Portrait of Charles Howitt. Thomas Woolner (1825−1892). White plaster tondo. d: 11.5 cm (4 1/2 inches). Signed lower right: "T. Woolner Sc. 1853." Provenance: Bought as Lot 329, "Victorian Profile Relief Sculpture of a Young Boy," Mallams Abingdon, 7th October 2013. The subject of the sculpture was subsequently identified by Paul Crowther. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
Commentary by Paul Crowther
Woolner had been sculpting medallions since 1846—a practice also followed by other sculptors associated with the PRB in its early phase, such as Bernhard Smith (1820–1885), and Alexander Monro (1825−1871). As already noted, Woolner emigrated to Australia to dig for gold in 1852. However, by 1853, he had abandoned the project. On July 10th 1853 he wrote to his father (from the house of Dr. Godfrey Howitt with whom he had been staying) announcing that he and his companions had decided to sell their digging gear and seek their fortunes by other means. Woolner then observes that "I have come to Melbourne to work at my art. There is every prospect of me doing well, as I have powerful friends who are anxious to aid me in every way. I am staying at Dr. Howitt’s and the kindness of his family to me is wonderful. I have executed a medallion of the Doctor, his Excellency [Governor La Trobe] and another of little Charlie Howitt [Charles Ernest Howitt, 1846–1903]. They all give great satisfaction here and you will see what the newspaper says which I send you" (Woolner 60).
The present work is the medallion of Charles Howitt just mentioned, and matches a smaller version still owned by Dr. Howitt’s descendants in Australia (reproduced in Clemente 53). Amy Woolner later noted that the Charles Howitt medallion was one of those with "especial merit" where "The treatment of the hair...is a notable feature" (Woolner 102–03).
Woolner’s medallions were exhibited in 1853 at the Victoria Fine Arts Society, and the following year, at the Melbourne Exhibition. Interestingly, from the letters exchanged between him and D. G. Rossetti at this time, it is clear that the P.R.B. still had some kind of vestigial existence in 1853 (however slight). This did not last. By the end of the year, the Brotherhood had lapsed completely. This medallion is, accordingly, amongst the last of its works.
In 1854, Woolner returned to England, shipping back, also, a crate of plaster medallion prototypes made during his stay in Australia. Amy Woolner notes that most of these were later cast in bronze (103; on 337, she actually says that they were all cast in bronze). In 1856, Woolner exhibited a free-standing sculpture and four medallions at the Royal Academy, including no. 1283, Charles Ernest Howitt (see Graves 355). Algernon Graves’s catalogue of R.A. exhibitors usually notes when a sculpture has been done in bronze or marble. If it is in plaster, he does not remark on it. The Charles Ernest Howitt work from the 1856 exhibition is not described as bronze or marble, therefore it can be inferred that it was in plaster. This means that the Crowther/Oblak version may be the one shown at the R.A. However, the issue cannot be decided conclusively. Census returns show that Charles Howitt himself was living in the UK by 1881, and it could be that the present work was brought by him from Australia, and thence is not the one exhibited in 1856. That being said, the Crowther/Oblak medallion is 11.5 cm in diameter, whereas the version that still remains in Australia is only 10 cm. One would have expected that if Howitt had brought a medallion from Australia, it would have been the same size as the one that remained there.
Woolner’s contributions to the 1856 RA exhibition were noted by The Times’s art critic. He praised "Mr. Woolmer’s’ [sic] marble statue Love," and noted also that "some of his medallions, too, have points of merit..." (Saturday, May 3rd, 1856: p. 9).
You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art and the National Gallery of Slovenia and the Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, Galway (2) and link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.
Clemente, Caroline. The Private Face of Patronage: The Howitts, Artistic and Intellectual Philanthropists in Early Melbourne Society. Master's degree thesis, University of Melbourne, 2005.
Crowther, Paul. Awakening Beauty: The Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art. Exhibition catalogue. Ljubljana: National Gallery of Slovenia; Galway: Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, 2014. No. 151.
Graves, Algernon. The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and Their Work from Its Foundation in 1769 to 1904. London: Henry Graves and Co., and George Bell and Sons, 1906. vol. 8.
Woolner, Amy. Thomas Woolner RA, sculptor and poet: His life in letters written by his daughter. New York: Dutton and Co., 1917.
Created 12 January 2015