WILLIAM HOLMAN HUNT: PRE-RAPHAELITE BROTHER AND ARDENT INDIVIDUALIST
In 1886, on the occasion of Holman Hunt's first one-man show, the poet and art critic Cosmo Monkhouse stated that 'Though only a few of [his] pictures seem to me thoroughly successful, yet those few are successful to a degree which is almost unparalleled in modern art. ‘“The Light of the World”, “Isabella and the Basil Pot”, “The Scapegoat” – these three, at least, are pictures of the century, to be mentioned hereafter whenever the history of the art of England is written’.
Although Hunt was born in the reign of George IV and lived long enough to witness the accession of George V, he never produced a large corpus of oil paintings. This was due not only to his meticulous technique but also because, as he wrote to his friend William Bell Scott in 1860, 'I always try to paint everything as unlike to the thing I last painted as possible'. Only 161 oil paintings are recorded, and, of those, over fifty were produced before the establishment of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 (of the remainder, there are very few that are not in, or promised to, public collections).
Hunt is best known today as one of the founders of the PRB and the only one to have remained true to its original principles. No manifesto was issued at the time, but in 1895 William Michael Rossetti, brother of Dante Gabriel and one of the original members, published this statement of its aims: '1, To have genuine ideas to express; 2, to study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them; 3, to sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote; and 4, and most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues'.
There is no doubt that Hunt had genuine ideas to express: of the triumvirate who created the PRB, John Everett Millais (1829-1896) had the greatest technical facility, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) the greatest poetic imagination, and Hunt the most intellectual approach. A caricature of him appeared in Vanity Fair in 1879 with the caption ‘The Pre-Raphaelite of the World’, but this did not mean that his art failed to develop. He was certainly influenced by seeing Old Master painting on a grand scale at the Manchester Art-Treasures Exhibition in 1857, and by the home-grown Aesthetic Movement, which Rossetti launched in 1860 with Bocca Baciata. Five years later Hunt stated that 'The first ambition of the painter . . . should be to give a delightsome aspect to all his representations . . . 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'. For Hunt, this 'love of the object' was based on truth to nature in all its senses: a commitment to naturalism in the portrayal of the external world was accompanied by an intense interest in human psychology, which led to the creation of works suffused with emotion.
Hunt’s interest in psychology stemmed from the beginning of his career, when he took up portraiture while working, from the age of twelve and a half, as a clerk in the City of London. It was only after overcoming strong parental opposition that he was allowed to apply to the Royal Academy Schools, which he entered at the age of seventeen. This background, so unusual for an artist of the period, was responsible for some deep-seated character traits: Hunt's burning ambition to forge a successful career was allied to a temperamental need to take on almost insuperable challenges in an attempt to widen the boundaries of what was conventionally considered permissible in art.
But from the end of 1848 to 1853 Hunt’s individuality contributed to a shared artistic enterprise. The PRB was a movement inspired by literature: in the List of Immortals drawn up by D.G. Rossetti and Hunt just before its foundation, writers far outnumber artists, so it is not surprising that some of the most notable early works produced by Hunt and Millais are inspired by Shakespeare, the Romantic poets and Tennyson. Hunt followed these with modern life subjects such as The Hireling Shepherd, 1851-52 (fig. 4), which brilliantly conveys the heat of a British summer day. It also incorporates, he later revealed, an underlying layer of religious symbolism. Hunt, Millais and Rossetti had pioneered this method of infusing realism with symbolic meaning in the late 1840s. It particularly appealed to Hunt’s intellectual bent and it became more and more important to him after he left England in 1854 to paint in the Near East. His desire to paint in the Holy Land was influenced by his newly found Christian faith, which had been awakened during the painting of The Light of the World, 1851- 53, a work that was to become the most famous religious image of the nineteenth-century.
Several of Hunt's most memorable paintings date from after the period of high Pre-Raphaelitism. These include The Scapegoat, 1854-56, begun at the shores of the Dead Sea, and described by The Spectator in 1886 as 'the most tragical in its beauty, and the most beautiful in its tragedy, of all modern paintings', and Isabella and the Pot of Basil, which the same reviewer deemed, 'most wonderful of all, perhaps in the strength of its conception and its perfect realisation of the subject’.
ISABELLA AND THE POT OF BASIL
Holman Hunt had discovered the works of John Keats very early in his career, before the poet’s reputation was assured, and later recalled that he had found them 'in book-bins labelled "this lot 4d."' In May 1848 he showed an oil painting from Keats’s ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ at the Royal Academy, which attracted the attention of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a fellow Keats enthusiast. Rossetti approached Hunt to congratulate him on this work and they struck up a close friendship. Inspired by his reading of Richard Monckton Milnes’s seminal biography of the poet, which was published that August, Rossetti suggested to his fellow members of the Cyclographic Society - a group of artists that was the precursor of the PRB - a joint project to illustrate Keats's 'Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil' (1820). Millais’s Isabella (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) and Hunt's companion drawing A Mediaeval Warehouse (fig. 5) illustrate the first and third verses of the poem. Hunt's background would have attracted him to the subject of Lorenzo in the warehouse since he too spent his early years working as a clerk. On the other hand, Millais's composition is influenced by art history: there are deliberate echoes of the Last Supper as a way of suggesting the story's tragic outcome. In the painting (fig. 6) worked up from his outline drawing Millais adds a hawk perching on the back of one of Isabella’s brothers' chairs, an allusion to their keen-eyed and rapacious business dealings. Falconry is a medieval blood sport, and in the poem the brothers' prey is Lorenzo, Isabella's lover. The kick the second brother aims at the dog powerfully symbolizes their murderous designs.
It is worth comparing Hunt’s early Pre-Raphaelite treatment of the poem with his later painting as a way of seeing to what extent his art developed. Quite apart from the fact that the spiky outlines of A Mediaeval Warehouse consciously hark back to the early Renaissance, the theme is essentially political, dealing with the relationship between the lowly Lorenzo and his imperious taskmasters. The issue of class antagonism reflects Victorian attitudes to courtship and marriage, but Isabella is relegated to the far left of the drawing and the love between her and Lorenzo is barely evident; one has to look closely to see that they are surreptitiously gazing at each other. Nearly twenty years later Hunt was to illustrate a later stage of the poem, after Isabella’s brothers have murdered Lorenzo and she has disinterred the corpse, decapitated it with the help of her nurse, and buried the head in a pot of basil. Hunt pours all his emotion into the portrayal of Isabella, who now takes centre stage.
And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,
And she forgot the blue above the trees,
And she forgot the dells where waters run,
And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;
She had no knowledge when the day was done,
And the new morn she saw not: but in peace
Hung over her sweet Basil evermore,
And moisten'd it with tears unto the core.
This, the fifty-third verse of John Keats’s poem, was printed on the ticket of admission to the first showing, in 1868, of Hunt’s full-size picture illustrating Keats’s poem (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne). At the same time, Hunt was completing our version, which is one-third the size of the original.
He had returned in 1856 from his first visit to the Middle East with a fair amount of work to do on The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (fig. 7), which was exhibited in 1860 to huge acclaim. Encouraged by this to consolidate his reputation as artist/explorer Hunt was determined to return to the Holy Land after his marriage in December 1865. The following year he set out with his pregnant wife Fanny (née Waugh), but failed to reach his goal, as a cholera epidemic in Marseilles imposed quarantine restrictions on their onward journey to Jerusalem. In September 1866 the couple settled in Florence.
Hunt began soaking up Italian culture and was particularly struck by High Renaissance, as opposed to fourteenth-century pre-Raphaelite, painting. 'The lesson that most forces itself upon one altogether', he declared in a letter of 9 October to his great ally and former PRB F.G. Stephens, 'is that we in England are too careful about prosaic and scientific proprieties in our art'. This certainly sounds like a recantation of Hunt's painstaking dedication to detailed naturalism, which is essentially a method requiring the stamina of youth. He was on the brink of middle age. Moreover, he was well aware that discerning patrons were attracted to Aesthetic and Neo-Classical trends in avant-garde British art and were therefore less likely to buy highly detailed hard-edged Pre-Raphaelite oil paintings.
In the same letter the artist wrote that he was 'making arrangements about a studio . . . At first I confess the necessity seemed to me to be a very hard one, but by good luck I have bethought myself of a delicious subject and this gives me a hope of keeping the sieve from emptying itself'. The 'delicious subject' of Isabella cradling the pot of basil was conceived on a monumental scale, something new for Hunt, who would have seen many sixteenth-century Italian paintings in Florence of a similar size. (At home, such works were associated with up the Neo-Classical school of Frederic Leighton and G.F. Watts.) The acknowledged inspiration was John Keats’s poem, but Hunt also read Keats’s fourteenth-century source, Boccaccio’s Decameron. The setting of the story was well suited to Hunt's residence in Florence, as it enabled him to use Italian models and accessories, such as the inlaid marble floor of Isabella’s chamber.
On 27 October 1866 Fanny (fig. 8) gave birth to a son, Cyril. Isabella's grief at the loss of her lover was soon tragically to reflect Hunt's own feelings, for on 20 December his wife died of miliary fever (a virulent form of tuberculosis). Although the artist derived some consolation from the fact that they had had a most loving marriage, his religious faith was sorely tried. 'The first thing I learn by all this', he confided in Stephens, 'is how mere a thing of the tongue is all the philosophy Christian or otherwise wherewith I had thought myself fortified against any visitation which it might please God to make to me'. His response was to immerse himself in his work, as a letter of 1 February 1867 to his Oxford patron Thomas Combe makes clear: 'I bless God that I am not an idle man for then I don't know how I could bear the weight of my sorrow. Now though all the day long my mind has a burden of grief singing through it I can direct it to work . . . and this with less difficulty because she for whom I suffer sat at my side while I planned the task I am doing, and she expressed her interest in it from the first almost to the last day of her illness. I will not forgo my determination - made when I married - to rouse myself to work better than ever I have yet done'.
It is not certain whether the life-size painting was begun while Hunt’s wife Fanny was still alive: the second of two extant preparatory drawings (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) depicts Isabella sitting on a modern chair embracing a pot plant on an adjacent ledge, with no hint of one of the most striking characteristics of the painting, Hunt’s adoption and subversion of the iconography of a northern Renaissance Annunciation. But whereas in a traditional Annunciation the Virgin's bedchamber is furnished with a prayer desk and missal, here Isabella has turned her room into a secular shrine: the prie-dieu supports a majolica pot decorated with skulls' heads and is partially covered by an altar-cloth embroidered with the name 'Lorenzo'. Isabella's emotional state is further elucidated by the Latin inscription on the border of the altar-cloth, which is taken from the most erotic book of the Old Testament, the Song of Solomon; it includes the statement ‘[love] is strong as death’. The extent to which Hunt empathized with the grieving Isabella is clear once we realize that the very same biblical quotation is carved (in English) on the side of the monument he designed to his late wife, which was on hand while he was working on the picture.
Isabella has just risen from an unmade bed, and by showing her with long flowing black locks, clad in a diaphanous nightgown, Hunt is presenting her as a sensual being quite capable of stealing into Lorenzo's bedroom at night where, in Boccaccio's words, 'they had a most enjoyable time'. Hunt's letter of 12 February 1868 to the artist Henry Wallis makes clear that although his treatment of Isabella owed much to Boccaccio, for reasons of propriety he did not wish to make this known publicly (Isabella is an unmarried young woman living in her brothers’ house, and Hunt’s portrayal did indeed shock his contemporaries). He also felt, as a Pre-Raphaelite painter, that since 'the picture is painted throughout with accessories of the 15th century' he could not acknowledge an early fourteenth-century tale as his source. The frieze of figures playing musical instruments above the open door in the left background is closely based on Luca della Robbia’s sculpted reliefs for his Singing Gallery or Cantoria of 1431-38, which Hunt would have studied in the courtyard of the Muzeo Nationale, Florence. But not all the props are copied from fifteenth-century originals: an anecdote in the Fortnightly Review of June 1868 reveals that he ‘could not find a mayolica vase to his taste. Yet he would not trust himself to a slipshod imagination. He designed a vase, had it cast, painted it himself, obtained a fragment of mayolica to study the glaze, and then painted from the model so created. The skulls' heads decorating the pot remind the spectator of its grisly contents, but red roses, an emblem of love rather than death, rest on its base. This symbiosis of love and death is something we associate with fin-de-siècle European painting, and in this respect Isabella is in the vanguard of contemporary taste.
As early as April 1867 Hunt reported back from Florence that ‘the picture I am now doing seems to promise to be much the best thing I have done’. Perhaps for this reason he decided to make a replica, one-third the size of the original, knowing that its smaller scale would appeal to a different market. The copyist in Florence was one Gallicot, and in November 1867, before the unfinished small version arrived back in England, it was sold, together with the large picture, to the dealer Ernest Gambart, for 1,800 guineas (equivalent to over £1.4 million today). Hunt had returned a month earlier, but once he saw his second version in the cooler light of his Kensington studio he realized that Gallicot’s work was unsatisfactory. He wrote to his artist friend J.W Bunney on 6 January 1868: ‘I am . . . occupying myself with the sketch which gives me an infinity of trouble from the numerous inaccuracies it contains. Not a single point is in the right place - and when I remember how little pain Gallicot took to place himself exactly in face of the point he was copying I can account for many of the faults without becoming reconciled to them'. As was often the case when Hunt employed a copyist to begin a small version of a major painting, he ended up completely reworking it himself. It is likely that at this period the canvas was extended at the lower edge by about 1.3 cm. (1/2 in.) - the original edge cut off part of the foot of the prie-dieu and a sizeable area of the watering-can. The extension of a similar amount to the right edge of the canvas makes our picture into a variant of the life-size painting rather than a replica, with a less claustrophobic atmosphere than the original.
On 20 April 1868 the large painting (fig. 9) was unveiled to the public, and from then onwards Hunt had to complete the small version without using it to copy from. That very day he expected to be working on it in his studio, using a lay figure rather than a live model and 'thinking of the colour of certain draperies'. There are slight differences in the folds of the drapery above Isabella’s right knee in the two pictures, whereas the inlaid decoration of the prie-dieu is markedly different, suggesting perhaps that Hunt worked on this after the large picture left his studio. The finished work is now unequivocally in Hunt’s hand.
Gambart’s purchase of the small version sight unseen seems to have paid off: on 24 October 1871 Samuel P. Avery, a notable American art dealer and one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum, ‘called on Pilgeram’ (Gambart’s successor) and offered £500 for Hunt’s picture. He sold it to the railroad magnate and first president of the museum, John Taylor Johnston, and when it was auctioned at Johnston’s sale in December 1876 the New York Tribune described it as among the dozen or so foreign paintings that were ‘perhaps the most important’ in the collection (another of the works auctioned was Turner’s 1840 Slave Ship). The small Isabella had been included in the Centennial Loan Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, which closed just over five weeks before the sale. Hunt’s reputation in the United States was riding high, and another railroad magnate, John Work Garrett of Baltimore, had to pay $2,650 to secure the picture. It has not been seen in England since 1871.
We are grateful to Judith Bronkhurst for providing this catalogue entry.