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Thomas Woolner (1825–1892)

by Marjorie J. Tipping

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Thomas Woolner (1825-1892), sculptor and poet, was born on 17 December 1825 at Hadleigh, Suffolk, England, son of Thomas Woolner, post office sorter, and his first wife Rebecca, née Leeks. He received some education at Ipswich. His father took no interest in the boy's early efforts at clay modelling, carving and drawing, but a sympathetic stepmother paid for his training at the studio of William Behnes, sculptor, where he worked for six years. In 1842 he gained admission as a student at the Royal Academy and received some minor commissions. In the next decade he exhibited works regularly at the academy, including his bronze figure of Puck.

In 1847 Woolner met D. G. Rossetti and, according to art critic F. G. Stephens, was then 'encamped in a huge, dusty, barnlike studio like a Bedouin in a desert'—probably the studio Woolner shared in Stanhope Street with Bernhard Smith. He became an original member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and with Smith helped to produce its short-lived journal, The Germ, in 1850. The first issue included his poems 'My Beautiful Lady' and 'Of My Lady in Death', illustrated by W. Holman Hunt. Woolner's attempts, however, to convey the principles of the Brotherhood through his sculpture produced few commissions and when Smith and Edward Bateman decided to visit the Australian gold diggings, he joined them.

Arriving in Melbourne in the Windsor on 23 October 1852, Woolner and Smith first stayed with Dr Godfrey Howitt before going on to the diggings in the Ovens valley and in the Fryer's Creek, Castlemaine and Sandhurst areas. Woolner found some gold but after six months sold his tools and returned to Melbourne. He began to model medallions but had to dig the local clay, grind his own gypsum and make his own tools. He then cast reliefs in bronze of well-known citizens, charging twenty-five guineas each, and their influence and the patronage of Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe brought him several commissions. In 1853 some of his work was included in the exhibition of the newly formed Victorian Society of Fine Arts at the Mechanics' Institute.

Woolner then spent six months in Sydney; later writing that the lovely scenery, the 'divine air' and the great amiability of every one towards him made it one of the most enjoyable periods of his life. Many leading citizens commissioned portrait medallions from him. He hoped to gain the commission for a statue of William Charles Wentworth and he decided to return to England to press his case. Too late the Melbourne Argus mourned that 'the neglect which he experienced compared with his ready appreciation in Sydney remains a sort of blot on our national character'.

Alfred Howitt had at first found Woolner's 'variations of character' delightful, but soon found him aggressive, meddlesome, impertinent, full of 'self-esteem, [and] short temper[ed], officious, and in spite of his noisy volubility, very shy and nervous'. The other Howitts did not share Alfred's views and Woolner became engaged to Godfrey's daughter Edith. After their broken engagement, Woolner sailed for England in July 1854 in the Queen of the South, intending to return if he received the Wentworth commission. Instead he became one of the leading sculptors of his day as well as a poet of distinction. In 1871 he was an associate member and in 1875 a member of the Royal Academy, where he was appointed professor of sculpture; he resigned in 1879 before delivering any discourses. In all, he exhibited 120 works at the academy as well as at the British Institution and elsewhere. Among his best-known statues are those of J. S. Mill on the Thames Embankment, the Prince Consort and Bacon statues at Oxford, and Sir Stamford Raffles in Singapore. Among Australians whose likenesses he modelled were Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe, Sir Charles FitzRoy, Sir Charles Nicholson, Sir Redmond Barry, Admiral Phillip Parker King and several members of the G. W. Cole, Macarthur and Howitt families.

In Sydney in 1854 Woolner had met (Sir) Henry Parkes; they continued to correspond and Parkes saw him in England in 1861 and in 1882, when he took Parkes to visit Tennyson. Through Parkes he was commissioned in 1874 to execute the colossal bronze statue of Captain James Cook for Sydney's Hyde Park. The commission was the subject of acrimonious correspondence between Woolner and William Forster who favoured the sculptor Charles Summers. In 1878 he claimed that the statue had cost him £2000 more than the 'dishonest' contract of £4000 that Forster had made him sign. Parkes had arranged for him to execute statues of Sir Charles Cowper, Sir James Martin and Wentworth, but in late 1891 the new government of (Sir) George Dibbs cancelled the commission.

On 6 September 1864 Woolner had married Alice Gertrude Waugh at St James's Church, Paddington, England; they had two sons and four daughters. He died on 7 October 1892 from an internal disorder after a short illness and was buried at St Mary's, Hendon. The Saturday Review obituary stated that 'few men of his generation had a greater fund of talk or a more telling delivery … he had, at one time or another, been the friend of almost every artist or every writer of his age'. In the print room of the British Museum there is a portrait of Woolner engraved from a photograph and also a likeness sketched in his studio after T. Blake Wirgman.

Select Bibliography

  • W. B. Scott, Autobiographical Notes of the Life of William Bell Scott, W. Minto ed (Lond, 1892)
  • H. Parkes, Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History (Lond, 1892)
  • W. Moore, Studio Sketches (Melb, 1906)
  • A. Woolner, Thomas Woolner, R.A., Sculptor and Poet (Lond, 1917)
  • F. G. Stephens, ‘Thomas Woolner, R.A.’, Art Journal (London), 1894
  • A. Clyne, ‘Thomas Woolner, 1825-1892’, Bookman (London), Jan 1926
  • K. R. Cramp, ‘Some historical memorials and buildings’, JRAHS, 19 (1933)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6 July 1853, 25 Apr, 14 July, 28 Aug 1854
  • Town and Country Journal, 22 Feb, 1, 15 Mar 1879
  • Saturday Review (London), 15 Oct 1892
  • G. Long, ‘Thomas Woolner. Pre-Raphaelite in Sydney’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Jan 1934
  • M. B. Smith, Bernhard Smith and His Connection With Art (manuscript, 1917, copies at State Library of Victoria, State Library of New South Wales and State Library of Queensland)
  • Howitt papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • T. Woolner diary (copy at National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Marjorie J. Tipping, 'Woolner, Thomas (1825–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


1 December, 1825
Hadleigh, Suffolk, England


7 October, 1892 (aged 66)

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