This sparkling watercolour of Asparagus Island, Kynance Cove, is part of a series Holman Hunt executed in the autumn of 1860 during a walking holiday in Cornwall and Devon with Alfred Tennyson, fellow artist Val Prinsep, and writer and art critic Francis Turner Palgrave.
It was unusual for Hunt to find the time or money to take a holiday, but in 1860 he had funds at his disposal, having secured a record price of 5,500 guineas for The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (1854-60; Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery). Caroline Fox, of Penjerrick, near Falmouth, met Hunt during this West Country trip, and memorably summed him up in her diary as 'a very genial, young-looking creature, with a large, square, yellow beard, clear blue laughing eyes, a nose with a merry little upward turn in it, dimples in the cheek, and the whole expression sunny and full of simply boyish happiness. His voice is most musical, and there is nothing in his look or bearing, inspite of the strongly-marked forehead, to suggest the High Priest of Pre-Raphaelitism'.
If one thinks of Hunt as a 'High Priest' with a strong didactic streak, this watercolour of Asparagus Island seems atypical. Yet in a pamphlet of 1865 Hunt declared that 'the first ambition of the painter... should be to give a delightsome aspect to all his representations. If he succeed in this it may not be possible to find a special moral... but it will be a picture - an exposition as far as it extends - of Nature's omnipresent grace'. For Hunt truth to nature became a moral imperative because he believed that nature was the repository of transcendent truth. In it - to quote Ruskin - one could trace 'the finger of God'.
The amount of detail incorporated into Hunt's works can partly be attributed to his exceptional eyesight. Indeed, it was said of him that 'on one occasion in Jerusalem, he proved to a friend, who doubted the statement, that he could see the moons of Jupiter with the naked eye'. In Asparagus Island this gift enabled the artist to delineate the landscape in a way that may not seem unusual for a generation used to the zoom lens of a camera, but is extraordinary when one considers his viewpoint on the cliffs. (In a typical Hunt touch, part of the cliff is glimpsed in the immediate foreground of the watercolour).
For Hunt, however, truth to nature was not enough. In the 1865 pamphlet he stated that 'a work with the profoundest philosophy or morality may be a wonderful piece of mental ingenuity; it may even be an extraordinary specimen of imitative power, but executed without enthusiastic love of the object, it will be repulsive rather than attractive to the eye, and the workman will be proved no painter, in the great sense, whatever else he may be'. Hunt's landscapes are imbued with 'enthusiastic love of the object', which - whether in oil or watercolour - makes them particularly memorable. His exploration of the effects of light on land and water can be combined with an underlying symbolic dimension, as in Our English Coasts, 1852 (Tate, London), but it does not have to be; Fairlight Downs - Sunlight on the Sea, begun in 1852 (fig 1), is a notable example of such a symbol-free landscape. In both these pictures and in Asparagus Island Hunt used sophisticated optical effects to convey sunlight in an utterly convincing way. Indeed, in a lecture of 1883 Ruskin was to claim that Our English Coasts, 1852 'showed us, for the first time in the history of art, the absolutely faithful balances of colour and shade by which actual sunshine might be transposed into a key in which harmonies possible with material pigments should yet produce the same impressions upon the mind which were caused by the light itself'.
Hunt did not regard himself as a watercolourist, and was never prolific in this field. Nearly all his landscapes were executed on his travels. His first trip to the Near East in 1854-6 resulted in seventeen watercolour landscapes, including a memorable series that deal with the appearance of landscape at different times of the day and night. A similar burst of creative energy characterized his 1860 trip to the West Country - Hunt executed ten watercolours in the space of about three weeks, which was remarkable for such a notoriously slow worker. This required dedication and pertinacity, and on 2 October Palgrave, back in London, wrote to Emily Tennyson: 'We were sorry not to have more of Hunt's company, but as he preferred his Art to our honourable society, what could be done?"
In mid-September 1860 Hunt and Prinsep had joined Tennyson, Palgrave and Thomas Woolner in the Scilly Isles. On their return to Penzance, the painters began their walking and sketching tour of Cornwall, accompanied by Tennyson and Palgrave, who travelled by dog-cart. 'On Sep. 17', Palgrave recalled in his later account of the trip, 'we were at the Lizard point, where we found H. Hunt & Mr V. Prinsep with him, visiting Kynance Cove, which almost seemed to us like a Turner landscape in actual presence, so rich & so varied is the colouring of its serpentine bastions'. Kynance Cove (now in the care of the National Trust) is a justly celebrated beauty-spot only 300 yards wide and sheltered by 200 foot high cliffs. The outcrop of serpentine rocks is characterized by intrusions of gneiss and red granite, and the difference in the mineral content has resulted in a rich variety of colours. Unsurprisingly, the outstanding beauty of the site has attracted tourists since the 18th Century. Hunt and Prinsep took up a precarious position on the cliffs, looking north-west towards Asparagus Island. Our watercolour shows the area about four hours after low tide.
Tennyson wrote to his wife Emily on 20 September that he and Palgrave 'left Hunt and Val Prinsep hard at work at the Lizard, sketching on a promontory'. Hunt later recounted to his daughter Gladys: 'For two or three days, Val and I continued on the cliffs, working. One day a sudden gust of wind carried my nearly completed picture away and looking over the edge of the cliff, I saw it circling about, with the gulls in the abyss below - when, luckily for me, a fresh gust of wind bore it aloft until it lodged on a tuft of grass on the brink of a precipice. With the assistance of Val, I was able to retrieve it'.
Hunt executed at least three other drawings of the Lizard peninsula: Cornish Coast, which recently resurfaced on the London art market, The Lizard, Cornwall (fig. 2), and Sea Mist - The Lizard, Cornwall (unlocated). Asparagus Island is the only one to depict the brilliant quality of light on the sea on a fine day, and in this it can be related to Fairlight Downs - Sunlight on the Sea (fig. 1).
Slight traces of pencil suggest that Hunt made a few compositional marks on the paper. He used the traditional technique of scratching out to convey the spume on the small rocks in the middle ground, while leaving the paper bare to convey the eddies around them. The only touches of bodycolour are at the level of the horizon, and this part of the watercolour almost certainly dates from 1862.
On 17 March of that year Hunt wrote to his solicitor friend Henry Virtue Tebbs (c.1846-1899) that he needed 'to keep the drawing of Kynance Cove a little longer, for one thing because I want to touch upon it'. (It is worth noting that the title Asparagus Island is derived from the catalogue of Hunt's 1886 one-man show.)
Tebbs immediately sent Hunt a cheque for the full asking price, 60 guineas. Although it was not the artist's usual practice to accept payment before completion of a picture, in this case he made an exception, since 'the drawing, saving a few refinements - for my own satisfaction principally - is finished'. It was presumably at this time that the watercolour was framed: the backing board is inscribed 'near Lizard Point Cornwall W Holman Hunt Octr 1860', a slight memory lapse in terms of date. The price was extremely satisfactory, considering that at auction on 10 March 1862 Tebbs had paid only 14 guineas for Rossetti's Carlisle Wall (Ashmolean Museum. Oxford), a comparable watercolour in terms of size and jewel-like handling.
Rossetti was a close friend of Tebbs, who collected other works of the Aesthetic movement. But Tebbs also had a keen eye for landscape. Apart from Asparagus Island, his executors' sale included examples by Turner, an important Ford Madox Brown, and works on paper by G. P. Boyce, Albert Goodwin (another view of Kynance) and A. W. Hunt. In 1860 Tebbs had acted as solicitor for the dealer Ernest Gambart during the negotiations over the sale of Hunt's painting The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, and four years later Hunt was best man at his wedding to Emily, sister of the late Thomas Seddon, the painter who had been Hunt's companion in the East in 1854-6.
The next owner of Asparagus Island, the prosperous City solicitor Sydney Morse (d. 1929), had an equally distinguished collection. It included works by Constable, David Cox, Gainsborough, Burne-Jones, Madox Brown, Millais, Rossetti and Ruskin, as well as, from a later generation, Anning Bell, Frank Cadogan Cowper, Birket Foster, Albert Goodwin and E. R. Hughes, with whom Morse was especially friendly. Morse owned Hunt's watercolour The Dead Sea from Siloam (1854-5; Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery) and an important 1853 chalk portrait of Millais (National Portrait Gallery, London). Of particular interest in this context is the fact that his collection also included Cornish Coast, the companion watercolour to Asparagus Island.
Asparagus Island is such a powerful image because it is the result of intense concentration. Although the subject matter is reminiscent of later images by Courbet or Monet, the hard-edged precision which convinces us that we are looking at the site through Hunt's eyes is deeply characteristic of this Pre-Raphaelite artist. In April 1900 one of Hunt's late oils was hung next to a painting by Monet at the exhibition of the New English Art Club. The critic of the Daily Telegraph felt that this startling juxtaposition did Hunt no harm: 'We have always looked upon him, in one aspect of his singularly sincere art, as a precursor of the open-air luministes of to-day.'
We are very grateful to Dr Judith Bronkhurst, author of the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Hunt's works, for writing this catalogue entry.