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Thomas Woolner

John Lucas Tupper


John Lucas Tupper, a minor Pre-Raphaelite sculptor, poet, theorist of art education, and Rugby drawing master, wrote this contemporary appreciation of his friend Woolner. The essay first appeared in The Portfolio and was scanned from the reprinted book version: English Artists of the Present Day. Essays by J. Beavington Atkinson, Sidney Colvin, F. G. Stephens, Tom Taylor, and John L. Tupper. London: Seeley, Jackson, and Halliday, 1872, 56-60. Following the house style of the Victorian Web, titles of works appear in bold font rather than between single quotes. I have also added more paragraphing to Tupper's text. [GPL]


The artist whose name is henceforth to shed splendour upon the Royal Academy, as well as upon this country, and whose works we are about to notice, has perhaps better claims than any sculptor since Flaxman to be associated with the poet-artists. Why artists in marble are, for the most part, so much more nearly allied to stone-masons than their pictorial brothers are to house-painters, is a question too deeply founded in aesthetics, and perhaps in ethics, for present discussion, though the subject of this notice being a happy exception to the modern rule, is an event we may safely ascribe to the fact of his having been by nature's design a poet in the first place, and a sculptor only in the second. Twenty years back, when Mr. Woolner was unknown to the world, he contributed to a short-lived periodical, called The Germ, a poem which, for originality of style and matter, should have conferred upon its author (even had his subsequent matured work been wanting) the rank of no common poet.

However unknown to what, in deference to majorities, is called the world, our poet-sculptor was at this time a member of a band of fine-art reformers, numbering such names as Holman Hunt, Ford Madox Brown, John Millais, and Dante and W. M. Rossetti, the so-called Pre-Raffaellite Brotherhood, whose members in those days would not have exchanged honours with members of a Royal Academy. And the instinct of these reformers was right. They were doing their allotted work which no academies, royal or other, could do for them; work as heretical and heterodox as Hogarth's and as triumphant in due course. For, to be fair to the sculptor who has recently received academic recognition, we must notice what hold he has gained upon the world without the prestige of any academic title. A young man, to whose chisel have come or been entrusted for marble immortality such celebrities as Tennyson, Carlyle, Dickens, Maurice, Newman, Darwin, Sedgwick, Hooker, Archdeacon Hare, Bishop Temple, Mr. Gladstone, Mr. Cobden, Sir Hope Grant, Lord Ashburton, Lord Lawrence, Sir Bartle Frere, and Dr. Whewell, is not one for whom we can anticipate -- is not one who himself could have expected -- any accession of prestige when he accepted academic honours. This act of the Academy was worthy of its first president; it was gracious and it was wise.

But to turn now to what more nearly concerns art, the distinctive character of Mr. Woolner's work, we should bring before us as vividly as possible the prevailing aspect of modern sculpture, and of portrait-sculpture more especially. Let us ask ourselves, What is the ordinary impression left upon the sense by the simulacra of humanity, whether in plaster or marble, stationed for recognition on Exhibition shelves? While the distant effect of an antique portrait is always that of a human head, the impression received from these productions at such distance is by no means that of the human head. It is a solid, very various in form, the lower part of which is often much wider than the upper. Sometimes the top of this solid rises into a pyramid; sometimes it is bilaterally crested or obtusely horned; sometimes from its lower part there stands out two horizontal spikes; at other times it has a bifurcate base. Tis is the solid outline from which, but for the near discovery of included features, might be stalagmite, tuffa, or fragmentary rock. True, on nearer view we see that this is exactly the way our friend wears his hair, or combs his whiskers, or cuts his beard; and we realize his right amount of nose, or mouth or bush of eyebrow: but also feel that these hairy offshoots, literally done into marble or solid plaster, cast unwonted shadows on his face and features; and we arrive at the "universal conclusion," not too logical but only too sincere, that portrait-sculpture has a stiff frozen look which is "objectionable."

Hireling Now all this, it must be remembered, characterises by no means unworkmanlike products of industry, inasmuch as these are fairly accurate, though matter-of-fact translations of humanity into stone just what might have been looked for from a Pre-Raffaellite, if Pre-Raffaellism had indeed been that matter-of-fact thing its misinterpreters conceived. That it never was such, might have been seen in an early work of Holman Hunt The Hireling Shepherd, where the elecampane flowers in the foreground had their individually stamens it is said a Pre-Raffaellite would paint them. These flowers of Holman Hunt) were true to the artistic, not the scientific fact of nature, just as such accessories of hair as we have been noticing are in Mr. Woolner's busts true to the visible effect; the mass of marble employed for these not being the exact equal of so much beard or eyebrow, but a mass commensurate with the impression which these leave upon the eye. Mr. Woolner is one of the few living sculptors who, like a noble translator mindful of each special capacity of two different tongues, interprets each nicest variety of form truthfully, because not literally; by equivalents, not by equals.

Left: John Henry Newman; right: Alfred Tennyson

This mindfulness of medium, this sense of his art's specialty, Mr. Woolner possesses in perhaps larger measure than any sculptor of our time (with the single exception of Mr. Foley), and this, next to the creative faculty, is the most indispensable requisite of true art, though unfortunately the very one that has by sculptors been least possessed, or rather most wilfully discarded, since Michael Angelo aspired to make sculpture pictorial. For examples of portraiture wrought vitally, yet within the bounds of sculpture, we should study Mr. Woolner's busts of Newman, Carlyle, and Tennyson, and, preferentially, an early medallion of the latter, because, being a medallion, it offers to the sculptor temptations to go astray in search of the "pictorial." Yet here we have a disposition of masses strictly sculptural; a variety of surface just sufficient to distinguish the forehead from the hair, and the eyebrow from the forehead, the field of which is tenderly broken by the delicately increasing light and shade attendant on the temporary artery's relief, which itself leads the eye by fine gradations to the shade that plays about the frontal and corrugator muscles, and culminates in the countour of the brow. Then there is no weak hankering for melting away the outline: it is firm, and clear, and keen; that of the neck almost rigid in its grandeur. The same qualities are present in the last exquisite bust of the poet; but the medallion is here cited as more amenable to analysis, since it admits of more choice in respect to the relative quanity to be given to the various parts: for, within certain limits, there is much more choice here than is thought; and we fancy how a less discrete management of masses would have marred t he whole effect. the fruits of a petty ambition to register the actual amount of hair Without this sense of decorousness sculpture cannot be. But Mr. Woolner's portraits have other and higher claims. They are alive, and energetic (perhaps in some cases a little to excess): we see a mouth that will open, and an eyelid whose upper line is not a boundary but a movable fold. ln the eyes of the Tennyson there is rapt observation that more than sees; supreme taste is on the lips. In Newman, veneration and suave philosophy seem to reside. In Gladstone, with scholarly refinement there is indomitable will; and in Carlyle, the pause and poetry of introspection.

But portraiture of this strain is in the truest sense historical, demanding imaginative porrer in the artist, and pointing to his works in the domain of poetry. Of these one of the earliest and most fanciful is a Puck, the puissant sprite of Shakespeare -- not the quaint, fat baby of Reynolds. Quite exempt from mortal laws of gravity he sprawls about, alike careless of foothold and of balance, with the strength of a mole-cricket and the resiiiency of a grasshopper: nay, even his very thoughts are muscular and locomotive -- a secret we seem to discover for ourselves, observing how this elf-sprite, in an idle interval between more heroic pranks, is prodding a frog to see it jump. The next work of importance, exhibited at the Academy, was a half-life-size statue called Love. Contrary to ancient traditions, this figure is female -- an artless snowdrop of a girl, unfolding her tresses above her head, like the snowdrop's unfolded membrane. It is noticeable, that in both these figures the sculptor has not held himself pledged to present them in what may be called "the Regulation Exercise:" the former is not misleading the benighted traveller, and the latter is not, like the Venus de Medici, conscious of admiring beholders. The same holds true of the most nobly-conceived antiques: the Jason is only tying his sandal, and the Theseus simply resting.

As our limits will not admit of more than nominal notice of many imposing works essentially "historic" or poetic, amongst which may be ranked The Death of Boadicea, a life-size group (exhibited in Westminster Hall as early as 1844); a group of Eros and Euphrosyne, and another life-size work, Constance and Arthur (exhibited in 1852), it may be desirable to pass at once to a few of SIr. Woolner's most representative lvorks, and observe them somewhat in detail. Let us take, then, the Virgilia, the wife of Coriolanus (Shakespeare not Niebuhr for historian), and we shall find that the heart-sick longing for her absent lord is told not only in the face (the one pathogrnomic exponent with our now-a-days sculptors), but in the yearning of the foward neck; and head dropped back, in the huddled-up, self-abandoned posture wherein she sits, in the clutched feet, and, most pathetically, in the outstretched unconsciously exploring arm. Then the background (the material reflex of her thoughts), a bas-relief on which she has been gazing, is a masterpiece of subtle conception. Coriolanus alone (probably shut in Corioli) charges a group of Volscians, of which the nearest is killed, the next in full retreat, the hindmost looking back half resolute but still retreating, while the furthest off only prepares to fight. Herein we have sound psychologic machinery indispensable in all groupings of human beings: and all this is intelligible criticism: it is what we can write and explain. But what shall we say about that which we can neither explain nor put in words, the mysterious exponency and significance of the arrangement of lines in the composition; their exsurgency, or, so to speak, polarity in the figure of the fate-fraught hero, their flutter, decline, and collapse in the forms of the scattered Volscians? By theorists (on art's threshold) we may be told that, the mind once rightly expressed in the attitude, harmonious composition must follow, or that what we have called the psychiologic machinery will insure this result. But this is by no means true, for of all questions, perhaps the most purely artistic is, how the figures, supposing their attitudes all rightly settled, are to be massed and collocated in regard to the spectator? a point purely optional, but one on which succinctly turns the question whether the work is to be a mere prosaic putting down of phrases individually poetic, or the poet-sculptor's enunciation of such poetic phrases: just the question of arts' specialty observed or disregarded. To continue, all this bacloground is in low relief, while the form of Virgilia is in alto; and if it may be doubted whether high and low relief can be judiciously mixed, there can be no doubt that the complete isolation of the background, which in this case represents not the fact itself, but its ideal embodiment, is triumphantly effected by the delicate expedient of interposing a course of key-fret ornament, which, with its ever-pronounced shadow, draws the desired line of severance between the real and the ideal upon the same slab. These "mere points of material arrangement," as we are apt to think them, are to sculpture just about what the bass is to music.

The (life-size) monument to Mrs. Archibald Peel, where an Angel restores the child, who died first, to the arms of the newly beatified mother, is as perfect in composition as pathetic in expression; as graceful in form and conception as delicately truthful in detail. Another group of this order, in rilievo, called In Memoriam represents four children, snatched away all but simultaneously, in that unknown, unvexed region so hard to present to bodily eyes! No wings, no aurioles, no floating through the air: only vital flesh and earthly raiment. How is it earth is left behind ? Or rather, is it not that the heaven of earth is here, the rapt communion of loving souls? But let us remember, that the fact of the medium of human form being found adequate to express this spiritual aspiration is a fact that points to sculpture's true field: that warns the sculptor of the danger of devolving the task of spiritual expression upon conventional symbols with no intrinsic life.

Left: Ophelia; right: Lord's Prayer

In the Elaine and Ophelia there are subtle traits well worthy of discussion quite beyond these limits. There is a lithe winding grace about the 0phelia that would (we fancy) fain wind its way out of the strange labyrinth entoils her. The Homeric designs for the Gladstone Testimonial, at the Bodleian are full of much power and grace, with a light of poetry hanging over all. A most original life-size group is the so-called Lord's Prayer: a modern mother teaching her little one to pray, and, strangely, not mawkish. Wanting space to treat of other Iarge works, such as the statues of Lord Bacon, William III, and Sir Bartle Frere, we will conclude with a remark; on the statue of Dr. Whewell, now being wrought in marble. When John Bacon, sculptor, strove to embody the colossal intellect of Johnson, he made muscle do duty for mind. Johnson is a Hercules, with the naked brawn of arms and legs to witness; while Dr. Whewell, an equally colossal inteilect, has at the hands of Mr. Woolner received so far different treatment that he sits cross-legged in his own college gown, balancing the book on his knee with an easy air of strength, and a pre-occupied look of thought, which tell more of the giant equipoise of intellect than all the giant muscles of Johnson. Such is the effect of poetic conception, even in the prose walk of portraiture.

J. L. T.

Rugby.


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Last modified 2 January 2005