Thomas Woolner 1825-1892
This plaster statuette of Puck, the troublesome fairy in Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was first exhibited at the British Institution 1847. William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) describes a visit to Woolner’s studio earlier that year when the sculptor showed him Puck ‘with much paternal fondness’ (quoted in Read and Barnes, p.142). According to the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Woolner was illustrating an incident from the ‘Imaginary Biography of Puck’: ‘As he was sailing through the air one day, searching for wherewith to please his humorous malice, right well was he satisfied to alight upon a mushroom and awaken a sleeping frog, of which a hungry snake was about to make a meal’ (Parris, p.49). The left leg of the sprite is firmly placed on the giant mushroom and, as described in the passage, he is about to startle the frog with his right. Meanwhile the snake, which has wound itself around the top of the mushroom, is poised to catch the unsuspecting frog. The fairy himself has a mischievous smile which shows pleasure in saving the frog, while spiting the snake of his meal. The sculpture captures a split second of time before a sudden movement, as Puck will touch the frog, which will jump away just before the snake lunges forward.
Woolner was the only sculptor member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which was founded in 1848, one year after this sculpture was made. The Brotherhood drew heavily on Shakespeare and based many of their paintings on characters and incidents from his plays. For example, in successive exhibitions at the Royal Academy, in 1850 and 1851, John Everett Millais (1829-96) showed Ferdinand Lured by Ariel and Hunt Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus. In addition to the Shakespearean subject matter, Puck exemplifies the leaf by leaf realism which characterises Pre-Raphaelite paintings. The mottled snakeskin and the detailed musculature of the fairy demonstrate the degree of naturalism which Woolner was striving to obtain. The consequences of these efforts were to surface again twelve years later when Woolner was sculpting a bust of the naturalist, Charles Darwin (1809-82). Woolner mentioned to him that he had modelled Puck’s pointed ears after studying the vestigial ‘tips’ that appear on some human ears. He made a drawing of his observations which Darwin chose to include amongst the illustrations of The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871).
Puck should also be linked to the Victorian obsession with fairies and other magical creatures. Maas’s remark that ‘Fairy painting was close to the centre of the Victorian subconscious’ (Martineau, p.11) is borne out by the large number of paintings of goblins, elves and sprites by Richard Dadd (1817-86), Daniel Maclise (1806-70) and Robert Huskisson (1819-61). The trend for pictures of these imaginary creatures, however, dates back to the late eighteenth century, and Woolner may have been familiar with the Puck Tate N05384) which Reynolds (1723-92) made for Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, and the imaginary Fairyland which Fuseli (1741-1825) conjured for his Titania’s Awakening, (1785-90). It was only in the mid nineteenth century, however, that sculptors began to tackle subjects from Shakespeare. This was partly in response to a campaign to decorate the Houses of Parliament in 1844 and 1845, for which sculptors were given the freedom to choose a subject of their own choice. John Henry Foley (1818-74) and Frederick Thrupp (1812-95) can be included amongst a number of sculptors who chose Shakespearean subjects. The subject was unusual though for Woolner and, with the exception of Ophelia which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1869, he was forced to accept commissions for portrait busts to make a living.
Puck was praised by the sculptor John Lucas Tupper (ca. 1823-79), as ‘the puissant sprite of Shakespeare’ (quoted in Benedict Read and Joanna Barnes, p.142) and by Coventry Patmore, for whom Woolner made a plaster cast of Puck in 1849, as ‘the product of a grotesque fantasy in harmony with the modern mind’ (quoted in Benedict Read and Joanna Barnes, p.142). Two bronze casts have been made, one in 1865 for Louisa, Lady Ashburton and the other in 1908 for Sir John Bland-Sutton of Middlesex Hospital.
F.G. Stephens, ‘Thomas Woolner RA’, Art Journal, LVI, March 1894, p.82, illustrated p.82
Leslie Parris, ed., The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery London 1984, pp.48-9, reproduced p.49
Benedict Read and Joanna Barnes, eds., Pre-Raphaelite Sculpture: Nature and Imagination in
British Sculpture 1848-1914, exhibition catalogue, The Matthiesen Gallery, London and Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery 1991, pp.141-2, reproduced plates 53 a-c
Jane Martineau, ed., Victorian Fairy Painting, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London, University of Iowa Museum of Art and Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto 1998