[The following biography of Woolner by Richard Garnett, LL.D., C.B., comes from the 1900 edition of the Dictionary of National Biography uploaded to the Internet Archive by the State Central Library, Hyderabad, India. It has been forrmatted, with the addition of subtitles, links and images, by Jacqueline Banerjee. Click on the images for larger pictures and more information.]
Note: The highly knowledgeable, cultivated and respected Garnett (1835-1906) had just retired as Keeper of the British Library, and his word must carry great weight; but the entry on Woolner by Timothy Stevens in the current ODNB (online ed.) gives more detailed assessments of some of Woolner's works, such as The Lord's Prayer at Wallington, of which Stevens says, "the complex twist of the mother's body and her elaborately designed dress ... recall [Holman] Hunt's paintings." Stevens also stresses the importance and innovative design of his busts of Tennyson and other important friends, while bringing in, for example, his smaller church memorials. Most significant of all is Stevens's acknowledgement that Woolner's contribution to British art and faithfulness to Pre-Raphaelite principles has now been "overshadowed" by "Rossetti and Millais's popular success" — reminding us that the survival of reputation is not always fairly based on merit, but involves other factors as well.
Family background and early training
[Thomas Woolner] (1825-1892), 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 [...]. 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.
Initiation into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and stay in Melbourne
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."
Left to right: (a) Puck (1847), which Burdett describes above as "now well-known." (b) The Lord's Prayer (1867), which Stevens praises in the current ODNB entry (see headnote. (c) Medallion of W. C. Wentworth. Stevens (see headnote) says that Woolner "modelled numerous portrait medallions at £25 each, including one of William Charles Wentworth (1854)." (d) Memorial to Wordsworth in St Oswald's Church, Grasmere (1851).
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 [...]. 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.
Left to right: (a) Statue of John Stuart Mill, Temple Gardens, Victoria Embankment, London (1878). (b) Statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, Singapore (1887). (c) Bust of the younger Tennyson in Westminster Abbey (1857). Stevens says this was a "turning point" in Woolner's career, and praises the "naturalistic treatment of Tennyson's curly hair, his frown and his tightly buttoned coat" and says it all gives the poet a "brooding presence." (d) Bust of the older Tennyson (1876).
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 Constance and Arthur, children of Sir Thomas Fairbairn, 1862; Mrs. Archibald Peel and son, in Wrexham church, 1867, and in the same year a mother and child [The Lord's Prayer, see headnote] for Sir Walter Trevelyan; bust of Gladstone in the Bodleian Library, with three splendid bas-reliefs from the Iliad, 1868; In Memoriam, children in Paradise, 1870; Virgilia, wife of Coriolanus, 1871; Guinevere, 1872; monument to Mrs. James Anthony Froude, in St. Lawrence Church, Ramsgate, 1875; Godiva, 1876. Among the colossal and life-size statues the most important are: John Robert Godley, for Christ Church, Canterbury, New Zealand, 1865; Lord Macaulay, for Trinity College, 1866; Sir Bartle Frere, for Bombay, 1872; Dr. Whewell, Trinity College, 1873; Lord Lawrence, Calcutta, 1875; John Stuart Mill, Thames Embankment, 1878; Captain Cook, Sydney, 1879; Sir Stamford Raffles, Singapore, 1887; Bishop Fraser, Manchester, 1888. Among busts of distinguished men, besides those already mentioned, may be named the bearded bust of Tennyson, modelled in 1873, and those of Darwin, Newman, Maurice, Keble, Carlyle, Charles Dickens, Kingsley, Sir Hope Grant, Archbishop Temple, Professors Adam Sedgwick and Huxley, Rajah Brooke, and Archdeacon Hare. 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 [...] , 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."
Sources: F. G. Stephens in the Art Journal for March 1894; Justin H. McCarthy in the Portrait, No. 5; Magazine of Art, December 1892; Athenaeum, 15 Oct. 1892; Autobiographical Notes of the Life of W. Bell Scott, 1892; Miles's Poets and Poetry of the Century, v. 263; Saturday Review, 15 Oct. 1892; private information; personal knowledge.