Portions of this fascinating correspondence have informed my research on Woolner’s place in art history, from the sculptor’s reflections on the Pre-Raphaelite movement, to the ‘remote drama’ (as Woolner tactfully termed it) of his botched commission for Hyde Park’s Captain Cook statue. Yet, despite these scholarly revelations, as I sat riveted by this archive of letters in the Mitchell Library I found myself affected by aspects of the correspondence which might not find a place in mainstream scholarship.
During my time as the Library's CH Currey Memorial Fellow, I transcribed this fascinating record of a friendship — nearly 22,000 words on Woolner’s side alone. The letters reflect upon Woolner’s time in Australia in the 1850s, consider the role of sculpture and the arts in England and Australia, discuss imperial and colonial politics, and shed light on Woolner’s family life. But they provide something more: an archive of emotion and close friendship between two eminent men on opposite sides of the globe.
It is the everyday ‘chat’, in Woolner’s words, that we encounter in letters and diaries which connects us most palpably with the past. Inscribing significance to the Parkes–Woolner correspondence as the record of a friendship helps to rehabilitate the pivotal role of personal relationships in creating colonial networks, and to trace the intellectual and emotional lives of the correspondents. We meet Woolner the man rather than, as the late nineteenth-century press called him, the ‘poetic sculptor’, and see glimpses of Parkes as a ‘poet premier’ rather than the Father of Australian Federation.
From the beginning, the relationship was mutually beneficial. Parkes assisted Woolner in securing colonial commissions and his support for Woolner’s sculpture demonstrated his commitment to fostering artistic culture in the colony. The conversation between the two men helped to shape their opinions; Parkes asked Woolner for his political views on Federation, while Woolner frequently requested Parkes’ critique of his poetry (‘I treasure up what my friends say of my verses’, wrote Woolner, ‘and [my] children take interest in what they hear has been said.’) Parkes, who published several volumes of letters, prose and poetry, also found his poetry benefitting from Woolner’s critical pen.
Woolner and his family kept Parkes connected with developments in literary London; and Woolner’s wife Alice (née Waugh) passed Parkes’ poetry on to poet laureate Alfred Tennyson whose son Hallam viewed Parkes as something of a colonial hero. Tennyson, in turn, extended his friendship and invited Parkes to stay during his 1882 visit to England. In this way, through his friendship with Woolner, Parkes was able to participate in global literary conversations from his home in Sydney.
In later life, Woolner was frustrated by the declining cultural value of sculpture, and the correspondence helped him work through his feelings of isolation in London. He divulged his emotional life with perhaps more candour than he would have to friends closer to home and, at one stage in 1879, even sought Parkes’ help to relocate his family, writing, ‘I yearn for the constant azure skies of cheerful Sydney’.
Parkes collected celebrity autographs — perhaps to maintain a sense of connection with the imperial centre — and Woolner frequently ‘hunted’ celebrities down, as he put it, to procure autographs for his friend. Woolner also sent tokens to the Parkes family, such as in 1879 when he sent a cameo based on a relief rendering of Sydney’s Captain Cook for Lady Parkes to wear. Even small animals were gifted between the families. Parkes gave a bullfinch, thrush and dormouse to the Woolners when he visited London in 1884–85 and regular updates on the animals were sent in the ensuing correspondence. ‘The dormouse is flourishing, fat, and sleepy,’ wrote Woolner in February 1885, ‘– but, sad to say, the poor little Bully is dead. It was a great favourite, used to hop from its cage and settle on Clare’s hand and feed with evident delight. – The thrush is fat and bright-eyed as ever, and soon I hope to hear him pipe up as this is the first morning of spring.’