Alfred, Lord Tennyson
4 of 96 portraits of Alfred, Lord Tennyson
- Extended catalogue entry
Early Victorian Portraits Catalogue
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
by Mary Grant, after Thomas Woolner
1893, based on a work of 1857
28 1/2 in. (724 mm) high
Inscriptionback to top
Incised on the front of the base: TENNYSON and on one side: T WOOLNER S C./LONDON/1857 COPIED BY MISS GRANT, 1893
This portraitback to top
This replica of Woolner's bust was carved from a plaster cast belonging to the donor. The original marble bust by Woolner (dated 1857) is now at Trinity College, Cambridge, exhibited Art Treasures Exhibition, Manchester, 1857, 'Sculpture' (145), and British Portraits, RA, 1957 (452); it was anonymously engraved (example in NPG), and reproduced as a woodcut, with a long description, ILN, XXXI (1857), 520. There are several related plaster casts, and two marble replicas were carved for Charles Buxton (1861), now in the Museum and Art Gallery, Ipswich, and for Charles Jenner, now in Westminster Abbey.
Woolner began work on his first bust of Tennyson in 1856. On 6 January he wrote to Mrs Tennyson (Amy Woolner, Thomas Woolner: his Life in Letters (1917), p 109):
'I feel certain he [Tennyson] anticipates the operation with shoulder-shrugging horror and I feel sorry to torture him, but as it is a duty l owe myself and country I nerve myself to disregard the fact: l owe it to myself because in all probability I shall never have another head to equal his so long as I live, therefore ought to make the most of it ... I hope to lure him into complacency by doing such a likeness of you as will please him, and reward your trouble in sitting by doing his bust in a way that will satisfy you; such are my purposes and wiles. Moxon [the publisher] told me if business went satisfactorily with him this spring he would give me a commission to do it in marble.'
Woolner executed a medallion of Mrs Tennyson in 1859. In March 1856, he sent his assistant to Farringford to take a mould of Tennyson's forehead and nose (see Amy Woolner, pp 110-11). By April 1856 a cast of the original clay model of Tennyson's bust was finished, Woolner writing to Mrs Tennyson (Amy Woolner, pp 111-12): 'Moxon has not been to see the bust tho' I expect him every day; all who have admire it very much; some say it is by far the finest thing I have done and everybody who knows the original says the likeness is as striking as possible.' Woolner also finished his revised medallion of Tennyson at this time (see NPG 3847).
In November 186, Mrs Tennyson wrote to Woolner to say that she and her husband were delighted with the 'delicate yet lofty beauty of the medallion and with the grandeur of the bust' (Amy Woolner, p 123). Although he did not receive a commission, Woolner executed the bust in marble during the winter of 1856-7. He told Mrs Tennyson that the bust was finished in a letter of 8 March 1857 (Amy Woolner, p 130). Although Woolner produced an edition of plaster casts, he found it difficult to attract purchasers for the marble itself; after lengthy negotiations it was acquired by Trinity College in 1859 (see Amy Woolner pp 144-5, 151-3, 173-82).
Hallam, Lord Tennyson commissioned the NPG bust because he regarded the original as one of the most satisfactory likenesses of his father; much more so than Woolner's bust of 1873, which was also on offer to the gallery from Woolner's daughter (see NPG 1667). Lord Tennyson wrote about this last bust (letter of 26 September 1893, NPG archives): 'It is a fine bust and an original although not nearly so fine to our mind as the beardless bust nor did my father like it half as much.' Miss Grant finished her copy in October 1893, writing to Scharf (letter of 6 October 1893, NPG archives): 'The bust is all right & quite finished now.' On the following day, Lord Tennyson wrote to Scharf (letter NPG archives):
'One or two points I suggested to Miss Grant as being unlike the original. The carver promised to attend to them - but Miss Grant was quite positive that the copy was a faithful copy - before my suggestions (and that her carver was the best in London). The nose for example was not refined enough in my opinion but I faced the wrath of Miss Grant as I pointed this out. (She was inclined to be wrathful). However Miss Grant's copy is very fine; and we must be thankful for having obtained such a fine copy - I naturally desire it to be perfect. Perhaps if you saw anything that differed in the cast & the copy, you would not mind telling her so, or better, the carver.'
Lord Tennyson, however, changed his opinion when the copy was privately criticized by Frederic Stephens, art critic of the Athenaeum. He offered to withdraw the copy, and give to the NPG in return Woolner's cast which had belonged to his father (letter of 4 November 1893, NPG archives): 'The cast (tho' not so durable) is of course finer than the copy - as the master hand has worked upon it: & the trustees acceptance of it will get you & me out of much obloquy.'
He later wrote to say that Mrs Woolner would offer a cast in place of the bust. Scharf, however, insisted that the original offer must be considered first; Lord Leighton, one of the trustees, wrote to him at this time (letter of 6 December 1893, NPG archives): 'I saw the bust today; it is not a masterpiece of carving - but entre nous, I don't much like the original - you have taken paintings at least as bad & it is therefore perhaps best to accept it and not snub Hallam Tennyson, who offers it.' The trustees subsequently inspected the bust at an official meeting, and unanimously decided to accept it. Lord Tennyson replied (letter of 9 December 1893, NPG archives): 'We are extremely glad that you all think the bust worthy.' Frederic Stephens, who had criticized the copy, subsequently made efforts to acquire the original 1873 marble bust for the gallery, but without success (see his two letters to Scharf of 17 December 1893 and 19 July 1894, NPG archives).
Woolner modelled several busts and medallions of Tennyson, and became an intimate friend of the Tennyson family; his extensive correspondence with Mrs Tennyson is quoted at length on both sides in Amy Woolner, Thomas Woolner: his Life in Letters (1917). Included below is a short list of Woolner's portraits of the poet:
1850-1. Medallion. A bronze cast of this is apparently in the Usher Art Gallery, Lincoln (see NPG 3847).
1856. Medallion (a re-working of the 1851 medallion). Several extant casts (see NPG 3847).
1856-7. Marble bust. Trinity College, Cambridge (for a discussion of this, related replicas and casts, and the NPG copy).
1864. Alto-relievo medallion. Type exhibited RA, 1867 (1091), anonymously engraved, published F. Moxon, 1866 (example in NPG). A cast is in the Usher Art Gallery, Lincoln, where there is also a marble version dated 1866; another cast is reproduced Magazine of Art (1893), p 97. See Amy Woolner, p 339.
1873. Marble bust. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide (for related cast and a full discussion, see NPG 1667).
1874. Draped plaster bust. Listed by Amy Woolner, p 341.
Provenanceback to top
Commissioned by Hallam, Lord Tennyson, the sitter's son, and presented by him, 1893.
This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: Richard Ormond, Early Victorian Portraits, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1973, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.