Heavenly Welcome
(Thomas Woolner)


This is the plaster model for Woolner’s life-size marble relief on the monument in Wrexham Church, North Wales, to Mary Ellen Peel and her son Archibald. Mary Ellen was the first wife of Archibald Peel, who was a close friend of the sculptor. She died on 9 September 1863, aged thirty-three, and her son in February 1860 aged one year and seven months. In December 1863 Woolner wrote to Mrs Tennyson to say that he was intending to go over to Ireland at Christmas to see Archibald Peel ‘for a few days to study some portraits which he has at his father-in-law’s place of his wife for the monument I am to do in her memory’. He added that he was pleased with the initial design and hoped to make a ‘pathetic and poetic work to please and help console him’ (A. Woolner, p.242). The plaster model was probably finished in 1865 and it was exhibited two years later at the Royal Academy. The Saturday Review described the work: ‘[It is] in high relief and represents a mother received at the gate of heaven by an angel bearing a child, who… leaps forward to caress her with a lively action of welcome’; the writer praised the ‘ariel freedom of motion in the angel, expressed by the draperies and floating hair (for the artist has rightly spared us the commonplace of wings)’ contrasting with ‘the clinging earthly robe and the almost hesitating air of the mother, who leans gently forward with the sense of overpowering happiness, whilst the child springs forward with unreflecting eagerness’.

Following the work’s completion Woolner wrote to Mrs Tennyson in 1865 that his friend Watkiss Lloyd, who saw it, ‘says I shall have nothing to do but babies and Angels for years after this is exhibited’, adding ‘The Angels I should like very well, but as for the babies I profess no especial admiration for the pretty squalling little creatures’. (A. Woolner, p.262).

The monumental alto-relief form gave Woolner the opportunity to work on a large scale, combining ‘serious’, affecting subjects appropriate to a church memorial with the expression of tender, domestic sentiments. Monuments by Flaxman, such as that to Agnes Cromwell (1798; Chichester Cathedral), provided precedents for the composition and subject, though Woolner’s work is more developed in its naturalism. The wingless angel, the detailed treatment of drapery and hair and the vigorously modelled form of the child and its chubby legs are characteristic of his work.

Patinated plaster 132 x 73 cm. (52 x 28 ¾ in.)

Cyril Humphris, London


Saturday Review, Aug. 1867, p. 255;
A. Woolner, pp. 126, 242, 262, 339.

Historical Period
Realism to Impressionism - 1840-1900
Price band
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