Biography (1827 - 1910)

Header Painting: The Hireling Shepherd, 1851 (Detail)
William Holman Hunt

Oil on canvas, 76.4 cm × 109.5 cm
Manchester Art Gallery
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© Estate of William Holman Hunt

As a matter of local interest (i.e. it matters to me as I'm from near there!), for many years William Holman Hunt was a resident in Ewell, Surrey, south east of London. Indeed, he even married in the local church, St. Mary the Virgin, on the old London Road. Hunt painted one of his most famous pictures, The Hireling Shepherd (1851) (above), nearby, close to where John Everett Millais was painting the background to his famous Ophelia painting at the same time. Another of his pictures, Cornfield at Ewell, is owned by Tate Britain

Millais and Holman Hunt, close friends by this stage, would, day after day, split up on the riverbank, one going one way and the other the other way. Ophelia and The Hireling Shepherd are painted, I think, a couple of miles apart. Two crucial paintings in the history of British Art created so near and the area, though built upon now, still retains its magical rustic feel in places. Certainly, the river, little more than a stream around there, retains the presence you feel in each painting.

The two figures look so fresh and alive it's hard to believe that they would both be as dead as dead can be and have been for may years past, six feet under somewhere in lonely spots in graveyards with weathered tombstones. Comes to us all soon enough, I guess. The 'girl' I speak about was a local country girl called Emma Watkins but the 'shepherd' remains name unknown, a bit like the unknown soldier: a great face in the history of art who will never be forgotten though we don't know his name.

Perhaps the ghosts of the two Pre Raphaelites are forever around there, painting on the riverbank by day and peering from the woodlands in the stillness of night.

Whatever, the river hasn't a better claim to fame than the fact that these two once sat by its side and painted eternal works of art.

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William Holman Hunt ~ Biography

Painter (1827 - 1910)

Born: 2 April 1827
Birth place: London, UK
Married: Fanny Waugh, Edith Waugh
Date of death: 7 September 1910

His father, a warehouse manager, reluctantly allowed him to enter the Royal Academy schools in 1844, where he met Millais. Profoundly influenced by his discovery of John Keats and his reading of John Ruskin's Modern Painters in 1847, Hunt developed a new approach to painting which involved the expression of significant moral ideas in a completely natural manner. To this end he evolved an intensely realistic technique, using brilliant, clear colors on a white ground instead of the traditional dark underpainting. These new ideas are embodied in his illustration inspired by Keats's The Eve of St. Agnes.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Hunt, and Millais founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. Despite Ruskin's defense of the Brotherhood in the Times, the hostile reception of Hunt's paintings in the Academy almost caused him to abandon painting. However, with Ruskin's praise for his work, Hunt began to gain recognition, and he turned almost exclusively to the portrayal of religious themes.

Hunt was passionately determined to ensure absolute truth to nature in the rendering of his subjects. He painted most of the Light of the World outside by moonlight, and the Scapegoat (1854) was painted beside the Dead Sea on the first of Hunt's many journeys to the Holy Land in search of authentic settings for his biblical scenes.

In 1865 Hunt married Fanny Waugh; within a year, after the birth of their son, she died. In 1873 he married her sister, Edith Waugh, though this was done abroad as at the time it was illegal in Britain to marry one's deceased sister.

After about 1860 Hunt was acknowledged as a leading English painter, but he became increasingly isolated from contemporary trends by his long absences abroad and his continuing adherence to the ideals and realistic technique of the Pre-Raphaelite style. Following Rossetti's death in 1882, Hunt began a vigorous defense of these ideals and of his role in their formation with a series of articles which culminated in his remarkable autobiography (1905-1906).

Although Hunt was obsessed throughout his life with light and its effect on color, his popularity was to a large extent founded on his vivid religious imagery, which received wide circulation in the form of engravings. He had to give up painting towards the end of his life due to failing eyesight.

Hunt was awarded the Order of Merit in 1905, and his importance was recognized in a series of major exhibitions. He died on Sept. 7, 1910.

William Holman Hunt ~ Trivia

Source: Victorian Painting. Book, 2003. Probaly the most beautifully presented book on art I have ever seen. A treasure, a marvel, a triumph of printed matter. Everyone who loves Victorian painting should have a copy - it is that good.

I wonder how Hunt and Millais would have fared with internet dating sites like POF or OKCupid? Would they have heard the dreaded reply: 'I don't do Pre-Raphaelites'?

Claudio in Claudio and Isabella looks like Johnny Depp!

Holman Hunt painted The Scrapegoat in the Holy Land with a rifle across his knee.

The Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed by Rosetti, Holman Hunt, Millais, James Collinson, the sculptor Thomas Woolner, Frederick George Stephens and Rossetti's brother William Michael (1829 - 1919), who became the historian of the gropu's activities. Ford Maddox Brown, an elder statesman, was never actually a member.

His Rienzi (1848 - 49) painting bore the cryptic PFB acronym. It was first shown at the Royal Academy. Its wonderfully lengthy full title is: Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of his Young Brother, Slain in a Skirmish between the Colonna and Orsini Factions. It was inspired by Bulwer-Lytton's novel Rienzi (1835).

He was involved with the great Chartist meeting on Kennington Common for worker's rights.

The PFB journal was called Germ.

He was commissioned in 1850 by Augustus Egg to work on Claudio and Isabella.

His patron, Thomas Combe, originally bought Missionary.

His painting, Our English Coasts, 1852 (Strayed Sheep) was set on the cliffs bear Hastings on a sunny day.

He excelled with the stippling technique.

Delacroix found himself 'astounded by Hunt's sheep'.

He set off to Egypt and the Holy Land to paint the Bible stories where they had taken place on 13th January 1854. It's an important date to remember as the PRB began to fragment and was never the same.

He used Annie Miller as the model for the courtesan in The Awakening Consience. The painting is now in Tate Britain, London.

He was never very friendly with Rossetti and when he learned of his affair with Miller whilst he was in the Middle East, the relationship between the pair ceased.

His The Light of the World (1851 - 53), oil on canvas, 125.5 x 59.8cm, is at Keble College, Oxford.

Further Reading: Victorian Painting [Book, 2003]


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