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Wornum, Ralph Nicholson

    Full Name: Wornum, Ralph Nicholson

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1812

    Date Died: 1877

    Place Born: Thornton, Leicestershire, England, UK

    Place Died: South Hampstead, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Career(s): curators


    Keeper (chief curator) of the National Gallery, London. Wornum was born to piano maker Robert Wornum (1780-1852), the inventor of the upright piano. He was born in Thornton, North Durham, England, UK near Norham. Wornum positioned himself for a career in law, studying in 1832 at University College, the University of London. However, he abandoned the bar to study art with painter Henry Sass (1788-1844), making a grand tour of the art museums of Europe in 1834. Wornum returned to London as a portrait painter, receiving honorable mentions but exhibiting little. He contributed to several publications, including the Penny Cyclopaedia (1840), Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1841) the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge’s Biographical Dictionary (unpublished). To these, he added articles to the Art Journal, among them criticizing the current catalogs of the National Gallery. Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) commissioned Wornum to write a new catalog, which was completed in 1847. The success of this work gained Wornum a lecturing position in art with government schools of design. In 1851 he was awarded a substantial prize by his former magazine, the Art Journal, for an essay on “The Exhibition of 1851, as a Lesson in Taste.” The following year he was appointed librarian and keeper of casts for the schools of design. Charles Lock Eastlake recommended Wornum to succeed George Saunders Thwaites (1778-1866) as Keeper of the National Gallery, London, which Wornum did in December, 1854. The appointment of Wornum represented the first efforts to make the Keeper an effectual position, rather than the modestly-paid sinecure it had been. Eastlake himself was named director in 1855 and a thorough ‘housecleaning’ of the National Gallery’s staff followed, bringing it into a fully functioning workforce. Wornum anonymously rewrote the Biographical Catalogue of the Principal Italian Painters by “A Lady” (Maria Farquhar) that same year. In 1856 he contributed biographical entries of British artists to Creasy’s British Empire, published in eight volumes in 1860-61. Wornum was Keeper at the time when J. M. W. Turner’s estate was willed to the nation at Turner’s death in 1857. The works of art were put in the hands of the critic John Ruskin for cataloging. Ruskin admitted in an 1858 letter to Wornum of burning a number of sketchbooks filled with erotic drawings by Turner. He told Wornum the drawings were “grossly obscene” and could not, he felt, “lawfully be in anyone’s possession.” Wornum lobbied tirelessly for a larger National Gallery. Before the creation of the Tate Gallery, Turner’s pictures were wedged into the National Gallery building at Trafalgar Square. The introduction to The Turner Gallery pleads for better space for the 725 works of art. In 1867 Wornum’s catalog on Hans Holbein appeared. It was groundbreaking in that he was the first non-German to take a position (ultimately correct) the the Dresden Meyer Madonna was a copy. He died at his home in South Hampstead. Wornum greatly improved the National Gallery, both by issuing edifying publications on the collections and working hard to make it museum truly for the public. He argued passionately against the separation of British artists from foreign artists in the galleries. Wornum’s Epochs of Painting became the textbook for schools of art in Britain (DNB).

    Selected Bibliography

    edited, Bary, James, and Opie, John, and Fuseli, Henry. Lectures on Painting. London: H.G. Bohn, 1848; Some Account of the Life and Works of Hans Holbein, Painter, of Augsburg. London: Chapman and Hall, 1867; The Turner Gallery: a Series of Sixty Engravings from the Principal Works of Joseph Mallord William Turner. London: J.S. Virtue, 1861; Hans Holbein and the Meier Madonna. Arundel Society Pamphlets. London: s.n., 1871; The Epochs of Painting Characterized; a Sketch of the History of Painting, Ancient and Modern, Showing its Gradual and Various Development from the Earliest Ages to the Present Time. London: C. Cox, 1847; The Epochs of Painting: a Biographical and Critical Essay on Painting and Painters of All Times and Many Places. London: Chapman and Hall, 1864; Analysis of Ornament. The Characteristics of Styles: an Introduction to the Study of the History of Ornamental Art; Being an Outline of a Course of Sixteen Lectures on that Subject, Originally Prepared for the Government Schools of Design in the Years 1848, 1849, 1850. London: Chapman and Hall, 1856.


    Dictionary of National Biography 21: 946-47; Kultermann, Udo. The History of Art History. New York: Abaris, 1993, p. 147.


    "Wornum, Ralph Nicholson." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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