Artist biography

English sculptor and poet. His earliest important surviving work was admired by William Holman Hunt and helped to secure Woolner's admission in 1848 to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Although eclipsed by Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Woolner was an important figure in the Brotherhood. He contributed poetry to its journal.

Like the other Pre-Raphaelites in the early 1850s, Woolner received few commissions, and in 1852 he emigrated to Australia. His move inspired Ford Madox Brown's The Last of England. Woolner was no more successful in gold prospecting than in sculpture, although he found some demand for his portraits. Woolner's failure to obtain the commission for a statue of William Charles Wentworth in Sydney prompted his return in 1854 to London, where he subsequently became much more successful.

By the 1860s Woolner's oeuvre extended to portrait statuary. Woolner's most important architectural sculpture comprised eleven marble statues and two reliefs for Alfred Waterhouse's Manchester Assize Courts (1863–7; destr.; some statues, Manchester, Courts of Justice). To some extent Woolner's style softened by the mid 1870s, although he remained consistent in his pursuit of realism.

Woolner was elected Associate of the Royal Academy in 1871 and a Member in 1874; in 1877 he was appointed its Professor of Sculpture, but resigned in 1879 without having delivered a lecture there. The Times, in his obituary, called him the ‘uncompromising foe of shams, of claptrap, and of superficiality', and his poetry was widely acknowledged as sharing the truthfulness and force of his sculpture.

DNB; Gunnis
F. T. Palgrave: Essays on Art (London and Cambridge, 1866)
E. Gosse: ‘Living English Sculptors', C. Monthly Mag., xxvi (1883), pp. 163–85
A. Woolner: Thomas Woolner, R.A., Sculptor and Poet: His Life in Letters (London, 1917), p. 334
R. Trevelyan: ‘Thomas Woolner, Pre-Raphaelite Sculptor: The Beginnings of Success, Apollo, cv (1978), pp. 200–05
B. Read: Victorian Sculpture (New Haven and London, 1982), p. 24
——: ‘Was There Pre-Raphaelite Sculpture?', Pre-Raphaelite Papers, ed. L. Parris (London, 1984), pp. 97–110
The Pre-Raphaelites (exh. cat., London, Tate, 1984)
M. Stocker: ‘“Ready to Move and Speak”: Thomas Woolner's Statue of Godley', Bull. NZ A. Hist., ix (1985), pp. 19–25
Pre-Raphaelite Sculpture: Nature and Imagination in British Sculpture, 1848–1914 (exh. cat., ed. B. Read and J. Barnes; London, Matthiesen F.A.; Birmingham, Mus. & A.G.; 1991–2), pp. 21–45, 141–67


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