Tennyson and Woolner

The Pre-Raphaelites were ardent admirers of the Poet Laureate.  A significant number of oils, drawings and illustrations were produced by the group that express their fascination with the Tennysonian subject.  Thomas Woolner, the one sculptor among the original seven members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, was especially enthusiastic.

Born in Hadleigh, Suffolk, in 1825, Woolner was apprenticed to the sculptor William Behnes at just thirteen years of age.  In 1843 he exhibited his first piece, a model of Eleanor sucking the Poison from the arm of Prince Edward, at the Royal Academy.   His passion for idealistic sculpture was discouraged and so he dedicated himself to portraiture, producing his first portrait medallion of Coventry Patmore, a good friend of Alfred Tennyson, in 1849.

It was chiefly through Patmore’s influence that in December of the same year Tennyson agreed to sit for Woolner.  Patmore remarks that it was of a very good likeness; it is of rather larger size than that of Patmore’s self, “which the larger character of Tennyson renders necessary.

As a hard-up, aspiring, twenty-something, Woolner understandably hoped that the bronze medallion of the famous poet might establish a reputation but, and greatly to his despair, this was not to be.  Arguably, it was not until he arrived at Farringford on 7 February 1856 to model a marble bust of Tennyson – now in the Wren Library at Trinity College – that his career turned around.  Tennyson, however, who was easily bored, proved to be a rather challenging client and anticipated “the operation with shoulder-shrugging horror.”  By 8 March 1857 the bust was complete and very well received, with John Everett Millais declaring it to be a “triumph of Art.”  Woolner continued to make medallions and busts of Tennyson right into the 1870s.  Following Tennyson’s death an original bronze casting of the 1873 bearded bust was placed in St. Margaret’s church, Somersby, where it remains to this day.

While it is clear the two men shared a mutual and sincere admiration for one another’s work, Woolner was foremost considered a treasured family friend. The Laureate would often stay with Woolner when he visited London and became a regular companion at various bachelor dinner parties.  Woolner even became a customary Christmas visitor in the years before his own marriage in 1864 and, in later years, attended family parties to the Crystal Palace, St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey.

The exuberant sculptor also proved a popular figure amongst the younger Tennysons, Hallam called him ‘Loola’, and Lionel ‘the sculptor with the golden beard,’ and on Christmas Eve 1858, Emily records ‘The boys wild with excitement at seeing him.’ Of all the Tennysons, though, it was Emily with whom the sculptor was most intimately bound, particularly in his more mature years, Emily felt that he was among those on whom she could rely.  Numerous accounts, letters and correspondence between the two disclose something of the quality of their relationship:  Woolner tells her, “I should lose faith in the entire human race if you ever were different to what I have always known you.”

Emily also mentions the sculptor’s gift for storytelling – something which delighted her sons.  In a letter dated January 1860, Woolner writes:  “Tell Lionel that I will try and remember all the nice tales I hear till I see him again, when you and he shall come up to my bedroom and sit on chairs around the fire, and I will smoke my pipe and tell them all to you.”  A few years later and his storytelling talents were to materialise again more publically as he famously provided the story for two of Tennyson’s narrative poems, Enoch Arden and Alymer’s Field, probably one of the most remarkable products of their friendship.

Author: Michelle Poland