Hunt meets Woolner

While we were giving orders for the preparation of the room [their shared studio], Rossetti, whose enthusiasm for our principles grew with greater familiarity, talked much of Woolner as one to whom he had explained the resolution of Millais and myself to turn more devotedly to Nature as the one means of purifying modern art, and said that Woolner had declared the system to be the only one that could reform sculpture, and that therefore he wished to be enrolled with us. Woolner occupied the next studio to that or Hancock, the young sculptor who had allowed Rossetti to paint in his workroom. Woolner was somewhat beyond me in age, about five feet eight in height, and of robust build; he had thick blond hair inclining to brown, and with his dark eyes he was a well-looking youth; I recognised him as one whom I had seen visiting the Elgin Room at the "British Museum. He had an expression of great self- confidence, which his manner and talk accentuated. He turned from a bust that he was carving, chisel in hand, and as daylight had not yet gone, marble dust could be seen upon his face and clothes. He was then working for a fashionable bust-maker, who had allowed him to bring the block of marble with the cast to his own studio ; he divided the room, which was large, with anothe sculptor, Bernard Smith, whose massive size formed a giant contrast to the small bas-reliefs he was designing.

Woolner, on, the other hand, had erected a giant figure ten feet high, abandoned for the nonce and scathed in its damp cloth; some smaller work (a model of Puck, for example) he showed us with much paternal fondness. When darkness came on we talked about the varieties of poetry, and travestied by joint composition the most blatant and vapid of its kind. [112-14]

I once returned from the Academy class at dusk and found found Gabriel—for that was his name when his brother was also of the circle—and Thomas Woolner in possession. When I entered, the latter was finishing the survey of my abandoned picture of "Christ and the Two Maries," which Gabriel, without my having authorised him to do, had turned round for inspection. I felt so much irritation at this unforeseen consequence of having a pupil as a fellow-tenant, that I would scarcely trust myself to notice this breach of etiquette; I turned the canvas again to the wall, and talked on other topics.

Woolner, who had lately returned from a brief visit to Paris, produced a case of brown wood bound with bright brass, and containing an elegant clay pipe, stamped on the heel of the bowl 46, a number held sacred, as was explained, by student smokers in the French capital. Of Caparal tobacco he had still a precious remnant ; he took out the prized calumet with a dainty care such as a lady displays in handling a fragile jewel ; his flexible fingers and thumbs were developed by habit of delicate manipula- tion as a sculptor. The merit of the elegant clay it was ' natural for a modeller to appreciate, but the love for the rank tobacco was artistic only in the proof it gave of Parisian Bohemian taste. He expressed enthusiastic admiration of the works of Ary Scheffer, and was proud of having spoken to the artist himself. From the first there could be no doubt of Woolner's gifts as a raconteur, but the art for which he entertained such admiration left it yet uncertain whether he had the spirit to swim against the stream. In the Westminster Hall competition the sculptor, then quite a youngster, had sent a small model of Queen Eleanor sucking the poison from the king's arm, and this had given him an opportunity of making acquaintance with some distinguished men, who were of great interest to young artists like ourselves. He told stories which brought these stars into tangible shape and substance, but his telescopic powers reached even further, and the illumination he shed on the heroes more remote from our ken equally delighted us. Of his master Behnes he expressed the highest appreciation as an artist, an opinion which he justified by reference to early work, such as the bust of the Queen as a child. While Woolner was still a boy in Behnes's studio, Haydon was leaving after a visit, and the pupil reverently hastened to hold the door open to him as an honoured guest; the painter, not satisfied at simply acknowledging this courtesy, turned and e mined the boy's cranium, and based on its bumps word of encouragement as to his future possibilities. [I, 116, 118]

Woolner becomes a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

As Woolner was a proposed new member of our Brotherhood . . . , I went with the two Rossettis on a visit to his studio in Stanhope Street, where Bernard Smith remained of the party. Woolner with his work certainly filled more than his equal share of the chamber, which looked vast and boundless by night; he received and guided us through the labyrinth of modelling-stools, pails of clay, plaster moulds, and casts on our way to the stove. On every side were signs of his industry and energy. The colossal figure, never illumined by candlelight much above the knees, stood in mid-space. At this date Woolner was still working as a marble carver for others. While thus engaged, the large clay model, the object of his highest ambition, received attention only morning and night, when the wet cloths were changed and reapplied with the tenderness of a surgeon dressing a wound. It was an illustration to the text, "Lo, one generation passeth away, and another cometh"; the past generation was represented by a figure prostrate on the base, while the advancing epoch was striding over him somewhat disdainfully. The modelling had occupied many months of active study, and the author told us that when working at it in original fervour he had made his sleeping chamber of a spacious recess between the covering of the general passage and the rafters of the studio; this economy he had now given up. The many indications of Woolner's energy and his burning ambition to do work of excelling truthfulness and strong poetic spirit expressed in his energetic talk were enough to persuade me that Rossetti's suggestion that he should be made one of our number was a reasonable one; in due course, therefore, Millais having known him at the Academy, he was approved as a member. [I, 127-28]

Woolner had still to give proof of power beyond that of subtlety in his sincere workmanship as a modeller and a carver of marble. In design we trusted more to his profuse enthusiastic anticipations of sublime conceptions yet to be elaborated. [131-32]

Woolner's co-operation in our Joint ambition was for the time retarded by his ordinary occupation of carving marble for others, yet the meetings at his studio had a most romantic character. In winter evenings the chamber seemed vast and ghostly, owing to the circumscribed limits of glow from the opening of the stove. The wreaths of tobacco smoke from a few pipes environed our circle, and seemed to elevate us above immediate cares. The world was then too agitated with discontent not to call forth all our political views; those of our host were strong, and decidedly complicated." I loathe from my very soul," he said, "all money grubbers, all who grovel in muck to scrape up filthy lucre." Most severe was his disdain for our governing and wealthy classes. This he justified by truly terrible stories of how dishonourably prominent men had gained their exalted positions and wealth. When asked whether he really believed his startling reports, he replied that they were based not on belief but on knowledge acquired on the very best authority. He was taken by some for a democrat, but he disproved this by carrying menacingly a very handsome shoot of an ash tree which he called the antipleb, and also by frequent indignant outbursts against the people. His scornful sentiments might be traced to an unquestioning adoration of Shelley's wildest poetry, combined with sympathy and admiration for a friend who had lately committed suicide, leaving a paper for the coroner in which he had expressed his unbounded contempt for every person of humble position who might form the jury, but Woolner insisted on regarding this disdainful pessimist as the possessor of a great 'intellect. He wisely took occasion to seek Gabriel's and William's opinions in turn on disputed judgments of standard poems, inquiring also about metres, and rhymes, and differences of verse, bringing forward attempts of his own, a sonnet on M. Angelo being one, and the first verses of My Beautiful Lady. This was before the journey of Gabriel and myself abroad, and I had at once been honoured with the task of illustrating it. When Patmore's Woodman's Daughter had been recited by Rossetti, Woolner expressed regret that it could no longer be obtained at the publishers, whereupon the reciter advised him to write to the author direct, and this led to the making of a valuable new friend for us all, and an introduction to the most important and interesting literary circle existing. [I, 195-96]

Woolner enters the competition for a monument to Wordsworth


Woolner as an established P.R.B. early made sign that he would, as far as opportunities offered, strive to strengthen our body. There was a monument to be put up to Wordsworth in Westminster Abbey, and a public competition was invited by the Committee. Woolner was persuaded that he could engage with advantage in this. Accordingly he put aside all other work to make a clay model with figures about twenty-two inches in height. The poet was seated on a chair raised above side-supporting groups; on his right was a father coercing and reproving a stubborn boy, and on the other side was a mother with a daughter in charge who was being led by example to pray. The boy was writhing in obstinate temper to get free from the father, whose pose and expression excellently portrayed determination to exercise authority and to teach submission, and the mother as obviously taught her precept. Each parent thus had a child under influence. Although unequal in parts, all was admirably conceived and worked for a rough design, and as no well-established sculptors would jeopardise their reputations and positions by submitting their work to the judgment of a Committee, probably incompetent to tell the difference between good and bad, and as no young man of mark was engaging in the com- petition, our friend had every right to count upon his prospects as substantial. At the season appointed Woolner sent in his model, and we all waited for the result with eagerness. On the date for the judgment it was announced that the award was postponed, and this delay was repeated very tiresomely. In the end it was published that th decision was in favour of Thrupp, but certain on the Council had insisted that an expression of their appreciation of Woolner's design should be given him, with the avowal that the delay in the arbitration had arisen from doubt whether it would not be more just to give the commission to him, instead of to his older competitor.


The Last of England by Ford Madox Brown.[Click on image to enlarge it.]

This decision made a cruel difference to Woolner's immediate future. Rossetti urged him to abandon sculpture as an impracticable and hopeless career, recom- mending painting instead. Accordingly Woolner made an essay in oil colours of a lady floating upon a cloud (the title by me forgotten) much in the manner of the eighteenth century, but this experiment could not offer any vista of fortune, and as Bernard Smith had mooted the plan of going with the ever-increasing flow of gold-diggers to Australia, he adopted the idea, pressing me to join the small artistic company emigrating in the hope of acquiring enough to return and pursue art without check and anxiety for "that eternal want of pence." The prospect had no temptation for me. Woolner broke up his large clay model of " The Generations,' the work of many self-denying months, and took his passage for the Antipodes at once.

Ford Madox Brown was so much stirred by this discouraging circumstance that he too speculated upon the idea of leaving the country, and while thus perturbed, began his touching picture entitled "The Last of England." [223-25]

Woolner at the antipodes is lost to us. [267]

Woolner had in his letters explained his want of good fortune in. the gold-fields, and that he had again made art his profession by establishing himself as a portraitist in medallions and busts, and it seemed his practice in this branch of work was improving. He informed us further that as our names appeared so often in the home newspapers it would be an advantage to him with the colonists to have visible evidence of our friendship. We therefore all met one morning at Millals' studio, and set fr: work to complete a collection of our portraits, in pencil, chalk, or pastel. Millais did William Rossetti and S- nhens. William did, if I am not mistaken, make a beginning with some one, but gave up his purpose to save the time for others. Stephens abstained from any attempt. Gabriel chose me for his subject, and I managed to get Millais and Rossetti done, although the slowness of Gabriel, with his appeals for special posings, gave the dusk the op- portunity of overtaking us before I had quite finished Millais. Rossettis tendency then in sketching a face was to convert the features of his sitter to his favourite ideal type, and if he finished on these lines, the drawing was- extremely charming, but you had to make believe a good deal to see the likeness, while if the sitter's features would not lend themselves to the pre-ordained form, he, when time allowed, went through a stage of reluctant twisting of lines and quantities to make the drawing satisfactory. With unlimited time his work became eminently true and artistic too. On this occasion he had to leave off when my likeness stood between the two stages, so that the verdict given was that it made me twenty years older than I could claim to be, and William Rossetti suggested that it resembled Rush, the notorious murderer of the day. However, the drawings all went as they were left that evening, and they were framed together to hang in Woolner's studio at Melbourne, and afterwards in London, not without the desired effect upon his clients, while he was waiting for recognition. [I, 340-41]

Woolner returns

Woolner had come back from his Tom Tiddler's Ground without much heavier pockets than he started with, having, indeed, nothing more than a chance in a public competition at London for a statue of Wentworth to be erected in Melbourne, and some small patronage for medallions and busts, gained mainly by the introductions of Carlyle, Tennyson, and Patmore. It was impossible, therefore, to resume the dream that a tangible Brotherhood still existed. [II, 88]

From this time he avoided [Rossetti] Millais, Woolner, and myself to a degree that proved to be more than unstudied. Woolner did not accept this new attitude passively. He told me that on the occasion of a walk with Gabriel in the fields at Hampstead the latter spoke of his position so much as that of originator or head of the Brotherhood that Woolner, although, in allusion to his mediaevalism, he had habitually addressed him as the "Arch Pre-Raphaelite," said, "I wasn't going to humour his seriously making such a preposterous claim, so I told him that it was against all the known facts of the case. At which he became moody and displeased, and so went home alone." This is a sad page of my record, but in friendly combinations for a particular object such revulsions from harmony, which could not have been foreseen, are in accordance with the experience of all ages. [II, 134]

Carlyle asked Woolner at this time what was the truth about Ruskin's statement that Rossetti was the greatest genius of the age, and Woolner expressed his bewilderment. Rossetti's undergraduate followers, not having known of the stages of his tardy development as a painter, were easily disposed to ignore any facts which militated against claims to his priority among us. [II, 164]

Hunt obtains a major commission for Woolner

I think I shall convince you [Hunt tells Thomas Fairbairn] that you can get superior work from a fellow-student of ours who was one of our Brotherhood; his name is Woolner, and I must tell you more about him." Fairbairn laughed good-naturedly, replying, "That you shall." And as we went along I told him of Woolner's early struggles; of his competition for the Wordsworth statue, and the disappointing verdict upon it; of his emigration to the gold diggings, and his resumption of artistic work in Australia; of his return to England, and fresh disappointment over the Wentworth competition, and of his present position. I dwelt upon the excellence of the Tennyson bust, and of the medallions an. heads he was then doing in his studio, and urged Fairbairn to let me take him, when next in town, to see Woolner. He was interested, and revived the subject frequently. On an early evening after this talk, when we had retired to the smoking-room, my host began thus: "I have thought over the case of your friend the sculptor, and have spoken of it to Mrs. Fairbairn, and she is much interested.You know we have two children who are deaf and dumb; it was a great affliction to us at first, but as they grew up, and the singular difference of themselves from the rest of the world struck them, a confiding affection for one another showed itself in the children, which brought us great consolation, and my wife and I often confessed that we should like to have some memento of. the sweet sympathy in their isolation. We have now agreed that we will have a marble group done of them by your friend, and when you go home you may prepare him for our visit to give him the commission."


Brother and Sister, or Deaf and Dumb (1862) [Click on image to enlarge it.]

I could only say that this would be a splendid opportunity for Woolner to prove his powers, and that I hoped he would make a great success."

I had suggested to Woolner that the weakness of his claim for just recognition consisted in his having nothing of an imaginative kind to show on full scale, and I had urged him to undertake some simple group that would prove he had the power to express beauty in dramatic interest, but he had pointed out that he had no patron. When I urged that I made pictures and trusted to find the patron afterwards, he would not allow that he could do the same, because no one took notice of a mere plaster cast of a design, and he could not afford to risk the cost of marble and assistants' work.

So important a commission from Mr. Fairbairn was more than I had expected to obtain for Woolner, but my generous friends when the large group was advanced, even exceeded their original proposal by commissioning the sculptor also to make busts and medallions of Rajah Brooke, of Sir William Fairbairn, the great engineer, and other important friends.


Alfred Tennyson (1857) [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Woolner was in some respects a mystery to me. I had been championing him in many quarters, and had often cited him as an example of the injustice done to English sculpture, by the rage, then as ever rampant among the dilettanti, for adoring foreign sculptors. Marochetti really had the support of all the aristocracy for public commissions. . . .I often instanced Woolner's bust of Tennyson as distinctly better than any male head Marochetti had ever done, and no one ventured to dispute the point; but when they asked me what Woolner could show, or what designs could be seen of a poetic kind, I had to confess that my friend had never had an opportunity of realising female grace and beauty.

Woolner, when introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Fairbairn, had perfectly charmed them by his enthusiastic responsive- ness. He went down to Manchester shortly after to make sketches for the group. [II, 161-63]


Francis Bacon (1857) [Click on image to enlarge it.]

When I tendered the three hunded pounds advanced to me by Mr. Combe, he exclaimed, " No, I don't need it, but you have interested us in your friend Woolner, and we should like to tide mm over his low-water difficulties. Go to him, and say I hope he will receive the sum from me, and that he will keep it as long as he likes" ; and he added, "It does not matter if he never gives it back, the amount will have been twice well used, and if in this case it brings success, as in yours, I shall be better pleased for his sake."

This kindness enabled me to introduce the sculptor to my Oxford friends, and the increase of his circle at the University helped him as much as the money did. About this time he finished a statue of Lord Bacon for the Oxford Museum. [II, 196-97]

In the autumn of 1860 Tennyson, Palgrave, Woolner, Val Prinsep, and I undertook a walking tour through Cornwall and Devon. [II, 203]

Woolner, after his return from Australia in 1856, had always declared great zeal for unity with us, and desire to be remembered as one of the original brethren. He had lately found himself with an open way before him by the death of Foley and the departure of Marochetti, but to the surprise of many of his friends he dissipated his energies in making a collection of pictures. My candidly expressed opinion as to the authenticity of certain of these finds caused a permanent rupture of my friendship with him. [II, 233]

. . . my pleadings against the denuciation of Woolner by Jacob Omnium [388; see 232-36 for the context.]

"Woolner's worthiest achievements"

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Left to right: Woolner's 1856 bronze bas relief medallion of Tennyson, his 1873 bust, and the Carlyle medallion of 1855. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

I would also remind my readers or Woolner's worthiest achievements, for he undoubtedly gave an excellent example of a more finished and nervous treatment of marble than he found prevalent at the time ; this was to be seen in his busts and sometimes in his whole-length figures. However much of mannerism may have been present in the mien and bearing of the heads, and in the occasional habit of enlarging the eyes, his workmanship must ever be looked upon as ad- mirable. The heads of Tennyson, F. D. Maurice, Carlyle, and Rajah Brooke must be regarded as fine examples of realisations and skilful carving. A small model of a girl at a well, striving to kiss a young brother writhing in her arms, was so graceful in line as to justify the belief that he would succeed in groups of poetic nature, if he had an opportunity of undertaking them. His statue of Sassoon sent to India was, as I remember it, truly admirable. The group he made for Sir Walter Trevelyan's hall at Wallington possesses fine points in sculpturesque form and finish. [407-08]

Biographical materials

Last modified 25 October 2012