October 27, 1818, May 15, 1819 (transcription available at Founders Online), and March 5, 1821 (transcription available at Founders Online), Thomas Jefferson Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.