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Visual arts >

The awakening conscience of an eminent Victorian

Nicholas Cranfield reassesses his view of Holman Hunt at a Manchester exhibition including no fewer than three versions of The Light of the World

IN AUGUST 1848, Holman Hunt and his friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who together with John Everett Millais formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood that same year, drew up a list of “Immortals”. Shakespeare and Jesus Christ feature in it almost as equals, and there is little trace that Hunt had retained any of his pious Evangelical upbringing, beyond a working knowledge of an Old Testa­ment Deity.

Three years later (the first sketch is on the back of an envelope dated Belfast, 25 September 1851), Hunt began the composition of what would become the most famous work of its day, The Light of the World (Keble College, Oxford).

Thanks to a promoter who toured a much later and much larger, painted copy (St Paul’s Cathedral) across the Empire, it is reckoned that more than seven million people saw the painting, and the print industry ensured that every home, vestry, and schoolroom could have a cheap reprint copy. The process made Hunt a wealthy man.

In addition to the original painting, and Hunt’s own 1900-04 replica, the exhibition also shows the oil sketch that his friend and collaborator F. G. Stephens worked up in 1853/54 (Manchester Art Gallery). Stephens claimed to have painted the greater part of this, and the ensuing row ended their friend­ship.

Hunt sold that painting for £300 to an American collector (it came to Manchester in 1912), but money could never buy back the innocence of their first friendship which he had celebrated with a directness and fresh­ness in an earlier (1846/47) portrait of his friend (The Tate), which is in the first room of the show.

So, was William Holman Hunt OM (1827-1910) the Damien Hirst of his day?

Readers of this column will know that I am not always generous in my opinions of the Pre-Raphaelites and their self-appointed task of going out “like merchants of nature” to “bring home precious merchandise in faith­ful pictures” (as Hunt once wrote in 1855 to encourage a younger artist). I managed to escape the major 1984 Tate retrospective of the Pre-Raphaelites by going to live in North America. I steeled myself for this excursion by spending an afternoon looking at Francis Bacon’s work and an evening listening to Handel — desperate remedies for desperate times.

This significant exhibition cur­rently occupies the brilliant new extension of the Manchester City Gallery, where it is starkly displayed to tremendous effect on walls of strong colour. It will then tour to the Art Gallery of Ontario (Hunt has a strong link to the Canadian diaspora) before going to Minneapolis.

The exhibition opens with a self-portrait that the 40-year-old artist painted for the Uffizi in 1867 when he was living in Florence. Corpulent and self-assured as he appears here, there is nothing in the painting to show the pain and problems that already afflicted the artist, and which would lead to his (temporary) social ostracism when he later married his dead wife’s sister.

Hunt was older than most who were admitted when at the age of 20 he enrolled at the Royal Academy in London. This proved to be the wrong stable for him. Not for him the ways of the Establishment: very soon, Hunt became a rebel with a cause, forming a triumvirate with Millais and Rossetti to challenge the out­moded way of teaching art. Taking John Ruskin’s Modern Painters as their Gospel, the coterie of friends sought to make detailed studies of nature the centre of their work.

Hunt did not long stay with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, as they chose to name themselves, but the parting of friends was amicable. By the time Hunt first journeyed to Egypt and Palestine in the quest for the historical Jesus (1854), he was well known. That he chose to live in Ottoman countries during the first Crimean War is not to be overlooked.

Three major paintings mark the ending of his association with the Brotherhood: The Hireling Shepherd, The Awakening Conscience, and The Light of the World. Each has been subject to prolonged scrutiny by those seeking inner religious mean­ings, but seeing them together offers a chance to explore both the likely sub-text of Victorian sexuality, and to try to understand something of Hunt’s own personal crise de conscience.

Later in life, Hunt always claimed that it was while he was painting The Light of the World that he first found his Christian faith as an adult, but it is not, truth be told, a very positive painting, although it clearly derives from the Revelation of St John 3.20. The door is wildly overgrown (it was one Hunt found on a derelict hut in a local orchard), as if to make the Saviour’s task yet more difficult, and the lack of interest in his face belies the thought that he has come to save sinners. The apples on the ground tell us that we are in an orchard by night, but are so dimly seen that this can scarcely be intended as a reminder of Eden.

At first, it seems, the artist en­visaged the painting as the outer wing of a conventional triptych, but that idea seems largely to have been lost early on. Turning the figure of the Saviour to face the viewer, in “the phosphor light of a perfect moon” that Hunt captured sitting out at night in November 1851, the subject becomes as much about our response to the call of Christ as about Christ’s own mission.

When he came to finish the painting in his London studio, Hunt was also trying to complete The Hireling (exhibited in 1852), and had begun the morality tale of the kept woman, the first a parable, he claimed later, of the Church of his day, the other a clear moral chastise­ment of Victorian society, although at its first showing critics were baffled by it.

That it might well be that social conscience drew him into Chris­tianity as much as the piety of painting the Christ is at least likely: Hunt’s studio overlooked a reach of the Thames in which many “fallen women” were found drowned, often taking their babies with them, and an oil sketch of the view from his window in Cheyne Walk (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) hangs poignantly alongside.

Hunt sold the first version of The Light of the World to Thomas Combe for 400 guineas in 1853. The artist was 27 years old. It was exhibited at the RA the following year to generally poor notices, alongside The Awakening Conscience (a title chosen for it by Combe), which later Hunt claimed to be a material pair of the former. Mrs Combe in her widowhood gave the biblical painting to Keble College in 1873 at its foundation, by when it was well known from the phenomenally successful engravings of Simmons and Ridg­way.

After his conversion, Hunt was something of an individual sort of Christian, becoming one with the Christian Zionists when he went to live in the Ottoman city of Jerusalem in order to “place” Jesus in his actual landscape. There is much in the exhibition which shows Hunt as a friend of archaeologists and religious thinkers alike, using contemporary photographs of the Holy Land to inform his biblical scenes.

On his return from the Orient, the 30-year-old Hunt turned aside from narrative and religious painting. Three portraits of women in his life, painted after his first return from living in the Levant, stand side by side, and are both a testimony to the artist’s skilled indebtedness to Italian artists such as Titian and Bronzino, whom he so much admired at the 1857 Man­chester Exhibition, and a measure of the confusions surrounding his relationships with women.

Il dolce far niente (1859-1866), from the Forbes Collection, started out as a painting of Annie Miller who had also served as his model in The Awakening Conscience. Hunt had first met her in a public house, and the painting was probably intended as an engagement gift. He paid for her education, and hoped that she might become independent.

Their blooming friendship was uncon­ventional even by the standards of the day, and her loose tumbling locks suggest something of her passionate appeal, reflected in the roaring fire in the hearth beyond. Such passion between classes often cools, and Hunt took up with Fanny Waugh, who became his first wife. He simply painted her face on to the existing portrait of his former lover.

Fanny’s death in the first year of their marriage, so soon after the birth of their first child, Cyril, situates Hunt’s experience of grief alongside that of many other Victorian men, but his chosen way of commemorating it (Isabella and the Pot of Basil) is as unexpected as it is outrageous. He returned to England as a widower, and looked after his son with the help of one of his late wife’s sisters, Edith.

The bravura of her 21st-birthday portrait lies less in what we know of the later relationship of the painter to the sitter than in the style. A serenity and maturity infuses the painting. Hunt later claimed that it was only as he painted her that he realised she was falling in love with him, and it is a rare privilege to see the portrait that has remained in the family and now belongs to her great-grandson.

It is also a remarkable historical document: Hunt and his second wife campaigned for decades for the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marri­age Act, which was passed into law by Edward VII only three years before the artist himself died.

During a second visit to Florence, the artist had courted an American heiress and beauty, Margaret Noyes-Bradhurst. Her portrait, as Bianca, is pure Venetian and remarkably touching, suggesting a degree of loveliness that is far away from the often cloying portraits of women that, for instance, Rossetti was making in the same period. Sadly, it now usually hangs hidden away behind a door in Worthing Art Gallery and Library.

Hirst he is not, but a compassionate and intelligent artist emerges here from this carefully selected showing. I came away light of foot, and wistful about my earlier opinionated musings.

“Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision” is at Manchester Art Gallery, Mosley Street, Manchester, until 11 January 2009. Phone 0161 235 8888.

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