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Thomas Woolner Letters to John Frederick Lewis

Call Number: MSS 53

Scope and Contents

The collection comprises 15 letters from Thomas Woolner to John Frederick Lewis, written between 1874 and 1876. It also includes five letters from Woolner to Lewis’s wife, Marian Harper, one letter from Lewis to dealer William Vokins, two letters from Woolner’s wife to Lewis, two letters from Amy Woolner—Thomas’s daughter—concerning the recovery of the letters, and two letters from Charles Aitken of the National Gallery regarding Lewis’s paintings. Woolner’s letters to Lewis reveal the former’s thoughts on his own work, his personal relationships with Lewis and the Royal Academy, his esteem for Lewis’s painting, and his thoughts on contemporary art more broadly.

Throughout the letters, Woolner expresses intense concern for Lewis’s health—it was during this period that Lewis’s health began to deteriorate, culminating in his death in August of 1876, several months after the last letter in this series. Woolner notes his own personal anxiety, while also lamenting the loss that Lewis’s incapacity means for the art community. He emphasizes his own admiration for Lewis’s work, wondering “what lovely ladies and romantic slaves amid oriental gloom and splendor you are bringing into our life for our delight this year” (1875 January 17). He also remembers “the delightful afternoon at your house; we feel as if we had for awhile lived the life of the Arabian Nights” (1875 July 18)—a comment that echoes those of Thackeray, who, when he visited Lewis in Cairo, described him as a “languid lotus-eater.”

Woolner also relays news of the political machinations of the other members of the Royal Academy. While Woolner disclaims any desire for power or accolades, he dismisses younger generations of artists and speaks critically of his fellow academicians. He occasionally provides updates on his own ongoing projects, notably his memorials to Captain James Cook and Sir Cowasjee Jehanghier Readymoney. He references photographs included with his letters, though no photographs accompany the collection.

Woolner describes his encounters with various exhibitions and, on several occasions, asks Lewis for professional assistance. His commentary on exhibits and sales include brief mentions or discussions of Turner’s Van Goyen, Looking Out for a Subject; Elizabeth Thompson’s Calling the Roll after an Engagement, Crimea; Paul Delaroche’s L’assassinat du duc de Guise au château de Blois en 1588; and Lewis’s own Lion & Lioness and In the Bey’s Garden. He likewise asks Lewis to assist in proposals to protect Egyptian antiquities and to secure the burial of fellow sculptor J.H. Foley in St. Paul’s Cathedral.


  • 1863 - 1914
  • Majority of material found within 1874 - 1876


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The collection is the physical property of the Yale Center for British Art. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund


The letters are arranged chronologically.


.42 Linear Feet (1 box)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The collection comprises 15 letters from Thomas Woolner to John Frederick Lewis, written between 1874 and 1876. It also includes 5 letters from Woolner to Lewis’s wife, Marian Harper, one letter from Lewis to dealer William Vokins, and several letters from Woolner’s wife and daughter. The letters primarily concern Lewis’s declining health—he died several months after the last letter in the collection—Woolner’s admiration for Lewis’s painting, updates on the politics of the Royal Academy and Woolner’s ongoing artistic projects, and current exhibitions. Woolner comments on several works, including: J.M.W. Turner’s, Van Goyen, Looking Out for a Subject; Elizabeth Thompson’s Calling the Roll after an Engagement, Crimea; Lewis’s Lion & Lioness and In the Bey’s Garden; and his own monuments to Bishop John Patteson, Sir Cowasjee Jehanghier Readymoney, and Captain James Cook.

Biographical / Historical

Thomas Woolner was an English sculptor, poet, and one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Born in 1825 in Suffolk, Woolner began his study of sculpture under William Behnes (1795-1864), exhibited his first works as a teenager, and soon formed bonds with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and others members of the Pre-Raphaelites. In 1852, after some professional difficulty—most significantly, failing to win the competition for a national monument to Wordsworth—Woolner left England to prospect for gold in Australia. He soon returned to sculpting, however, and then to England, where he resumed his work with a portrait medallion of Tennyson and, most importantly, a sculpture of Francis Bacon at Oxford. The latter led to a series of commissions and to increased artistic prominence: Woolner soon bought the home where he would spend the remainder of his life and married Alice Gertrude Waugh, with whom he would have six children. Public statues and memorials continued to form the basis of Woolner’s recognition, though he produced some church memorials, as well as several volumes of poetry. He was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1871 and would later become a professor, though he never lectured and acquired a reputation for irritability. He died on 7 October 1892.

The main recipient of the letters in the collection is John Frederick Lewis, an English painter known for his orientalist depictions of Middle Eastern harems and street scenes. Born in 1804 and trained by his father, an engraver, Lewis established himself as watercolorist, first depicting animals and later picturesque scenes across Europe. He garnered particular attention for his images of Spain, though this changed in 1841 with the beginning of his time in Egypt. There, Lewis modeled his life after his impressions of oriental luxury, and produced numerous portraits, sketches, and other materials that would form the basis of his most prominent work. He married Marian Harper in Alexandria in 1847 and returned to England in 1851. His painting The Hhareem was a high point following his arrival in England—it reflected a fascination with visions of the orient that would dominate Lewis’s output for the remainder of his life. Critics noted the influence on his work of the Pre-Raphaelites, highlighting his use of vibrant color and minute detail, though Lewis himself remained, for much of his later career, physically disconnected from the broader world of art, living and painting in the relative seclusion of his home at Walton-on-Thames. He died in August 1876, after several years of declining health.


  1. Cox, John Francis. “An Annotated Edition of Selected Letters of Thomas Woolner, Pre-Raphaelite Poet and Sculptor.” Unpublished dissertation, Arizona State University, 1973.
  2. Roberts, Mary. Intimate Outsiders: The Harem in Ottoman and Orientalist Art and Travel Literature. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.
  3. Woolner, Amy. Thomas Woolner, R.A., Sculpture and Poet: His Life in Letters. London: Chapman and Hall, Ltd., 1917.
Guide to the Thomas Woolner Letters to John Frederick Lewis
compiled by Lewis West; edited by Francis Lapka
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Yale Center for British Art, Rare Books and Manuscripts Repository

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