Edward Hughes was a nephew of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes, under whom he studied. He then entered the Royal Academy Schools and worked with Holman Hunt, helping the elderly painter, whose eyesight was failing, to complete some of his later works. The best known example is the large version of The Light of the World (St Paul's Cathedral, London). Hughes was also in contact with Edward Burne-Jones and knew the poet and novelist George Macdonald, many of whose books for children were illustrated by his uncle Arthur. For a time he was engaged to one of Macdonald's daughters, but she died before their marriage.
Hughes worked mainly in watercolour, painting symbolist subjects and obscure literary themes, often Italian in origin; one of the finest of these, Bertuccio's Bride, an illustration to Le piacevolle notte by Gian Francesco Straparola, was sold in these Rooms on 29 October 1991, lot 15, and is now in the Lloyd Webber Collection. He is also well known for his slightly idealised portraits of women, executed in red chalk.
Hughes exhibited regularly with the Royal Watercolour Society, becoming an Associate in 1891, a full member in 1895 and Vice-President (for two years) in 1901. He also showed at the Royal Academy from 1870 to 1911, and was represented at the first Venice Biennale in 1895. For some years he was a popular teacher at London County Council evening classes. He is recorded living at several London addresses until 1913 when he moved to St Albans, where he died the following year.
This attractive pair of heads are typical of Hughes, falling somewhere between his idealised portraits of female sitters and his more symbolist compositions. They are essentially in the same vein as Night with her Train of Stars (fig. 1), a picture of 1912 which has become his most famous work since it was included in the Last Romantics exhibition at the Barbican in 1989 and reproduced on the cover of the catalogue. Hughes's taste for such cosmic symbolism may owe something to G.F. Watts. Another preceedent would be Burne-Jones allegorical figures of Day and Night, executed for the Liverpool shipping magnate Frederick Leyland in the early 1870s (Winthrop Collection; Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard).