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