Artists William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais were the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. Studying at the Royal Academy of Arts, the triumvirate rejected the teachings of founder Sir Joshua Reynolds and sought inspiration from Medieval religious paintings that predated Renaissance Old Master Raphael. The Pre-Raphaelites’ subject matter – the Bible, Arthurian legend, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats – was traditional. Their hyper-realistic technique and passion for painting outdoors, championed by critic John Ruskin, was considered controversial and avant-garde. The Pre-Raphaelites had a profound effect on the later Arts & Crafts and Aesthetic Movements.
Born into a working class London family, Hunt sidestepped a career as an office clerk by applying to the Royal Academy and succeeded on his second application in 1844. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed as a secret society at the home of Millais’ parents in Fitzrovia where Hunt and Rossetti were sharing lodgings. Their first works signed PRB were shown at the Royal Academy in 1849 and not well-received. In 1850 paintings by Millais (Christ in the House of His Parents) and Hunt (A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids) so incensed Charles Dickens that he called them blasphemous and said Millais had made the Holy Family look like ‘alcoholics and slum dwellers’.
The Pre-Raphaelite manifesto was concise: ‘to have genuine ideas to express, to study nature attentively, to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art (and) to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues’. The Brotherhood suffers by comparison with the later and infinitely more popular French Impressionists whose soft-focused, dream-like palette and blurring of detail is the polar opposite to Hunt’s clear, hard colour and stark lighting of minute detail in paintings such as The Hireling Shepherd (1852).
Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853) was one of the defining paintings of the movement. In it his barmaid paramour Annie Miller is depicted as a fallen woman in the arms of her leering lover who, in the moment she is captured, has experienced a crisis of conscience. Hunt was in love with Miller who sat for various artists in the Brotherhood. She was Rossetti’s Helen of Troy. In 1854 when Hunt set off on the first of three prolonged visits to the Holy Land he left a list of the artists that Miller could sit for.
By the time Hunt sailed for the Holy Land, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a formal movement had all but dissolved and only Hunt remained true to its manifesto. He had completed what many consider his masterpiece, The Light of the World, depicting Christ. ‘I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be by Divine command and not simply a good subject’, said Hunt of the painting that now hangs in the chapel of Keble College, Oxford with a life-size version donated to St Paul’s Cathedral.
Hunt’s travels were in part a response to a crisis of religious faith that he thought might be calmed painting the Biblical landscape from life. He was enchanted writing, ‘we pass from century to century, from Abraham to Cambyses, from Heroditus to Jesus Christ, then to Mohammad and so to the Crusaders. There are too such undreamed of scenes as though they did not belong to this world but rather to the moon’. Hunt’s sole completed canvas, painted on the shores of the Dead Sea, was The Scapegoat (1855). Rossetti called it ‘a grand thing but not for the public’. Art dealer Ernst Gambart said ‘I wanted a nice religious picture and he painted me a great goat’.
In 1860 while holidaying in Cornwall and Devon, Hunt encountered writer Caroline Fox who described him 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 to 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, in spite of the strongly marked forehead, to suggest the High Priest of Pre-Raphaelitism’.
Hunt was not a prolific artist; spending weeks if not months on single canvases painting from life on his travels to the Holy Land between the 1850s and his last expedition in 1892. He built a house with a studio in Jerusalem but would bring canvases back to London to continue perfecting the paintings. With Annie Miller a distant memory, Hunt married first Fanny Waugh in 1865 and secondly her sister Edith in 1875. In the last decade of his life, Hunt’s eyesight began to fade and honours began to rain down on the grand old man. In 1905 he was awarded the Order of Merit by King Edward VII and between 1906-7 his work was the subject of one-man shows in London, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. On his death in 1910, William Holman Hunt was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.