The art critic of The Times, reviewing William Holman Hunt’s first one-man exhibition at the Fine Art Society in March 1886, declared: ‘Everybody knows “The Light of the World,” either from having seen it in old days or from having examined it in its new abode at Keble College, or from possessing one of the thousands of engravings or photographs of it that are scattered all over the English-speaking world’. He went on to describe it as ‘one of the most original, most interesting, and most hotly-debated pictures of modern times’. For a century after its unveiling at the Royal Academy in 1854, people who had never heard the name of Holman Hunt would have recognised the image of Christ as king, martyr and high priest depicted at night in an orchard, knocking on a door choked up with weeds, emblematic of the human heart (Fig. 1).
What The Times critic did not know was that Hunt had recently restored the painting, which was damaged from having been for several years placed over hot water pipes in the Library of Keble College, Oxford. A bequest from the widow of its first owner, Thomas Combe, ensured that in 1895 The Light of the World was moved to a specially built side chapel. However, by February 1894 Hunt, incensed that Keble was charging visitors sixpence to see the picture, had decided on painting a replica ‘the size of life’, a size dictated by his failing eyesight.
Work on the large replica began in 1899, using the second version of the subject (Manchester Art Gallery) as a compositional guide. But it soon became clear that Hunt’s deteriorating vision necessitated his employing Edward Robert Hughes (nephew of painter Arthur Hughes) as studio assistant. This was never publicly acknowledged at the time, so we have to reconstruct the chronology of Hughes’s watercolour version of The Light of the World from contemporary manuscript sources.
In the summer of 1902 Hunt wrote to a Fulham neighbour that his assistant was working on both The Lady of Shalott (Wadsworth Atheneum) and The Light of the World (Fig. 2) because, although he could detect faults in both pictures, he could not ‘finish what I do in correction’. For example, in The Light of the World the breast ornaments were too far to the left. This can clearly be seen by comparing the photograph of the painting on an easel in Hunt’s studio, almost certainly taken in 1902 (Fig. 3), with the breastplate in the watercolour by Hughes. It is likely that lot 94 was begun about this time in order to test out the alterations Hunt required.
Comparison between photograph and watercolour also indicates that Hughes used a less swarthy model than Hunt had done in the earlier stages of the replica – as Jeremy Maas has revealed, this was probably the blue-eyed Domenico Mancini, whose lighter colouring also characterises the finished replica. The 1902 letter goes on to discuss Hunt’s struggles with blending and toning ‘the arrangements of drapery on the body and legs of our Lord’. This part of the watercolour varies considerably from the photograph, which clearly shows the legs beneath the robe and the Saviour in a more dynamic pose; the more static pose depicted by Hughes, with the gown’s prominent central fold, has been transferred to the replica. Significantly, when Hunt - in exceptionally shaky writing - wrote to Hughes in the spring of 1903 he addressed him as ‘My dear Right Hand’.
Hughes’s part in the picture now in St Paul’s Cathedral continued after 1904, when it was bought by Charles Booth: the ring of light round the halo is thinner in the watercolour and replica than the halo in the photogravure published in 1905 (Fig. 4). The reflections cast by the lantern onto the chest of the Saviour are similar in both watercolour and photogravure, but not in the finished replica, which suggests that the drapery continued to present a problem. Booth wrote to Hughes in January 1908, when the Hunts were arranging the positioning of the picture in St Paul’s, enclosing a cheque to reimburse him for ‘all the help you have given me in it’.
The distinctive blue tonality of the landscape elements in the Hughes watercolour is characteristic of his atmospheric series of late works depicting moonlight, twilight and dawn - the most famous of which is Night, with her Train of Stars (Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery). These were shown at the Royal Watercolour Society from 1902 to 1913; their theme may well have been influenced by his work on The Light of the World.
The close relationship between E.R. Hughes and the older painter resulted in several portraits of the Holman Hunt family, including a jewel-like miniature of the Pre-Raphaelite artist, commissioned in 1894, and an accomplished replica of Holman Hunt’s Uffizi Self-Portrait (Athenaeum Club, London). It is remarkable that although Hughes’s own work is predominantly in watercolour, he was able to copy Hunt’s oil technique with absolute fidelity.
We are grateful to Judith Bronkhurst for preparing this catalogue entry. She would like to thank Victoria Osborne for her help.