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Born in London in 1827, English painter William Holman Hunt – a co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – was known for his deeply naturalistic works depicting both themes from modern urban and rural life and religious subject matter. We take a tour of the artist’s most important works, from The Light of the World to The Awakening Conscience.
One of the most recognisable religious images of the Victorian era, The Light of the World was inspired by Christ’s proclamation in St. John’s Gospel, ‘I am the Light of the World; he who follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the Light of life’. Three versions of the painting exist: the first hangs in a chapel at Oxford’s Keble College and the second in Manchester Art Gallery. The third, and largest, edition – painted in the early 1900s towards the end of Holman Hunt’s life while his eyesight was failing – hangs in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. This version took a ground-breaking tour of the British Empire, organised by wealthy industrialist and social reformer Charles Booth, and was seen by millions of people before its donation to the cathedral in 1908.
The Awakening Conscience depicts a scene in a ‘maison de convenance’ in which a mistress rises from the lap of her lover, seemingly lost in a moment of spiritual revelation. Full of symbolism, Hunt included several elements he intended the painting’s audience to interpret: for example, the tangled yarn on the floor represents the woman’s entrapment in her situation and the discarded glove symbolises the likelihood of her eventually being cast off by her lover, while the reflected view of a sunlit garden in the mirror behind her hints at her possible redemption. The model for the mistress was Annie Miller, a popular Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood model to whom Hunt was engaged until 1859.
Painted in 1867, Isabella and the Pot of Basil depicts a scene from John Keats’ poem Isabella in which the fair lady mournfully caresses the pot containing her lover Lorenzo’s severed head, killed at the hands of her brothers. A jewel of Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery collection, a large-scale mural of the work was painted on the gallery’s exterior wall over 20 years ago alongside Scottish Figurative artist Andrew Wiszniewski’s 1987 work Aloft in the Loft and English Impressionist painter Laura Knight’s The Beach, painted in the early 20th century, to represent the Laing’s artworks.
Created early on in the artist’s career during his twenties, A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids portrays a scene in which a Christian family shelters a priest from an oncoming mob of Druids and heathens. When the painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1850, its stirred quite the controversy for its unusual composition and contorted poses of its subjects, though Hunt himself believed the painting to be one of his best – nicknaming the work ‘the Early Xtians’, he wrote in a letter to fellow artist, poet and close friend Edward Lear, ‘Sometimes when I look at the Early Xtians I feel rather ashamed that I have got no further than later years have brought me’.
Conceived during the first of Hunt’s pilgrimages to the Holy Land, The Scapegoat – which depicts its titular subject in a Jewish ritual from the Book of Leviticus in which a goat was cast off into the desert bearing the sins of a congregation, represented by the red cloth wrapped around its horns – was in part painted at Oosdoom on the southwestern shores of the Dead Sea. A smaller, preliminary version of the painting featuring a darker-haired goat and a rainbow Hunt had witnessed during his visit to the site hangs in the Manchester Art Gallery: it is thought he omitted the rainbow from the second, larger painting to deny viewers any sense of hope for the doomed goat.
The Miracle of the Sacred Fire depicts the annual miracle of the title in which pilgrims gather at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem at Eastertime to witness the relighting of the holy fire over the site of Christ’s supposed tomb. Though the phenomenon was denounced as a fraud during the time in which the painting was conceived, Hunt felt compelled to capture the scene for its ‘dramatic, historic and picturesque importance’. A highly elaborate canvas, Hunt was required to provide a key explaining the painting’s many figures when The Miracle of the Sacred Fire was first exhibited in 1899.
Hunt’s luminous painting London Bridge on the Night of the Marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales depicts a scene from modern urban Victorian life – the celebration of the marriage between future king Edward VII and Princess Alexandra of Denmark – which the artist himself attended. Hunt decided to include portraits of both himself and his friends in the painting: fellow painter Robert Braithwaite Martineau appears in the canvas as does English printer Thomas Combe in the left hand corner alongside Hunt. The frame in which the painting is set was also designed by Hunt and features the coat of arms of the Danish and English royal families.
In The Hireling Shepherd, Hunt presents viewers with a vivid rural scene in which a young male hireling flirts with a beautiful shepherdess, presenting her with a death’s head hawk moth – which superstition states is a harbinger of bad luck – while his flock of sheep go ignored. The artist intended this as a metaphor for Victorian clergy neglecting their pastoral duties. Country girl Emma Watkins – who fellow Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founder Dante Gabriel Rossetti nicknamed ‘the Coptic’ for her exotic features – acted as the model for the painting which apparently caused quite the stir with literary magazine Athenaeum, which stated that Hunt’s subjects were ‘rustics of the coarsest breed’.
The Shadow of Death depicts a young Jesus Christ as a carpenter in his workshop with his arms outstretched in a pose that foretells of his future crucifixion. Like many of Hunt’s works, the painting is rich with symbolism: the arched window behind Jesus acts as a halo and the red headband in the foreground represents the crown of thorns, while a kneeled Virgin Mary rummaging through gifts from the Magi harks back to Christ’s birth. Though some of the painting’s critics objected to Hunt’s portrayal of Christ as a working man, The Shadow of Death nevertheless proved very popular and was reproduced in over 4,000 engravings.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were strongly influenced by writer and art critic John Ruskin, who implored of artists in his 1847 book Modern Painters to ‘go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trusting’, and it was in this context that Hunt would create Our English Coasts, 1852 (Strayed Sheep). Painted at Lover’s Seat (a former spot that fell into the sea in the 1970s) overlooking Covehurst Bay near Hastings, the painting was originally commissioned by English lawyer and naturalist William John Broderip as a replica of the sheep featured in background of Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd until the artist convinced his client that an original artwork would be preferable.