Ralph Nicholson Wornum Papers

Scope and Content

This collection contains correspondence, notes, papers, manuscripts and annotated publications created by Ralph Nicholson Wornum. It includes Wornum's professional correspondence and papers relating to his work at the National Gallery and Government Schools of Design, correspondence relating to his publications, personal correspondence, journals and travel accounts, some of his paintings and sketchbooks, and material relating to his involvement in the new church of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The archive also includes family photographs, correspondence and ephemera including some of his second wife, Harriet Agnes Wornum's, personal correspondence and papers.

Administrative / Biographical History

Ralph Nicholson Wornum (1812-1877) was born at Thornton, near Norham, North Durham on 29 December 1812, the eldest son of Robert Wornum (1786-1852) and Catherine Nicholson (1784-1856). Having studied at University College London in 1832, he was to have read for the bar, but soon abandoned the law, turning to art as his profession. He went abroad in 1834, spending six years familiarising himself with the galleries, museums and churches of Munich, Dresden, Rome, Venice, Florence and Paris.

Following his return to England Wornum gradually achieved recognition as an important contributor to art journals, 'cyclopedias' and biographical dictionaries. In 1848 he was appointed lecturer on art to the Government Schools of Design, and in this capacity delivered lectures in many of the chief towns of England. The following year he was appointed librarian and keeper of casts to the Government Schools of Design. In December 1854, on the recommendation of Sir Charles Eastlake, he was chosen as successor to General Thwaites as keeper of the National Gallery and Secretary to the Board of Trustees. Wornum served in this post for twenty-two years until his death in 1877. In 1867 he published his major work on Hans Holbein; 'Some Account of the Life and Works of Hans Holbein, Painter of Augsburg with numerous illustrations'.

Wornum was married first to Elizabeth Selden (1823-1860) of Virginia, stepdaughter of George Long. In 1861, after Elizabeth Selden's death, he married his first cousin Harriet Agnes Nicholson. He had fourteen children in all. By all accounts he was of average height, powerful build with a large head and (in latter years) a long white beard. He was affectionately known as "old snowball". He died at his residence, 20 Belsize Square, South Hampstead, on 15 December 1877 of "nervous exhaustion of the brain".


The original order of the papers has been maintained where possible but some areas have been slightly re-organised to make more sense. Some material in this archive was added by Wornum's widow and family after his death in 1877. The archive has been divided into eight sub-fonds as follows: 1. Travel Papers; 2. Publications; 3. National Gallery Correspondence and Papers; 4. Personal Correspondence; 5. Works of Art and Associated Materials; 6. Financial and Legal Papers; 7. Family Correspondence and Papers; 8. Photographs.

Access Information


Custodial History

The papers passed, on Wornum's death, to his son John Ruskin Wornum and then to his descendants. They were purchased by the National Gallery Archive in 1998.



Related Material

Material held at the National Gallery: NG5 Correspondence of Sir Charles Lock Eastlake to Ralph Nicholson Wornum; NG6 Letter Books. Associated material held in other archives: Letters from Wornum to the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (1841-43) held by University College Manuscripts Room, University of London [ref: SDUK]. Letters from John Ruskin to Wornum held by the John Rylands Library, Manchester University [ref: Eng Ms 1249].