Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wornum, Ralph Nicholson

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WORNUM, RALPH NICHOLSON (1812−1877), art critic and keeper of the National Gallery, the son of Robert Wornum (1780−1852), a well-known pianoforte maker of Store Street, Bedford Square, and inventor of the now universally used upright action for the pianoforte, was born at Thornton, near Norham, North Durham, on 29 Dec. 1812. Having studied at the London University (University College) in 1832. he was to have read for the bar, but he soon abandoned the law, attended the studio of Henry Sass [q. v.], and in 1834 went abroad, spending six years in familiarising himself with the galleries of Munich, Dresden, Rome, Florence, and Paris. At the close of 1839 he settled in London as a portrait-painter, but does not appear to have exhibited at the Royal Academy, though he was honourably mentioned in the Westminster Hall cartoon competition of 1840. In 1840 and onwards he contributed to the ‘Penny Cyclopædia,’ and in 1841 to Smith's ‘Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities’ (to which he furnished the valuable article ‘Pictura’), while he also wrote for the abortive ‘Biographical Dictionary’ of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. In 1846 he began working for the ‘Art Journal,’ and, having drawn attention to the shortcomings of the National Gallery catalogues then in circulation, he was authorised by Sir Robert Peel to compile an official catalogue. This appeared in 1847, and served as ‘a model for similar publications throughout Europe.’ In 1848 Wornum was appointed lecturer on art to the government schools of design, and in this capacity delivered lectures in the chief towns of England, besides issuing an enlightened ‘Essay upon the Schools of Design in France.’ In 1851 he was awarded the prize of a hundred guineas offered by the ‘Art Journal’ for the best essay on ‘The Exhibition of 1851 as a Lesson in Taste.’ Next year he was appointed librarian and keeper of casts to the schools of design, then under the direction of the board of trade. In December 1854 he was chosen as successor to General Thwaites as keeper of the National Gallery and secretary to the trustees, upon the recommendation of Sir Charles Eastlake (see Athenæum, 30 Dec. 1854 and 6 Jan. 1855). The appointment of Wornum was taken as an augury of reform in the administration of the National Gallery. Hitherto the office had been little more than a sinecure, and had been held at the small salary of 150l. a year with residence. The duties were few, being mainly clerical. Wornum's ‘whole time and knowledge were now secured for the public,’ and the salary raised to 800l. a year (see Gent. Mag. 1855, i. 168). Eastlake himself was appointed director of the gallery in March 1855, and in the following July were issued treasury minutes entirely reconstituting the administration of this branch of the public service.

In the same year (1855) Wornum edited and practically rewrote a ‘Biographical Catalogue of the Principal Italian Painters,’ ‘by a lady’ (Maria Farquhar), while in 1856 he contributed the ‘Lives’ of native artists to Creasy's ‘British Empire’ (London, 8vo). In 1860−1 Wornum was chiefly instrumental in getting the Turner collections, which had been banished first to Marlborough House, and then to South Kensington (1856−60), restored to their place in the National Gallery, in accordance with the terms of the artist's bequest. During 1861 he edited, in a sumptuous folio, with a ‘sensible and judicious’ memoir and notes, ‘The Turner Gallery,’ forming a series of sixty engravings. Thornbury, in his ‘Life of Turner’ (1862), passed some disparaging remarks upon Wornum; his justification in adopting this tone was warmly combated in an able article in the ‘Quarterly’ (April 1862), in which Wornum's work was commended. In the introduction to the ‘Turner Gallery’ Wornum pleaded eloquently for an enlargement of the Trafalgar Square galleries, which were quite inadequate to contain the 725 pictures then belonging to the nation. He also deprecated the separation of the pictures by native from those by foreign artists. The best of Wornum's energies were devoted to the improvement and development of the National Gallery. He died at his residence, 20 Belsize Square, South Hampstead, on 15 Dec. 1877, leaving a widow and a large family.

Wornum's chief separate publications were:

  1. ‘The Epochs of Painting: a biographical and critical Essay on Painting and Painters of all Times and many Places,’ London, 1847, 12mo; enlarged, 1859 and 1864. This was dedicated by Wornum to the memory of his father. Appended to the later editions is ‘a table of the contributions of some of the more eminent painters to the exhibitions of the Royal Academy.’ This was largely adopted as a text-book for art school examinations.
  2. ‘Analysis of Ornament: the Characteristics of Style and Introduction to the Study of the History of Ornamental Art,’ London, 1856; 8th edit. 1893.
  3. ‘Some Account of the Life and Works of Hans Holbein, Painter, of Augsburg, with numerous illustrations,’ 1867, large 8vo. appended to this excellent biographical and critical work (dedicated ‘To my friend, John Ruskin’) is a valuable catalogue of portraits and drawings by Holbein at Windsor.
  4. ‘Saul of Tarsus; or Paul and Swedenborg. By a Layman,’ London, 1877, 8vo.

Wornum had been a member of the New Church, though as a ‘non-separatist’ he remained in communion with the church of England. In this book he expressed very strongly the notion of conflict between the teaching of Christ and the theology of St. Paul.

In addition to the above works Wornum edited ‘Lectures on Painting’ [by Barry, Opie, and Fuseli], 1848, 8vo, for the ‘Bohn’ Library; Walpole's ‘Anecdotes of Painting in England,’ with copious notes and emendations, London, 1849, 3 vols. (a revised edition of this, which appeared in 1888, is now the standard); ‘The National Gallery;’ a selection of pictures by the old masters, photographed by L. Caldesi (with annotations), London, 1868−73, fol.; ‘Etchings from the National Gallery,’ 18 plates, with notes, two series, 1876−8, fol.

[Gent. Mag. 1852 ii. 549; Times, 18 and 19 Dec. 1877; Art Journal, 1878, p. 75; Athenæum, 1877, ii. 823; English Cyclopædia; Men of the Reign; Bryan's Dict. of Painters and Engravers, ii. 730; Cat. of Eastlake Library at National Gallery.]

T. S.