Thomas Woolner

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Thomas Woolner
Thomas Woolner by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Thomas Woolner

(1825-12-17)17 December 1825
Hadleigh, Suffolk, England
Died7 October 1892(1892-10-07) (aged 66)
London, England
EducationApprentice to William Behnes
Known forsculpture, illustration, and poetry
Notable work
Civilization, Virgilia
Movement Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

Thomas Woolner RA (17 December 1825 – 7 October 1892) was an English sculptor and poet who was one of the founder-members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He was the only sculptor among the original members.

Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood group of English painters, poets, and critics, founded in 1848

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of English painters, poets, and art critics, founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The three founders were joined by William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner to form the seven-member "brotherhood". Their principles were shared by other artists, including Ford Madox Brown, Arthur Hughes and Marie Spartali Stillman. A later, medievalising strain inspired by Rossetti included Edward Burne-Jones and extended into the twentieth century with artists such as John William Waterhouse.


After participating in the foundation of the PRB, 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.

Art career

Born in Hadleigh, Suffolk, 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. [1] 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.

Hadleigh, Suffolk town in Suffolk, England

Hadleigh is an ancient market town and civil parish in South Suffolk, East Anglia, situated, next to the River Brett, between the larger towns of Sudbury and Ipswich. It had a population of 8,253 at the 2011 census. The headquarters of Babergh District Council were located in the town until 2017.

William Behnes British artist

William Behnes was a British sculptor of the early 19th century.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti English poet, illustrator, painter and translator

Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, generally known as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was a British poet, illustrator, painter and translator, and a member of the Rossetti family. He founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. Rossetti was later to be the main inspiration for a second generation of artists and writers influenced by the movement, most notably William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. His work also influenced the European Symbolists and was a major precursor of the Aesthetic movement.

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.

<i>The Last of England</i> (painting) painting by Ford Madox Brown, in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

The Last of England is an 1855 oil-on-panel painting by Ford Madox Brown depicting two emigrants leaving England to start a new life in Australia with their baby. The painting has an oval format and is in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Ford Madox Brown 19th-century English painter

Ford Madox Brown was a British painter of moral and historical subjects, notable for his distinctively graphic and often Hogarthian version of the Pre-Raphaelite style. Arguably, his most notable painting was Work (1852–1865). Brown spent the latter years of his life painting the twelve works known as The Manchester Murals, depicting Mancunian history, for Manchester Town Hall.

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. His bronze statue of John Robert Godley in Christchurch, New Zealand, was toppled and shattered into several pieces by the February 2011 earthquake. It has since been repaired and was re-erected in March 2015.

Godley Statue a statue commemorating John Robert Godley, the founder of the Pakeha settlement of Canterbury in New Zealand

The Godley Statue is a bronze statue situated in Cathedral Square in Christchurch, New Zealand. It commemorates the "Founder of Canterbury" John Robert Godley. It was the first statue portraying a person in New Zealand. The statue fell off its plinth in the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake and time capsules were discovered inside the plinth. It was four years before the statue was returned to its position.

John Robert Godley Irish administrator, influential in foundation of Canterbury, New Zealand

John Robert Godley was an Irish statesman and bureaucrat. Godley is considered to be the founder of Canterbury, New Zealand, although he lived there for only two years.

Christchurch City in South Island, New Zealand

Christchurch is the largest city in the South Island of New Zealand and the seat of the Canterbury Region. The Christchurch urban area lies on the South Island's east coast, just north of Banks Peninsula. It is home to 404,500 residents, making it New Zealand's third-most populous city behind Auckland and Wellington. The Avon River flows through the centre of the city, with an urban park located along its banks.

Woolner 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. [2] 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, [3] but Palgrave was forced to withdraw the catalogue.

Francis Turner Palgrave English poet and critic

Francis Turner Palgrave was a British critic, anthologist and poet.

The Education of Henry Adams is an autobiography that records the struggle of Bostonian Henry Adams (1838–1918), in his later years, to come to terms with the dawning 20th century, so different from the world of his youth. It is also a sharp critique of 19th-century educational theory and practice. In 1907, Adams began privately circulating copies of a limited edition printed at his own expense. Commercial publication of the book had to await its author's 1918 death, whereupon it won the 1919 Pulitzer Prize. The Modern Library placed it first in a list of the top 100 English-language nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Thomas Woolner, c. 1865 Thomas Woolner, c. 1865.jpg
Thomas Woolner, c. 1865

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." [4] The building was bombed during World War II. Some of the sculptures were saved and incorporated into the replacement building.

Manchester Assize Courts

The Manchester Assize Courts was a building housing law courts on Great Ducie Street in the Strangeways district of Manchester, England. It was 279 ft (85 m) tall and from 1864 to 1877 the tallest building in Manchester. Widely admired, it has been referred to as one of Britain's 'lost buildings'.

Judgment of Solomon Story from the Hebrew Bible in which King Solomon of Israel ruled between two women both claiming to be the mother of a child

The Judgment of Solomon is a story from the Hebrew Bible in which King Solomon of Israel ruled between two women both claiming to be the mother of a child. Solomon revealed their true feelings and relationship to the child by suggesting to cut the baby in two, with each woman to receive half. With this strategy, he was able to discern the non-mother as the woman who entirely approved of this proposal, while the actual mother begged that the sword might be sheathed and the child committed to the care of her rival. Some consider this approach to justice an archetypal example of an impartial judge displaying wisdom in making a ruling.

Alfred Waterhouse British architect

Alfred Waterhouse was an English architect, particularly associated with the Victorian Gothic Revival architecture, although he designed using other architectural styles as well. He is perhaps best known for his design for Manchester Town Hall and the Natural History Museum in London, although he also built a wide variety of other buildings throughout the country. Besides his most famous public buildings he designed other town halls, the Manchester Assize buildings bombed in World War II and the adjacent Strangeways Prison. He also designed several hospitals, the most architecturally interesting being the Royal Infirmary Liverpool and University College Hospital London. He was particularly active in designing buildings for universities, including both Oxford and Cambridge but also what became Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds universities. He designed many country houses, the most important being Eaton Hall in Cheshire, largely demolished in c.1960. He designed several bank buildings and offices for insurance companies, most notably the Prudential Assurance Company. Although not a major church designer he produced several notable churches and chapels. He was both a member of The Royal Institute of British Architects, of which he served a term as President, and a Royal Academician, acting as Treasurer for the Royal Academy.

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.

Personal life

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. [5]

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.

Poetry and other work

Woolner in later years Woolner-later.jpg
Woolner in later years

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". [6] By this, he meant that "each stanza was a separate unit". [7]

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 66. 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. [8]

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  1. Robinson, Michael (2007). The Pre-Raphaelites. London, England: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 42. ISBN   978-1-84451-742-8.
  2. Henry Adams, Ira B. Nadel, (ed), The Education of Henry Adams, Oxford University Press, 1999, p.183.
  3. James H. Coombs, A Pre-Raphaelite friendship: the correspondence of William Holman Hunt and John Lucas Tupper, UMI Research Press, 1986, p.133.
  4. Terry Wykes, Harry Cocks, Public Sculpture of Greater Manchester, Liverpool University Press, 2004, p.76.
  5. Diana Holman-Hunt, My Grandfather, his Wives and Loves, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1969, p.234.
  6. William Michael Rossetti, ed., Pre-Raphaelite Diaries and Letters (London, 1906), p. 222.
  7. Lionel Stevenson, The Pre-Raphaelite Poets, University of North Carolina Press, NC, 1972, p.256.
  8. "The Fleecing of Woolner", Encyclopedia Titanica