Pre-Raphaelites in The City: Happy Birthday Thomas Woolner

Dinah Roe

Happy Birthday Thomas Woolner The Story of a Pre-Raphaelite Gold-Digger

When the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848, Thomas Woolner had the distinction of being one of its older members at the grand age of 22. He was born in Suffolk on 17th December 1825. He studied sculpture under the tutelage of William Behnes and exhibited at London’s Royal Academy, where he caught the attention of William Holman Hunt. Woolner was a poet as well as a sculptor, contributing verses to the Pre-Raphaelite journal, The Germ, and publishing volumes of original poetry, including: My Beautiful Lady (1863) Pygmalion (1881) and Silenus (1884).

A chain-smoker with gingery hair and a stocky build, Woolner was an artist in the muscular Victorian mode. Eager to publicly critique the flaws in competing sculptors’ work, he aggressively promoted his own, with the help of important friends like Tennyson and FT Palgrave. But his butch posturing took a hit in the gold fields of Australia, where Woolner was shocked to discover, not gold, but the death, violence and disease that awaited many on the fringes of the expanding British empire. He had set out in July 1852 to make his fortune. The PRB saw him off; witnessing Woolner’s departure inspired Ford Madox Brown’s iconic painting The Last of England. Dante Gabriel Rossetti recorded that his friend was ‘plentifully stocked with corduroys, sou’westers, jerseys, firearms and belts full of little bags to hold the expected nuggets.’

But Woolner found that Australia was a lonely place, where ‘nothing but primitive necessities are understood, and those of the coarsest kind’. He complained about the routine of ‘sleeping, eating, working, eating and sleeping again, this on and on without a change unless for a fight or drunkenness.’ He witnessed the traumatic death of prospector Henry Pinchus, who drowned in a river when a fellow-traveller was unable to keep hold of his hand.

He was deeply missed by the PRB during his sojourn. Despite their jollity, they were well-aware that survival abroad was touch-and-go, and in an age where letters from abroad were slowly carried in the creaking holds of ships, it was an anxious wait for news. Dante Gabriel Rossetti dedicated a mournful sonnet to his absent friend, asking, ‘Can the year change, and I not think of thee?’ Under these circumstances, the ever-innovative Rossetti invented his own primitive version of Facebook; he convened a portrait-drawing session, where members of the Brotherhood drew portraits of one another to send to Woolner. At the same hour in Australia, Woolner and his men in Australia were supposed to do the same.

Not to be outdone in the butch posturing stakes, Holman Hunt was making plans to visit the Middle East. Christina Rossetti realized that Woolner’s departure had signalled the end of the PRB. ‘The PRB is in its decadence,’ she wrote, ‘For Woolner in Australia cooks his chops / And Hunt is yearning for the land of Cheops…’.

In 1854 Woolner returned to London and applied himself to the serious business of sculpture. Friendships with important Victorians like the Carlyles and Tennyson helped him gain commissions, and he became famous for his busts of statesmen, intellectuals and artists. One of his most significant commissions was for statues and reliefs for Alfred Waterhouse’s Manchester Assize Courts. He became a Member of the Royal Academy in 1871, and went on to be appointed its Professor of Sculpture in 1877. Important subjects included: Charles Darwin; William Wordsworth; Robert Browning and Thomas Carlyle. You can still see many of these, such as his sculpture of a seated John Stuart Mill at London’s Victoria Embankment Gardens (see photograph above) or the statue of Captain Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park. Tate Britain holds his portrait medallion of a young Tennyson and Turner’s death mask.

His relationship with the PRB soured over time, helped neither by Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s possibly paranoid (and certainly drug-fuelled) contention that he was an enemy, nor by Woolner’s own tendency towards vigorous criticism of his friends’ works. There was also a falling out with Hunt over the painter’s marriage to Woolner’s sister-in-law Edith Waugh in 1874. The Waugh sisters, Alice, Edith and Fanny had already caused trouble. Woolner and Hunt had both courted Fanny, but Hunt won her hand in 1865. When Fanny turned down his marriage proposal in 1864, Woolner married her sister Alice. After Fanny’s death in childbirth, Hunt had married Edith; this was considered an incestuous union in the Victorian era.

While his poetry is not as highly esteemed as his sculpture, Woolner’s poems were well-regarded in their day, and are important in the history of Pre-Raphaelitism. It was his work, ‘Of My Lady in Death’ and ‘My Beautiful Lady’ which opened the first issue of The Germ, setting the tone for the unsettling Pre-Raphaelite worship of idealised women in varying states of decay. Interestingly, he is not named as a poet of the ‘Fleshly School’ in Robert Buchanan’s genre-defining essay on Pre-Raphaelitism in the Contemporary Review (1871). Perhaps Woolner’s adventures in the gold fields of Australia were sufficient to convince Buchanan that the sculptor-poet was not (like his fellow Brothers) drawn to ‘morbid deviation from healthy forms of life’. 

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Pre-Raphaelites in the City

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This blog explores the thriving Victorian cities which inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, and were shaped by them in turn. While the Pre-Raphaelites produced poetry and art praising the natural world, most were born and raised in urban environments, and their work retained a cosmopolitan sensibility. Although this blog will sometimes take excursions into the countryside, its focus will remain on city life. If you want more information on images or sources, please get in touch.