Thomas Woolner was born in the small market town of Hadleigh, Suffolk, in 1825, and commenced studies at London’s Royal Academy in 1842 while working as an apprentice to sculptor William Behnes. In 1845 he won the Silver Medal from the Society of Arts, London. Both a poet and sculptor, Woolner was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – a semi-secret collective of young artists, poets and writers who openly questioned the London art establishment. Significantly, Woolner was the only sculptor in the original seven-member circle.
The discovery of gold in Australia in the 1850s triggered a flood of immigration, and like many others Woolner was allured by the prospect of finding his fortune in the new colony. He arrived in Melbourne in 1852 with fellow artists Bernhard Smith and Edward La Trobe Bateman, who opportunely introduced Woolner to his cousin, Lieutenant Governor Charles Joseph La Trobe. Although Woolner had little success on the goldfields, in Melbourne his artistic career flourished. There was good business in making medallion portraits, and Woolner capitalised, executing a number of medallion portraits during the short period he was in Australia. There is a growing appreciation of his significance as an artist, and in particular the rarity of his Australian subjects. Plaster medallions are less common than his other sculptures, due to the inherent fragility of the material. In 1854 he returned to London, but maintained connections with Australia throughout his life. Woolner’s works are represented in public collections in Australia and overseas.
The majority of Woolner’s Australian medallion portraits depicted important public figures, such as Lieutenant Governor La Trobe and Dr Godfrey Howitt. However, this exceptionally sculpted profile portrait is of Farquhar Cole, the youngest son of Thomas Anne and Captain George Ward Cole. The sitter, the child of early pioneer settlers of Victoria, is a rare subject. Captain Cole was born in 1793 at Lumley Castle in Durham, England. He joined the navy as a teenager in 1807, where he was posted in the West Indies before transferring to the Channel Squadron. Leaving the navy in 1817, Cole commenced work in the merchant marine and was known for participating in risky transactions with items such as opium and furs. Cole immigrated to Australia in 1840. Initially settling in Sydney, he soon relocated to Melbourne, purchasing property on the Yarra River near Spencer Street. It was in Melbourne that he met and married Thomas Anne McCrae, and the couple had three sons and three daughters. The State Library of Victoria hold another work depicting Farquhar, a set of three plaster portrait medallions entitled Captain Ward Cole, his wife and son. Both portraits were completed in 1853, the same year that Cole entered politics, winning the Gippsland seat in the Legislative Council.
Farquhar Cole, 1853, was gifted to the NGV by Bruce Chapman, a descendant of the McCrae family, who passed away shortly after donating the work. An outstanding example of Woolner’s practice, this plaster relief is a very welcome addition to the NGV Collection.
Beckett Rozentals, Curator, Australian Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts to 1980, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2016)