Phrenograph of Thomas Woolner

Cornelius Donovan

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1849 November 2
Genre: prose


◦ Fredeman, The P. R. B. Journal, 21-22

◦ Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, I.183-186

Scholarly Commentary


Early in November 1849 DGR and some of his PRB friends visited the phrenologist Cornelius Donovan to have their characters analyzed. WMR had his done on 1 November, and on 2 November Donovan cast a phrenograph of Thomas Woolner's “lymphatic” personality. Donovan's document is annotated by DGR, which provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of the early PRB, with its curious mix of serious and whimsical interest in quasi-scientific, quasi-spiritual ideas. DGR would later participate in seances, and his work repeatedly takes up gothic and supernatural themes and materials, sometimes with entire seriousness, sometimes with a jesting and ironic turn of mind.

The text is written in pencil on the verso of Woolner's autograph manuscript of his unpublished poem “The Question Unanswered” , a meditation on what existence might be in an afterlife. How seriously we are expected to read the poem is uncertain, given the phrenograph on its verso.

Although DGR and the other young PRB members were interested in phrenology for certain practical artistic reasons, it is clear that none of them took it very seriously. Holman Hunt's account of Millais's and DGR's visits to Donovan's place of business is entirely dismissive (see Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, I.183-186 ).

Not the least interesting feature of this document is DGR's large gloss written at the center of the page: PRB. Evidently he was suggesting (ironically?) that Woolner's phrenograph was somehow typical of the recently founded brotherhood.

Textual History: Composition

The exact date is established by WMR's PRB Journal (see Fredeman, The P. R. B. Journal, 22 ).

Printing History

The text has never been published.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 30-1850.raw.xml