Thomas Woolner RA (1825-1892)

The sculptor Thomas Woolner was born in Suffolk, and came to London in about 1838 where he studied sculpture under William Behnes. In 1842 he joined the RA Schools, and in 1848 he was one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Some six years later he left for Australia to seek a wealthier life, and his Pre-Raphaelite brothers drew a famous collection of portraits of each other to send to him. Woolner proved popular in Australia, making in particular portrait medallions. He was able to return to England in 1857 with an enhanced reputation, and it became de rigeur for intellectuals, poets, scientists and similar thinking people to have their portrait sculptures done by Woolner. Among others, he did Wordsworth, Tennyson (four times, the best in 1873), Macaulay, Browning (twice), Palmerstone, Gladstone (twice), Darwin, Huxley, Sedgewick, Kingsley, Dickens, Carlyle, Coventry and Captain Cook. He combined a Rossetti-like sympathy with a Pre-Raphaelite truth to nature, which at first some found hard to accept:

Woolner’s busts of Tennyson and Maurice are what may be called a new style; they purport to represent the actual man, without any smoothing over or idealising. We have no objection to the style - the more realistic the better. But we object to Mr Woolner’s rendering of it... in the Maurice we cannot see the face for the wrinkles... in a similar vein the Tennyson’s hair looks so hard that one might take it for strong nicely curled candlewicks steeped in oil. - Cornhill Magazine

A potentially more damaging criticism was of his bust of Gladstone, where Mrs Gladstone thought he had mistakenly given the portrait a high forehead, instead of his actual wide but rather low one.

Conversely, of his Carlyle (1855) the Magazine of Art commented

Carlyle is shown 60 years old, without beard and revealing the height of his forehead. Woolner avoids the forward fall of his hair to show the 'clifflike brow' written of by Emerson.

Woolner became ARA in 1871, RA in 1875 and Professor of Sculpture at the RA two years later.

Woolner's work is widespread. A large Queen Victoria is in Birmingham, Bacon in the Natural History Museum and two high-relief portraits at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, two more in Manchester,[see Woolner's sculptures in Manchester] and other works are scattered around the great galleries, as well as elsewhere - in London there are Woolner pieces in St Paul's Cathedral (Edwin Landseer, the animal painter), in Westminster Abbey (Tennyson, Kingsley, Lawrence, John Keble, Cobden), in the Victoria Embankment Gardens near Somerset House (John Stuart Mill), in Leicester Square (bust of Hunter) and in Parliament Square (Palmerston). His bust of Carlyle is in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, with a copy (and other work) in the National Portrait Gallery in London. There are also various works by him in India, including a statue in Bombay of Cowasjee Readimoney, the very rich gentleman who erected the fountain on the Broad Walk in Regent's Park.

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Woolner's sculptures in Manchester

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