Thomas Woolner: a Pre-Raphaelite Sculptor in Australia
This paper examines the nature of Thomas Woolner’s Australian oeuvre, its relationship to professed Pre-Raphaelite ideals and its role in achieving his brilliant career. Obscure and penniless, the only sculptor amongst the original Pre-Raphaelite Brothers was lured to Melbourne by the promise of gold in 1852. His real fortune was to meet on arrival the influential circle of Dr. Godfrey Howitt and the Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria, Charles La Trobe, who had connections with the London Pre-Raphaelites. When prospecting failed, Woolner sculpted portraits of La Trobe, the Howitts and their friends in low-relief profile medallions. Although he revived the genre in Melbourne “to get money with,” the unparalleled accuracy and realistic detail of these portraits, so striking to contemporaries, were based on his unswerving adherence to the Pre-Raphaelite principles of “excelling truthfulness” and “devotion to nature.”
La Trobe and the Howitts promoted Woolner, lending their portraits to the first official artist exhibitions in Melbourne in 1853 and in 1854. They introduced him to Sir Charles Nicholson, Speaker of the Legislative Council of NSW, when he moved to Sydney that year which resulted in portrait medallions of Council members at a pivotal moment of nation building. Income from commissions for bronze casts of his colonial portraits provided the “seeding capital” for launching Woolner’s career when he returned to London in 1854. Of his future Australian commissions, ironically, the gigantic Monument to Captain Cook, of 1878, for Hyde Park, Sydney, came closest to fulfilling the principles espoused by the first Pre-Raphaelites: a monumental, Ideal work of the highest category, history, articulated by sharply executed, realistic detail. I argue that the successful, lucrative career of Thomas Woolner, R.A., sometime Slade Professor of Sculpture, began the moment he met with appreciation and support in the cultured circle of Victoria’s first Lieutenant-Governor, Charles La Trobe, the Howitts and their friends in Melbourne in 1852.
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