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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.

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.

1863 - 1914
Majority of material found within 1874 - 1876
.42 Linear Feet (1 box)
Related Names
Woolner, Thomas, 1825-1892
Aitken, Charles, 1869-1936
Lewis, John Frederick, 1804-1876
Lewis, Marian, approximately 1826-1906
Woolner, Alice, 1845-1912
Woolner, Amy
Language of Materials