William Holman Hunt

British Painter

Born: April 2, 1827
Cheapside, City of London, UK
Died: September 7, 1910
Kensington, London, UK
The door of the human heart, can only be opened from the inside.

Summary of William Holman Hunt

William Holman Hunt gained eminence initially as a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Though the Brotherhood was short lived (some five years) Hunt remained true to its principles throughout his long career. A man of strong, some would say pious, Christian beliefs, Hunt was fastidious in his attention to picture detail and he used actual locations - many in the middle-East - to restage biblical parables and rituals in his canvases. Falling under the influence of the writings of John Ruskin, Hunt was invested in the principle of a spiritual truth and, like Ruskin, he believed that the job of the artist was to depict things truthfully while using art to promote and uphold moral integrity. Following a series of spectacular artistic triumphs, Hunt became seduced by the idea that he had been blessed with divine genius and his artistic energies were channelled into producing works that would challenge what he saw as the fashion for expressive indulgences in Academy paintings. His was a commitment rather to producing 'higher meaning' through what he called simply "good pictures".


Progression of Art


The Awakening Conscience

The Awakening Conscience depicts a mistress rising from the lap of her lover, elevated - or enlightened - by a sudden realisation of Christian truth. As in many of Hunt's paintings, the theme of the picture is salvation, symbolized here by a shaft of light falling at the bottom right of the scene in an otherwise darkened interior picture frame. The painting is saturated with potential symbolism, from the gentleman's discarded glove - an allusion perhaps to how easily the woman could be cast aside - to the cat which is toying with a helpless, broken-winged bird. The picture is lent a distinctive style by the sumptuous and finely detailed interior decoration, a style familiar from contemporaneous works (such as Robert Tait's depiction of Carlyle's House). The symbolic mood of the picture, however, taints these material refinements with the added suggestion - or condemnation - of decadence. The rounded upper edge of the painting imitates the religious art of a dour historical past. But here we see evidence of Hunt's preference of working onto a brilliant white (rather than black) base, which he referred to as a "tempera" ground: that is an attempt "to treat the canvas support like a gessoed, quattrocento panel", according to the art historian Carol Jacobi.

Certain intriguing personal details surround Hunt's execution of the work meanwhile. His model for the picture was Annie Miller, a fifteen-year-old barmaid. Writer and curator Jan Marsh has explained the background: "Reading her possible fate into the subject of his Awakening Conscience... Hunt had arranged for her education... with the unspoken aim of making her his wife." Hunt seems to have got lost then between the aspirational Christian message of his painting, and his own pursuit of the young model. The frame of the work was designed by Hunt himself and, it too, is laden with symbolism through a star as a sign of spiritual revolution. On the spandrels of the painting (which are covered when the work is framed), Hunt later described in fastidious detail a restoration of the work which he conducted in 1882.

Oil on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


The Light of the World

The Light of the World was Hunt's first critical success. Widely praised when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy, the work is an allegory, suggesting that Christ may knock at your door but the sinner must first answer that call if he or she is to find salvation. Indeed, Hunt felt that with art he had found his Christian calling. As he remarked in a letter to his friend W.B. Scott: "I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be divine command and not simply a good subject." There is then a clear sense in which Hunt's paintings were much more than material constructions; they were moral parables too. Here for instance we see a manipulation of light in the picture that is in keeping with the idea that only a faith in Christ can deliver the sinner from darkness. Jacobi has noted additionally that, in keeping with his fine sable brush technique, and the admixture of varnish and oil paints, many technical aspects of Hunt's work took on "the quality of glass" and in so doing enhanced "the sense that the image is [being] viewed through a window rather than on a plane." This is especially true of The Light of the World which almost appears to glow (though that effect is hard to replicate through reproduction). Shortly after its exhibition at the Academy the painting was bought by Hunt's main patron Thomas Combe. On the event of her death in 1891, Combe's wife bequeathed £3,000 to be used to build a side chapel for the painting at Keble College, Oxford. Space was made in the south transept of the College's chapel by elevating the organ to a loft overhead. The painting is housed at Keble to this day.

Oil on canvas - Keble College, Oxford University


The Thames at Chelsea, Evening

This is a rare and interesting example of a non-figural painting by Hunt. Whereas the majority of his output was polychromatic (and figural) Hunt's depiction of the Thames is notable for its subdued, dour palette and its atmospheric subtlety. A little over half of the picture plane is occupied by the surface of the river and Hunt has paid careful attention to the reflections and texture in the water. Though the title of the work refers to Chelsea, Hunt's studio was on the wrong side of the river and this picture looks out towards Battersea on the opposite bank. Chimneys loom above the horizon and the night seems heavy with smog. But for an area at the top left of the picture, the sky is blotted with a thin, dark, brushy layer of paint. There is a suggestion of moonlight in the reflections on the water at bottom left. These consistent horizontal bands of reflection are contrasted by the long, vertical reflections cast by lights from the warehouses on the right-hand side of the picture.

Chelsea was home to a large population of artists around this time and, in the later decades of the nineteenth century, the Thames riverside became a popular subject for artists. The Thames at Chelsea was most famously painted and etched by Whistler (Hunt's nemesis according to several accounts) and his amanuensis Walter Greaves. Hunt's contribution to this subject is less well known yet this picture was painted around six years before Whistler's earliest depiction of the Thames. It is unclear if Whistler knew of Hunt's painting, but the Thames had been transformed into a subject worthy of detailed atmospheric observation earlier in the century by Turner (in works such as Moonlight, a Study at Millbank). Indeed, the crepuscular setting, the attention to industrial grime, and the choice of Chelsea - rather than a more rural, picturesque, stretch of the Thames like Richmond or Twickenham - marks this painting by Hunt as an important moment in the changing representation of the Thames in British art.

Oil on canvas - Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge


The Scapegoat

This painting - one of Hunt's most iconic - depicts a floppy-eared goat which Hunt presented as a symbol of Christ. As with so many of his paintings, The Scapegoat combines studious attention to Christian scripture with contemporary iconography. For this work, he had in mind some verses from the Book of Leviticus (16:20-22) where the text describes Aaron, the High Priest, laying his hands on the goat and confessing the sins of the Israelites. "And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness." In Hunt's Christian imagination, the goat foreshadowed the sacrifice of Christ. The landscape setting is atmospheric and luminous with the blazing yellow sky set in vivid contrast to the purplish mountains. The stricken goat's hooves push through the salt-encrusted foreground, and every aspect of the picture surface has been carefully enunciated.

Hunt painted The Scapegoat during his first visit to the Holy Land between 1854 and 1856. Despite their shared beliefs, John Ruskin took a dislike to the painting: "This picture, regarded merely as a landscape, or as a composition, is a total failure" he judged. Nevertheless, alongside the religious symbolism of the painting, Hunt's style of vivid coloring and finely executed detail had an unconcealed pious motivation that would have met with Ruskin's liking. As Jacobi observed in her monograph on Hunt, "[p]aintings are essential proofs, empirical acts of witness of a spiritual hierarchy not just in their subject matter, but in every natural detail." By lingering over the details of his scene, then, Hunt was not chasing an incidental realism so much as a narrative on the themes of injustice and sacrifice.

Oil on canvas - Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight


The Shadow of Death

As with the other works that Hunt made in the Holy Land, this scene vividly reimagines a conventional Biblical fable: the crucifixion of Christ (no less). The painting foreshadows Christ's death on the cross and seems to mark the moment when Christ, realizing his fate, mimics his imminent crucifixion. His shadow falls squarely across the rack of tools on the wall, which serves as a notional representation of the wooden cross. The details of the painting are meticulous, from the screw on the workbench in the background, to the landscape of Nazareth as partially viewed through the window. Various elements in the picture can also be read as symbols of Christ's life and death, with the red headband at Christ's feet alluding to the Crown of Thorns that he would wear, and the star-like tracery in the window perhaps alluding to the star that marked his birth.

If we put to one side the specific symbolism and the artist's signature stylistic traits, the image is of historical interest for Hunt's insistence on literal accuracy. On a denotative level, we see an Eastern man, caught in a state of strange exultation, as his shadow strikes the back wall. The apparent depth of the man's rhapsody is in conflict meanwhile with his surroundings and the detritus of wood shavings that cover the workshop floor. As Gissing explained in his biography of Hunt, the artist endured many practical difficulties in completing the work. His first choice model was a man from Bethlehem but progress was frustrated when Hunt decided that the model's skin had become too heavily tanned after so many hours spent in the sun during the course of sittings. Eventually Hunt decided that this model was too thin in any case, and another model was found. The fact that Hunt refused to paint from his imagination was further evidenced in a despairing letter sent to his friend W.B. Scott at the time of painting: "I have no confidence I shall get my picture done" he said. "Much depends on the weather [and] lately it has been so wet and windy I have not been able to get out of doors to paint." When the work was finished, however, the painter George Frederic Watts praised Hunt's diligence and integrity, recommending the painting for its "religious poetry in the allusion to the dignity of labour."

Oil on canvas - Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester


May Morning on Magdalen Tower

This painting (one of two canvases; one large, one small) depicts the centuries old tradition, of obscure Pagan origin, of singing at dawn on May Day, which is still held annually at the top of Magdalen College's chapel tower in Oxford. As was his habit, Hunt - who in his words wanted to "represent the spirit of a beautiful, primitive and, in a large sense, eternal service" - laboured long and hard over the details of this painting. He spent a period of some eight months in Oxford, between May 1888 and January 1889, and for several weeks he worked on his canvas at the top of the tower, observing the pattern of the light and the behaviour of the early morning clouds in spring. Though they appear fantastic in their brilliant pink constellations, the clouds in the sky were in fact derived from Hunt's fastidious observations. However, in a letter (written in September 1888) to the artist and organist John Varley Roberts, Hunt conceded that his poor health and failing eyesight meant he would be "taking artistic licence in departing from the strict law of the ceremony". Once he had painted the setting, Hunt returned to his studio to execute the figures, all of whom have carefully rendered portraits, of elder Magdalen 'worthies' including (from left to right) the Professor of Physiology, John Burdon Sanderson (Fellow), the Professor of Music, Sir John Stainer (Organist), the theologian Henry Bramley (Fellow), John Bloxam (Fellow), and Herbert Warren (President). It is also rumoured that one of the young choristers in the foreground is based on Hunt's own son.

May Morning in Magdalen Tower, which was framed in a circular copper repoussé designed by the artist was Hunt's last major artistic project, with his eyesight failing and a severe asthma preventing him from further exertions. It is worth lingering over the effort that Hunt invested in this painting. While he was gathering material for the work in Oxford, he also wrote to his friend Edward Clodd (in 1888) stating that he was working from 4 am until 11:30 or 12 "without regular breakfast". Hunt was an old man by this point, and the serious, workmanlike attitude that he assumed merely confirms a continuation of the same dogmatic intensity that sustained him throughout his career.

Oil on canvas - Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight

Biography of William Holman Hunt

Childhood and Education

The child of humble working-class parents (his father earned his living as a Cheapside warehouse manager) William Holman Hunt (he changed his name from Hobman Hunt on the discovery of the fact that a clerk had misspelled his name on his baptism certificate) was raised as a devout Christian, dedicating his early childhood to reading the Bible in its finest detail. This being Victorian England, Hunt began his working life aged just 12 as an office clerk. It would take a further five years before his parents agreed, albeit reluctantly, to his enrolment at the Royal Academy art school (in 1844). Once there, Hunt made the acquaintance of John Everett Millais and, a little later on, the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Hunt had already made his mark having exhibited at Royal Manchester Institution in 1845, and at the Royal Academy and the British Institution a year later, before the three men formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood - at Millais's modest townhouse on Gower Street in Bloomsbury, London - in 1848. The men had grown disenchanted by their experience at the Royal Academy, having taken collective issue with the seemingly entrenched codes of artistic convention; not least the current orthodoxy of working from dark to light. The Brotherhood aspired to a brighter, more dynamic style of painting, driven primarily by close attention to picture detail. Together, they rejected the scholarly conventions of painting in favor of an acutely observation-driven style of representation. Rossetti summarized the aims of the Brotherhood as follows: "1. To have genuine ideas to express; 2. to study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them; 3. to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote; 4. and most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues".

A key stimulus on the Brotherhood project was the critical writing of John Ruskin. Ruskin, author of the book(s) Modern Painters (1843), was a renowned polemicist, moralist, and artist who had, most famously perhaps, championed the seven (tone, color, space, skies, earth, water and vegetation) "truths of natural form" in the expressive landscape paintings of J.M.W. Turner. (Much later, in 1880, Hunt, who was by now well known, wrote to John Ruskin praising him for the influence he had exercised over Hunt's own art. He explained to Ruskin how he had come to be possessed, not by Turner, but by the poetry of John Keats, and how he (Hunt), under Ruskin's influence, had come to regard Keats at a benchmark for the material reality he sought in his painting.) Hunt duly invested in the painterly ideal of a spiritual truth that would resound in material objects. It was from Ruskin indeed that Hunt derived the principle that it was not only good to depict things truthfully, it was also morally right. Thus, whereas previously Hunt had pursued a detailed, materially descriptive style, now he comprehended the way that material reality was the stuff of divine creation, and therefore indivisible from a sacred reality.

The Brotherhood lasted only about five years. Of the three founders it was Hunt who remained most committed to the ideals of the Brotherhood (Millais took over the presidency of the Royal Academy while the "amoral" Rossetti used his art to explore the beauty of the female form). In 1950 Hunt sold A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids to one Thomas Combe. Combe became Hunt's close friend and business adviser and two years later he sold Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd to the City of Manchester Art Galleries. Shepherds was significant because it was Hunt's first work to display his style of divine realism. Meanwhile, Hunt and Millais vacationed at a farm in Surrey in 1853 and it was here that the former produced his first masterpiece: The Light of the World.

Mature Period

A year later the artist left England for Egypt and the Holy Land. To mark his departure, Millais gifted his friend a signet ring. The ring, which Hunt wore for the rest of his life, would become an emblem of the men's life-long friendship. Hunt's expedition lasted two years during which time he visited the Great Sphinx of Giza and the Pyramids though he remarked later that "[t]heir only association that I value is that Joseph, Moses and Jesus must have looked upon them." For his painting The Scapegoat (1854–56), one of his signature pieces, Hunt travelled sixty miles outside Jerusalem where he found a suitably arid, desolate place for the setting of his painting. As he described it in his memoirs (published in 1905 and 1906) his own journey seemed to parallel that of the scapegoat in the picture, with Hunt the artist emerging as the hero of his own narrative. Indeed, Hunt returned to England in February 1856 sporting a voluminous beard. He saw the beard (as illustrated in William Blake Richmond's 1877 and 1900 portraits of the artist) as somehow prophetic and he was to present himself henceforward as an untamed artistic genius.

In 1865 Hunt married Fanny Waugh. The couple soon embarked on a tour of the Middle East in 1866 and it was while in quarantine in Florence that Fanny gave birth to a son. Their joy was short-lived however as Fanny lost her life to miliary fever. In 1868, Hunt returned to Florence to work on a memorial to Fanny (which beautifies the city's Protestant Cemetery to this day). Hunt journeyed to the Holy Land again in August 1869. This time his stay lasted five years, during which time he worked tirelessly on the detail for his painting The Shadow of Death. Hunt worked on the background to the picture while in Nazareth ("whence he could command a charming panorama of cultivated landscape and distant hills", according to his biographer A.C. Gissing). Indeed, the Holy Land exercised a huge pull on Hunt's romantic vision of the past, though by physically inhabiting the places he sought to represent through his art, Hunt was able to achieve the material accuracy he sought in his updated renderings of Biblical narratives.

Late Period

Hunt's self-styled piety was to be demeaned when he married Fanny's sister, Edith, in 1875. According to English law, it was illegal to marry the sister of one's deceased wife (the ceremony was conducted overseas) the legal consensus being that the new marriage constituted a form of incest. The couple duly took leave in Jerusalem where Hunt began work on The Triumph of the Innocents (1870–1903). At home meanwhile the scandal had caused considerable disquiet, especially within the Waugh clan, who considered it a stain on the family's proud history. Some fifty years on - perhaps as an act of familial 'revenge' - Evelyn Waugh, the novelist and great nephew of the Waugh sisters, published a monograph, not about Hunt, but rather on the artist's erstwhile colleague Rossetti.

Though Hunt had exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy between the 1840s and 1860s, he made a definitive break with the organization in the 1870s. His final involvement with the Academy was in 1874, when he exhibited a portrait of his patron Thomas Fairbairn. Intriguingly, in the exhibition catalogue for that year he gave a split address, suggesting dual residence between 10 The Terrace, Hammersmith, and Jerusalem. He was living in Jerusalem in fact when the 1874 exhibition took place. Thereafter, Hunt preferred to exhibit at the Grosvenor Gallery and the New Gallery, both of which were aligned with an eclectic milieu of painters that ranged from other Pre-Raphaelites to (what Hunt saw as vain and 'foppish') aesthetes like J.A.M. Whistler.

Despite his advancing years, Hunt remained actively involved with art world politics during the 1880s. For instance, in 1886, with George Clausen and Walter Crane, he signed a letter lambasting the Royal Academy for its restrictive exhibition practices, while in the same year, with Ford Madox Brown, he established the Arts and Crafts Exhibiting Society. Though not directly affiliated with the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Society's intention was to facilitate the exhibition of "fine art" alongside a so-called "decorative art", including furniture and designs for stained glass windows. Hunt himself had paid special attention to the framing of his works throughout his career, treating his frames as iconographical extensions of the pictures that they contained.

Hunt's first career retrospective was held in London in 1886 and was complemented with a collection of articles on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the Contemporary Review. Though future artistic undertakings were curtailed due to deteriorating eyesight and a serious asthma condition, Hunt visited the Middle East one last time in 1892. In 1905 he was awarded the Order of Merit and an honorary Doctorate of Civil Law by Oxford University. Following the publication of his memoirs in 1905-06, In 1907 his painting The Ship was purchased by a group of benefactors who presented the work to the Tate Gallery as a mark of respect, and to commemorate the artist's eightieth birthday. Hunt died in London in 1910.

The Legacy of William Holman Hunt

In a fate that befell other Pre-Raphaelite painters, Hunt's work fell from grace in the later decades of the nineteenth century. Though Hunt continued to work through this period, he had been long-since overtaken in the popular imagination by more youthful, frivolous, and less earnest forms of art. However, the dandyish aestheticism of J.A.M. Whistler - an artist who did so much to dent Hunt's reputation - was largely a response to the Pre-Raphaelites. Hunt, and the Ruskinian milieu in which he worked, were in fact central to later developments in art, not least because artists like Whistler, if they were to make a name for themselves at all, had to reject what had gone before. As is so often the case with art, however, the division between Hunt and Whistler's paintings was not so clear cut and in fact they merely define one another. Indeed, the two artists exhibited alongside each other on a number of occasions.

It was not until the early decades of the twentieth century however that Hunt started to excite the imagination of the new generation of painters. A retrospective held in 1906 and 1907, touring from London to Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, marked a revival of interest in his work. Certain works by painters like Harold Speed, such as in his 1905 portrait of the Arts and Crafts pioneer C.F.A. Voysey, suggest a debt of influence to Hunt. Other artists at this time, like Charles Ricketts and Charles Haslewood Shannon, (though their own preference was for Venetian painting and Tintoretto) seem to have absorbed Hunt's approach to history too, specifically through their debt to a hallowed pre-Raphaelite style. Though Hunt had various defenders in the twentieth century (including, conversely, Evelyn Waugh who owned works by him) Hunt's reputation would often languish due not least to the sweeping onset of modernism (in 1978, the Oxford Companion to Art stated in fact that "[m]ost of his works are now regarded as failures"). More recently, however, the ebb and flow of artistic taste has allowed for a critical revision of nineteenth-century British painting and in that context, Hunt emerges as one of its most revered sons.

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