This recently discovered group portrait is one of the fruits of Holman Hunt's relationship with his first serious patron. Henry Clark (c. 1812-1879). The proprietor of a 'button and trimming warehouse' at 60 Aldermanbury, in the City of London, Clark was a business associate of Hunt's father and a near neighbour at 4 Dyer's Court. According to a typescript account by a descendant, Henry Clark 'took kindly to the young Holman Hunt and helped him. He had the use of one of the rooms at my grandfather's, and grandfather furnished him from time to time with brushes, paints and other materials' (Jeremy Maas, Holman Hunt and the Light of the World, London, 1984, p. 40.)
From about 1843 Henry Clark and his growing family lived at 186 High Street, Homerton. Holman Hunt almost certainly stayed with them there in August 1849, when he was working on the landscape of A Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). About 1844-5, when Hunt was attempting to forge a career as an independent artist, Clark commissioned an oil portrait of himself fishing on the banks of the River Lea (private collection). This was followed by the present group portrait of almost identical dimensions, depicting Clark's mother-in-law, Mrs Davies of Wormbridge Court, Hereford, with some of his children.
In a letter to his early patron of 15 November 1876 (private collection) Hunt dated the group portrait to 'about the year 1846', which suggests that the two children on the right of the composition are Mary Clark, born on 19 November 1839, and her brother John Adolphus, born in 1842. The elder of the babies on the left is almost certainly Francis William, born on 4 July 1845 at Homerton. The sofa on which Mrs Davies sits appears again in a second portrait that Hunt painted of Henry Clark, dated 1846 (private collection), while the portrait of him fishing is partially visible in the top left-hand corner of our picture.
This is Hunt's earliest original depiction of a group in an interior, although he had by this date copied Wilkie's Blind Fiddler and Theodore Lane's Enthusiast (originals in the Tate Gallery; copies untraced). The Enthusiast includes, in the right foreground, a fireplace with an elaborate fender and patterned rug, and may have had some bearing on Hunt's composition. Intimations of the artist's later development can be seen in the exploration of the play of sunlight and shadow and in the strong characterisation of the face of the old lady.
We are grateful to Dr Judith Bronkhurst for her help in preparing of this entry. The picture will be included in her forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of Holman Hunt.