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.’
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.