'My idea in this picture is to make these creatures welcome the dawn, which is slowly creeping over a range of mountains for the most part in shadow, and only the highest peaks being touched by rosy light. The sky, however, is a mass of cirrus clouds high enough to be well coloured by this same light - so making a kind of confusion with the many fluttering bird's wings, surrounding and accompanying the huge wings of the supernatural girl flying towards dawn. Below and beneath all this welcome gaiety and light as though fleeing from them into the darkness that lingers are the winged things of night.' (Beresford, p. 116).
(Letter from E.R. Hughes to Edward Knox, original owner of Wings of the Morning, 24 February 1905, archives, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.)
Wings of the Morning depicts a floating, fair-haired nude, whose joyous arrival heralds the victory of dawn and light over the darkness. As she sweeps across the sky, bringing with her a train of doves and songbirds, she scatters the creatures of the night, including fluttering bats and a solitary owl.
Wings of the Morning has been called ‘an outstanding example of an artist who deserves much more attention than he generally receives.’ Edward Robert Hughes (fig.1) was described in his obituary in the Pall Mall Gazette as ‘one of the very last votaries of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’. The nephew of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes (1832-1915), Hughes grew up to model for Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) and Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) and worked for over 15 years as studio assistant to William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). Yet he was also a successful exhibiting artist in his own right. Hughes made his name initially as a portrait painter and draughtsman, renowned especially for his sensitive and perceptive depictions of children; later, his reputation rested on elaborate, large-scale exhibition watercolours of literary and allegorical subjects. From 1891 he was a regular contributor to the Royal Watercolour Society’s exhibitions in London, and served as its Vice President between 1901 and 1903. A popular figure among his fellow artists, he was remembered after his death in 1914 with a display of 34 works in the Society’s autumn exhibition.
Wings of the Morning is a spectacular example of the major exhibition pieces that Hughes showed at the Royal Watercolour Society between 1902 and 1913. Lyrical or mystical in mood, they typically featured winged or floating figures in glowing skies, often personifying times of day or phases of the moon. Hughes became particularly associated with these allegorical watercolours, which were praised by contemporary critics for their poetic qualities, colour sense and extraordinary technical skill. They were recognised especially for their distinctive blue tonality, with a reviewer in the Daily Graphic in 1912 praising ‘those harmonies of deep, luminous blues of which [Hughes] seems to have the secret.’
The imagery of Wings of the Morning reveals the influence of the second generation of Pre-Raphaelites, most notably Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) and Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), both of whom were well-known to Hughes both socially and professionally. The motif of a floating female figure in a night sky can be linked to compositions such as Burne-Jones’s The Evening Star (1870, private collection), while Hughes’s personification of an abstract concept is also paralleled by the many variations on themes such as Morning, Evening, Night and Sleep in Solomon’s later drawings.
Hughes’s ‘blue phantasies’ were often titled with a quotation or accompanied in the catalogue by a poetic tag. The watercolours do not generally illustrate the literary texts directly but relate to them in a more oblique way through mood, theme or imagery. The title of the present work derives from what Hughes called ‘that beautiful expression in the Psalms’ (139, w. 9-10): ‘If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, And thy right hand shall hold me.’
In its theme and composition, the picture provides a counterpoint to Hughes’s Night with her Train of Stars (fig. 2), painted seven years afterwards, though the latter watercolour is slightly larger and the two were not intended to be seen as pendants. The pair complement one another in tone and mood: while the luminous nude in Wings of the Morning suggests innocence and optimism, the robed figure of Night, although gentle and benign, is more grave, bearing the weight of time and experience.
When Wings of the Morning was shown at the Royal Watercolour Society in spring 1905 it was hung on the end wall of the gallery, a place traditionally reserved for the star pieces in the exhibition. The picture was commended by the reviewer in The Queen for ‘imaginative quality of a high order’, while the Morning Post observed that it ‘claims praise likewise for the skill with which it has been devised. The figure is gracefully drawn and ably modelled.’ Critics were, as ever, particularly struck by Hughes’s mastery of colour, with the Standard remarking on the ‘peaks violet-blue, and grey-blue clouds and a flight of birds – in the rose-grey dawn.’
Wings of the Morning has been requested for loan to a major retrospective, Enchanted Dreams: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Edward Robert Hughes, which will be shown at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery from 17 October 2015 to 14 February 2016. The exhibition will be the first dedicated to Hughes and his work in the century since his death.
We are grateful to Victoria Osborne, Curator (Fine Art) at Birmingham Museums Trust, for providing this catalogue entry.