Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The might of genius

William Holman Hunt, one of the most prominent members of the 19th century Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of painters, died a century ago today. His artistic development was much influenced by religion and travelling in the Holy Land. On his first trip there, he kept a journal which, although not published, is sometimes discussed in biographical texts. However, the diary of another painter, Ford Madox Brown, closely associated with the Brotherhood, has been published, and it refers to Hunt, as well as his talent, in glowing terms.

Hunt was born in 1827, in the City of London, his father being warehouseman for a cotton spinning and threadmaking company. As a teenager, he had various clerical jobs around the City, but he was also painting when he could. In 1844, he was given a permit to paint in the National Gallery, which is where he met John Everett Millais, who encouraged him to apply for the Royal Academy Schools, and who became a life-long friend. While at the Royal Academy, Hunt was strongly influenced by the writing of John Ruskin, the art critic.

In 1848, Hunt became friends with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and at the end of August moved out of a studio he shared with his teacher, Ford Madox Brown, to share one with Hunt. By the end of the same year, Rossetti and Hunt with Millais had formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Initially, Hunt’s works did not find favour with the public, but his popularity increased when, in 1854, Ruskin championed a work called The Light of the World. Also in 1854, Hunt left for a long journey to Syria and Palestine in search of accurate topographical and ethnographical material for further religious works. There he painted The Scapegoat, a solitary animal on the shores of the Dead Sea.

In 1865 Hunt married Fanny Waugh, and the following year they left England to go East, but a cholera outbreak led them to settle for a while in Florence, where Fanny gave birth to a son, Cyril Benoni, before dying of a fever. Thereafter, Hunt returned to London, but often travelled to Florence, and took several other extended trips to Jerusasalem, latterly with his second wife, Edith (Fanny’s sister). The Triumph of the Innocents, May Morning on Magdalen Tower, and The Miracle of the Sacred Tower are among the more important of his later works. His eyesight began to fail in the late 1890s, after which he worked more enthusiastically on an autobiography, which was published in 1905. He died on 7 September 1910.

Although Hunt was not a committed diarist, he did write two journals during his journey to the Middle East in the mid-1850s - one about 250 pages long covering much of the year 1855, and the other only about 16 pages while painting The Scapegoat. These are held by The John Rylands University Library in Manchester, and are occasionally quoted in biographical texts about Hunt. Deanna Victoria Mason discusses Hunt’s journals in her PHd thesis for Queen’s University, Ontario, (which is available online) - The Perennial Dramas of the East - Representations of the Middle East in the Writing and Art of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt.

And Liverpool Museum’s website says this about The Scapegoat (held by the Lady Lever Art Gallery): ‘In the Book of Leviticus (which is quoted on the frame) the goat is said to bear the iniquities into a land that was not inhabited. Hunt chose to set his goat in a landscape of quite hideous desolation - it is the shore of the Dead Sea at Osdoom with the mountains of Edom in the distance. In his diary Hunt described this setting as ‘a scene of beautifully arranged horrible wilderness’ and he saw the Dead Sea as a ‘horrible figure of sin’, believing as did many at this time that it was the original site of the city of Sodom.’

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription or library card required) quotes a short extract from Hunt’s diary dated November 1854: ‘I regard my occupation as somewhat akin to that of the priests.’ The Persian Carpet guide has this: ‘On his first visit to Jerusalem, 1854-6, Hunt had rented a house inside the city gates. In his diary writing of 7th April 1855 he wrote about his visit to the Dome of the Rock, and professed himself ‘fairly overwhelmed with the solemn beauty’ of the interior. ‘All is sombre, so that at first one can scarcely make out the design - a circle of graceful pillars supporting the dome and an octagonal space without. The inner circle is shut in with a screen and is entered by ascending two or three steps: here one is shown the extensive surface of the natural rock where Abraham offered Isaac on which the Temple was erected.’

One important source of information about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is The Diary of Ford Madox Brown, edited by Virginia Surtees and first published in 1981 by Yale University Press. Brown is best known for historical/biblical paintings and frescoes, including a series of 12 murals for Manchester Town Hall - see The Diary Junction for a little more information. Here are a few extracts from his diary about Hunt.

31 August 1848
‘Set to work about 12 till 2 & from 3 till 4 at the architecture. Rosetti called with Hunt, a clever young man.’

16 January 1855
‘Yesterday [Thomas] Seddon came back after 20 months of absence, looking thinner & genteeler than ever & in high spirits. I went with him to Kentishtown leaving my work just begun. His pictures are cruelly P.R.B.’d. I was very sorry to see he had made less than no progress. . . Hunt, he tells me, gave him no advice at all, he has been prepossessed against him I fear, it is a great pity. There is no better hearted fellow living nor a truer gentleman.’

15 March 1856
‘Up late, to work about 1 till half past 3 then to see [Alfred] Stevens & Hunt & [Henry] Holliday. Stevens picture a progress evidently. Hunts are without doubt the finest he has done yet. The Christ & Mary in the temple is one of the grandest works of modern times & the lantern maker also is a lovely little work, but ill drawn. Hunt as at last decided against private exhibiting again so that is all knocked at head after so much jaw on his part about it.’

19 May 1856
‘. . . to the R.A. Went over it all, catalogue in hand from No. 1 to the End. Very little good, only 3 historical works & they not good. . . Hunt & Millais unrivalled, except by [James Clarke] Hook how for colour, indescribable charm, is pre-eminent even to hugging him in ones arms. A perfect poem is each of his little pictures. Millais’ look ten times better than in his room owing to contrast with the surrounding badness. Hunts Scape goat requires to be seen to be believed in & only then can it be understood how by the might of genius out of an old goat & some saline incrustations can be made one of the most tragic & impressive works in the annals of art.’

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