Thomas Woolner, R.A.
(Hadleigh, Suffolk, 17 December 1825 - 7 October 1892, London)
After participating in the foundation of the Pre-RB, Woolner emigrated for a period to Australia. He returned to Britain to have a successful career as a sculptor, creating many important public works as well as memorials, tomb sculptures and narrative reliefs. He corresponded with many notable men of the day and also had some success as a poet and as an art dealer.
Woolner trained with the sculptor William Behnes, exhibiting work at the Royal Academy from 1843. He became friendly with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and was invited by him to join the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Woolner was active in the early history of the group, emphasising the need for a more vivid form of realism in sculpture. Woolner's classical inclinations became increasingly difficult to reconcile with Pre-Raphaelite Medievalism, but his belief in close observation of nature was consistent with their aims.
Woolner's sculptures immediately after the foundation of the Brotherhood in 1848, display close attention to detail. He made his name with forceful portrait busts and medallions, but was at first unable to make a living. He was forced to emigrate to Australia in 1852, (inspiring the painting "The Last of England" by Ford Madox Brown), but after a year he returned to Britain, soon establishing himself as both a sculptor and art-dealer.
His visit to Australia nevertheless helped him to obtain commissions there and elsewhere for statues of British imperial heroes, such as Captain Cook and Sir Stamford Raffles.
He became a close friend of Francis Turner Palgrave. The two shared a house and both were known for their combative personalities. Henry Adams refers to them in The Education of Henry Adams, noting that Woolner had a "rough" personality and had to make "a supernatural effort" to be polite. Woolner designed the frontispiece of a piping youth for Palgrave's famous verse anthology the "Golden Treasury" (1861). There was a minor scandal in 1862, when Palgrave was commissioned to write a catalogue for the 1862 International Exhibition, in which he praised Woolner and denigrated other sculptors, especially Woolner's main rival Carlo Marochetti. The well known controversialist Jacob Omnium pointed out in a series of letters to the press that the two lived together. William Holman Hunt wrote a reply supporting Woolner, but Palgrave was forced to withdraw the catalogue.
A Celtic warrior "attacking" the dress of the woman emblematic of civilization in Woolner's sculpture Civilization (1867), Wallington Hall, Northumberland. His largest single commission was a programme of architectural sculptures for the Manchester Assize Courts, built in Manchester from 1859 through 1864. Woolner created a large number of statues depicting lawgivers and rulers which formed part of the building's structure. Most dramatic was a giant sculpture depicting Moses which was placed on the top, above the entrance. There were also allegorical figures of Justice and Mercy. Inside was a relief sculpture depicting the "Judgment of Solomon", flanked by statues of a "drunk woman" and a "good woman". Alfred Waterhouse, the architect, wrote, "we are all delighted with your virtuous woman, and disgusted as we ought to be with the awful example."
Woolner made his living mainly from creating statues of famous men, but his most personal and complex works in sculpture were what he called "ideal" groups, notably "Civilization" (1867), and "Virgilia bewailing the absence of Coriolanus" (1871). These demonstrate his attempt to express the tension between the static stone and the dynamic desires of the figures represented emerging into solidity from it. Woolner also made a large number of relief sculptures for memorials. His reliefs depicting scenes from the Iliad were widely reproduced. These were intended to commemorate the classical scholarship of William Gladstone.
He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1875, and served as professor of sculpture from 1877 to 1879.
On 6 September 1864, Woolner married Alice Gertrude Waugh. He had initially been in love with her sister, Fanny, and had previously proposed to her, but she turned him down. Fanny married Woolner's Pre-Raphaelite colleague William Holman Hunt the following year, but died in childbirth a year later. In 1874, while in Italy, Hunt married their third sister Edith, an act which Woolner considered immoral and which was defined as incest under British laws at the time. He never spoke to Hunt again.
Hunt's granddaughter Diana Holman-Hunt later claimed that before his marriage Woolner had been involved in a relationship with a lower-class girl called Amelia Henderson, who appealed to Hunt for support. Hunt arranged with Frederick Stephens to give her funds to emigrate to Australia so that she would not interfere with Woolner's wedding plans.
Woolner and Alice had six children, four daughters and two sons. His eldest child, Amy, later wrote a biography of her father. His two sons Hugh (1866-1925) and Geoffrey (1867-1882) were sent to Marlborough College, where Geoffrey died at the age of 14. Hugh became a stockbroker.
Woolner was also a poet of some reputation in his day. His early poem "My Beautiful Lady" is a Pre-Raphaelite work, emphasising intense unresolved moments of feeling. He later expanded it into a full length work modelled on Tennyson's narrative poetry. According to William Michael Rossetti, Coventry Patmore "praised Woolner's poems immensely, saying however that they were sometimes slightly over-passionate, and generally 'sculpturesque' in character". By this, he meant that "each stanza was a separate unit".
In the 1880s, he wrote three long narrative works, "Pygmalion," "Silenus" and "Tiresias." These renounce Pre-Raphaelitism in favour of an often eroticised classicism. The first describes the sculptor Pygmalion's efforts to create a more realistic form of art. He battles against a group called "The Archaics". The second describes the love affair between Silenus and the nymph Syrinx. After her death at the hands of Pan, Silenus becomes an obese alcoholic, but acquires prophetic powers. A vision of the goddess Athena restores him to emotional stability. In Tiresias the blind sage recalls his long life; in a visionary pantheism, he demonstrates his power to understand the language of birds and enter into the experiences of all living things and natural forces.
Woolner was a close friend of a number of writers of the day, notably Thomas Carlyle and Alfred Tennyson. He provided the latter with the scenario for his poem "Enoch Arden".
He also corresponded with Charles Darwin, who named part of the human ear the 'Woolnerian Tip' after a feature in Woolner's sculpture "Puck." Woolner had discussed the feature when Darwin had been sitting to him for a portrait. Darwin later sought his views when preparing "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals."
Thomas Woolner died instantly from a stroke at the age of 67. His wife Alice died in 1912. Their son, Hugh, travelled back to his home in New York from her funeral on the RMS Titanic. He survived the sinking of the ship.
Sculptor and poet, son of Thomas Woolner and his wife Rebecca (born Leeks), was born at Hadleigh in Suffolk on 17 Dec. 1825. He received his first education at Ipswich, but in his boyhood his father removed to London on obtaining an appointment in the post office, and at the age of twelve young Woolner, who had shown much ability in drawing and modelling, was placed as a pupil in the studio of William Behnes [q. v.]. So great was his promise deemed that Behnes agreed to receive him without a premium, on condition that, when sufficiently advanced, he should work for him at something less than the usual rate of pay. He continued with Behnes four years, and in December 1842, at his master's recommendation, entered the schools of the Royal Academy, continuing to be employed by Behnes in his spare time. In 1843, aged only 17, he exhibited his first work, a model of ‘Eleanor sucking the Poison from the arm of Prince Edward.’ In 1844, a life-sized group, representing ‘The Death of Boadicea,’ was exhibited in Westminster Hall. In 1845, he gained the Society of Arts' medal for a design representing ‘Affection,’ a woman with two children. In 1846, a graceful bas-relief of ‘Alastor’ was exhibited at the academy. The now well-known statuette of "Puck," afterwards cast in bronze for Lady Ashburton, was exhibited at the British Institution in 1847, when it attracted the attention of Tennyson.
During all this period Woolner had been in very narrow circumstances; his models, though admired, brought him few commissions, and he gained his livelihood by working for Behnes. In 1847, he made the acquaintance of Rossetti, through whom, though even less known than himself, he became a member of a circle destined profoundly to influence English art. Rossetti introduced him to F. G. Stephens, who found him ‘encamped in a huge, dusty, barn-like studio, like a Bedouin in a desert.’ Ere long he became one of the original ‘pre-Raphaelite Brethren.’ In this capacity in January 1850, he contributed to the first number of The Germ two cantos -- ‘My Beautiful Lady’ and ‘My Lady in Death’ -- of the poem subsequently expanded and known by the former title, which subsequently obtained celebrity. Two short poems from his pen also appeared in the second and third numbers. ‘My Beautiful Lady’ was accompanied by a striking etching by Holman Hunt, the quintessence of pre-Raphaelitism. Woolner, however, said to William Bell Scott, who made his acquaintance about this time, ‘Poetry is not my proper work in this world; I must sculpture it, not write it. Unless I take care, my master Conscience will have something to say that I shan't like. I have noticed his eye glaring at me already.’
Immediately before his initiation into the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood Woolner's exhibited work had been of a highly idealistic character, comprising ‘Eros and Euphrosyne’ and ‘The Rainbow,’ shown at the academy in 1848, and ‘Titania and the Indian Boy’ at the British Institution in the same year. He now, however, from the lack of encouragement for idealistic sculpture, devoted himself chiefly to portrait medallions. Among these was one of Carlyle, to whom and to Mrs. Carlyle he became greatly attached. He also, through Coventry Patmore, made the acquaintance of Tennyson. A visit to him at Coniston in the autumn of 1850, led to his executing the medallion of Wordsworth now in Grasmere church. He also competed for a monument to the poet, and produced a fine seated figure, with a spirited bas-relief in illustration of ‘Peter Bell’ upon the pedestal. The design, which is engraved in Professor Knight's edition of Wordsworth, was not accepted, and Woolner, weary of ill success, embraced, in common with many other struggling Englishmen, the idea of trying his fortune at the Australian goldfields. He sailed for Melbourne on 24 July 1852, accompanied by two friends, one, Mr. Latrobe Bateman, nephew to the governor of Victoria. The Rossettis, Madox Brown, and Holman Hunt accompanied him on board, and his exodus inspired Madox Brown's noble picture, ‘The Last of England.’ He arrived at Melbourne in October, and in November proceeded to the diggings, his object being to provide sufficient resources to tide him over the first difficulties of the artistic career which he looked forward for a time to following in Melbourne or Sydney. He could procure, however, little beyond a bare livelihood, and, upon establishing himself at Melbourne in the following May, found himself obliged to depend solely upon his professional exertions. These were not unfruitful. At Melbourne he executed a medallion of Governor Latrobe, and at Sydney fine portraits of the governor-general, Sir Charles Fitzroy, and of the father of Australian self-government, William Charles Wentworth [q. v.]. A colossal statue of Wentworth was to have been executed, but the money was ultimately devoted to endowing a fellowship in Sydney University, much to the disappointment of Woolner, who had returned to England hoping to obtain the commission. He arrived in October 1854. On the way home he read a pathetic story of a fisherman, which he imparted to Tennyson, who founded ‘Enoch Arden’ upon it. The plot of ‘Aylmer's Field’ also was derived from him.
During Woolner's absence a great improvement had taken place in the position of English art and artists. Ruskin and the pre-Raphaelites between them had raised the standard of taste, and several friends whom Woolner had left poor and struggling were now celebrities. The turning-point of his career may be said to have been the fine bust of Tennyson, now in the library of Trinity College, executed in 1857. In the same year he exhibited the celebrated medallion portraits of the laureate and of Thomas Carlyle, and one equally fine of Robert Browning. The statue of Bacon in the New Oxford Museum was also executed in this year; and in 1858, Woolner modelled in alto-relievo figures of Moses, David, St. John the Baptist, and St. Paul for the pulpit of Llandaff Cathedral, then under restoration, for which Rossetti also laboured.
From this time Woolner's position was assured, and the history of the remainder of his life is little else than the chronicle of his successes. In 1861, he was commissioned to design and model the colossal Moses and other sculptures for the assize courts, Manchester. Among his most remarkable works were:
Among the colossal and life-size statues the most important are:
Among busts of distinguished men, besides those already mentioned, may be named
He also executed recumbent figures of Bishop Jackson in St. Paul's, and of Lord Frederick Cavendish in Cartmel Priory church.
Woolner was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1871, and academician in 1874; his diploma work, exhibited in 1876, was an ideal group -- ‘Achilles and Pallas shouting from the Trenches.’ In 1877, upon the death of Henry Weekes [q. v.], he was appointed professor of sculpture, but never lectured, and resigned in 1879. In 1864, he married Alice Gertrude Waugh, by whom he had two sons and four daughters. His death on 7 Oct. 1892, was somewhat sudden, following an internal complaint from which he seemed to be recovering. The fact that he died within a few days of Tennyson and Renan served to divert much of the notice which his disappearance would otherwise have occasioned. One of his most beautiful works, the statue of ‘The Housemaid,’ had been completed a few weeks previously. He was interred in the churchyard of St. Mary's, Hendon.
Woolner occupies a distinguished and highly individual place in English art, both as the chosen transmitter to posterity of the sculptured semblances of the most intellectual men of his day, and as filling more conspicuously than any other artist the interval between Gibson and the younger sculptors under whom the art has revived so remarkably in our own day. His open-air statues are reckoned among the ornaments of the cities where they are erected; that of Mill is perhaps the best in the metropolis for animation and expression. The finest of his busts, especially the two of Tennyson, are characterised by peculiar dignity. He restored the neglected art of medallion portraiture, and illustrated it by fine examples. Being chiefly known as a portrait-sculptor, he is regarded as in some measure a realist; it may be doubted, however, whether his genius was not in reality rather directed to the ideal. A graceful fancy characterised his earliest efforts, and when he could escape from portraiture, he gratified himself with such highly ideal works as ‘Guinevere’ and ‘Godiva.’ Perhaps the most beautiful work he ever wrought is not a sculpture at all, but the vignette of the flute-player on the title-page of Palgrave's ‘Golden Treasury,’ a gem of grace and charm. His last work, ‘The Housemaid,’ proves of what graceful treatment a homely and prosaic subject may admit. The maiden is simply wringing a cloth in a pail, but her attitude realises in sober earnest what, nearly half a century before, Clough had said in burlesque:
"Scrubbing requires for true grace frank and artistical handling."
Woolner's poetry is that of a sculptor; he works, as it were, by little chipping strokes, and produces, especially in descriptive passages and in the expression of strong feeling, effects highly truthful and original, though scarcely to be termed captivating or inspiring. The recension of ‘My Beautiful Lady’ published separately in 1863, was very considerably expanded from the original version in The Germ. It reached a third edition in 1866, (with a title-page vignette by Arthur Hughes). ‘Pygmalion’ was published in 1881, ‘Silenus’ in 1884, ‘Tiresias’ in 1886, and ‘Poems’ (comprising ‘Nelly Dale,’ written in 1886, and ‘Children’) in 1887. ‘My Beautiful Lady’ (in 3 parts, 17 cantos in all), together with ‘Nelly Dale,’ was issued in 1887, as volume lxxxii. of Cassell's National Library.
Woolner was a thoroughly sterling character; manly, animated, energetic; too impetuous in denouncing whatever he happened to dislike, and thus creating unnecessary enmities, but esteemed by all who knew his worth, and could appreciate the high standard he sought to maintain in the pursuit of his art. His appearance throughout life corresponded with F. G. Stephens's description of him as a young man, ‘robust, active, muscular, with a square-featured and noble face set in thick masses of hair, and penetrating eyes under full eyebrows.’
The print-room at the British Museum has a portrait engraved from a photograph and a drawing of Woolner in his studio after T. Blake Wirgman ( Illustrated London News, 15 Oct. 1892).
[Art Journal, F. G. Stephens, March 1894; Portrait, No. 5, Justin H. McCarthy; Magazine of Art, December 1892; Athenæum, 15 Oct. 1892; Autobiographical Notes of the Life of W. Bell Scott, 1892; Miles's Poets and Poetry of the Century; Saturday Review, 15 Oct. 1892.]
Mrs. [Emily] to T. Woolner, Aldworth, Black Down, Haslemere, October 29, 1872. "I congratulate you on the acquisition of that fairy estate. Surely such a place in such a stream and such names for itself and the village. I am so very glad that you like the Idyll.
Cranesden, in the parish of Mayfield, Sussex. The house had formerly been a farm-house, and it is said John Maynard, Oliver Cromwell's chaplain, lived there parts of the house were very old indeed, but the main building was Elizabethan; with the aid of his friend, the architect, Frederick Cockerell, Woolner added to it considerably, and altered it into a very charming place: an old house front from Shrewsbury was cleverly inserted in the southern wall, which was entirely in keep ing with the style of architecture. Woolner had long wished to own a cottage in the country, and he laid out the grounds with great taste, and whenever he could snatch a few days' holiday, he would go down to superintend the earthworks, pond making and the planting of trees and shrubs. The house stood in about 80 acres of pasture and woodlands, and a stream ran through the copses rich in wild flowers. In the garden surrounded by sweetbriar, was a never-failing spring of the purest water. In past ages pilgrims, it is said, came to fill their bottles from it probably on their way to Canterbury to the shrine of Thomas a Becket.
Cranesden was a house of old brick, and lay away from the village of Mayfield, which was considered by the poet Coventry Patmore "the prettiest village in Sussex." It was most picturesque, more than 500 feet above the sea, with the distinctive landmarks of the church spire and the tower of the convent. Since those days the railway has caused many new little houses to spring up, and the gas-lamps in the village rather take away from its mediaeval appearance and the feeling of remoteness. Woolner, tired of the bothers of farm and land, sold Cranesden in 1882 to Lord Francis Hervey; this was a real grief to his young family, whose delight in the pretty place was unbounded.
Thomas Woolner, R.A., sculptor and poet; his life in letters (1917)
View painter's work: Thomas Woolner, R.A.