Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Postcards from the Edge? Thomas Woolner's Captain Cook for Sydney: For Sophie Matthiesson, Tanya Gerstle and Ben Madden

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Postcards from the Edge? Thomas Woolner's Captain Cook for Sydney: For Sophie Matthiesson, Tanya Gerstle and Ben Madden

Article excerpt

The extremist edge of pre-Pre-Raphaelitism?

Who cares about Victorian monuments? According to Tapati Guha-Thakurta, whereas in their country of origin memorials seem to lack 'animation and affect', and encourage neither 'intensity of attachment' nor 'disavowal', across the post-colonial world they attract a 'politics of desecration' and embody 'space[s] of "discontent"'.1 Drained of the emotional, aesthetic, civic and political significance they possessed for their immediate contemporaries, realistic jacket-and-breeches monuments, such as Thomas Woolner's 1878 Captain Cook for Sydney, have, perhaps, fared worst of all, lacking iconographically rich accompanying allegorical figures and historically dense narrative relief panels (fig. 1).

The Victorians themselves, however, cared deeply about their memorials. According to Benedict Read, Victorian Britain witnessed a veritable statuemania that preceded by decades the post-Franco-Prussian War, Parisian passion for monuments, with at least 26 British commemorative statues to Sir Robert Peel alone being unveiled in the decades following the prime minister's death in 1851.2 And, as the Adelaide-based South Australian Advertiser indicates, the Victorian mania for monumental sculpture extended not just from London to Manchester, and from Glasgow to Calcutta, but across the Indian Ocean to Australia. For example, according to the Advertiser of 27 February 1879, some 30,000-40,000 people had turned up for the unveiling of Woolner's Cook in Sydney two days earlier, 'amid great pomp and enthusiasm', with 'cordial cheering' from both Catholic and Protestant populations.3 The still more patriotic Sydney Morning Herald, meanwhile, described the unveiling as the 'grandest spectacle' in Australian history, and suggested that some 70,000 people were in attendance.4

In contrast to the fate of many of his peers, twentieth- and early twenty- first-century scholars have not entirely ignored Woolner's monuments. They have benefited from their association with the sculptor's legitimate claim to be a Pre-Raphaelite artist, particularly after some 35 Woolner sculptures were included in the 1991-92 exhibition Pre-Raphaelite Sculpture: Nature and Imagination in British Sculpture, 1848-1914 at the Matthiesen Gallery and Birmingham City Art Gallery, whose accompanying catalogue included three essays on Woolner.5 In their introduction to the catalogue, the curators suggested that the exhibition sought to redress the scholarly imbalance between Pre-Raphaelite painting and sculpture, and to examine the fuller consequences of the interface between sculpture and Pre-Raphaelitism.6 However, if the then current popular and scholarly vogue for Pre-Raphaelite painting helped Woolner's monuments gain, by association, a degree of canonical respectability in the early 1990s, to take seriously the ideological implications of Woolner's monumental sculpture for Pre-Raphaelitism in the second decade of the twenty-first century, and in the wake of the recent imperial turn in British art historiography, may be to tarnish seriously the political and aesthetic credentials of the mid- to late nineteenth-century English avant-garde, revealing that vanguard's profound investment in, and underwriting by, Britain's imperial and colonial project. With this in mind, this article addresses head on the problem of Woolner's racism and imperialism, and suggests that the 'extremist edge of P.R.B.ism', to borrow a phrase from William Michael Rossetti, did not lie in its uncompromising truth to nature, but in its colonial and imperial ideology.7

Woolner down under

To date, Woolner's relationship with the British Empire has focused on his monuments for India, which have been recently catalogued by John Barnes and Mary Ann Steggles,8 and on his time in Australia.9 Apparently prompted to emigrate to Victoria by a disappointing love affair, his failure to receive the commission for a Wordsworth monument, and by fellow artists Bernhard Smith and Edward La Trobe Batemen, Woolner set sail from Plymouth in July 1852. …

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