Holman Hunt's Story Paintings Fill Manchester Art Gallery

By Dawn Marshallsay | 14 October 2008
Painting of a woman perched on a man's lap in front of a piano

The Awakening Conscience, 1853. © Tate, London 2008

Review - Dawn Marshallsay visits Manchester Art Gallery and discovers how there's a lot going on in the paintings of master Pre-Raphaelite, Holman Hunt in an exhibition that runs until January 11 2009.

One girl drapes her hair over a pot of basil, a second perches on a man’s lap in front of a piano, while a third lounges in a field of sheep.

These scenes may seem unexceptional until you spot the name tag: Holman Hunt. Every intricate object painted by the one true Pre-Raphaelite plays a vital role in a tale of love, sin and redemption.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1867), The Awakening Conscience (1853) and The Hireling Shepherd (1851) are among 30 works on display in Manchester Art Gallery’s Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision exhibition, which has been organised by the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto and runs until January 11 2009.

This is the first exhibition in over 40 years to focus on Hunt, and the first ever opportunity to see all three versions of Hunt’s The Light of the World together – Hunt’s 1900-04 version became the most viewed painting in the world, after touring in front of 7 million people across the globe.

Painting of a girl sitting in a sheep field with a lamb on her lap and a man leaning over her

The Hireling Shepherd, 1851. © Manchester City Galleries

Each painting tells a story, and part of the fun is trying to decipher the symbolism yourself before looking at the label. While targeted at 19th-century Bible-reading audiences, the paintings also play on the works of Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson.

Isabella, from Keats’ poem of the same name (also known as The Pot of Basil), is actually caressing the pot in which the head of her murdered lover is buried; the mistress in The Awakening Conscience has literally seen the light and seeks to repent after sleeping with a married man; and the third girl has distracted a shepherd (symbolising the Catholic church) from tending to his sheep, letting them fall ill from eating apples and corn.

But even if you are familiar with Bible stories and classic literature, “Hunt liked to reinterpret other people’s work and create his own narratives, often mixing stories together,” says Dr Carole Silver, author of Visions and Revisions in the book of essays accompanying the exhibition, Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision (complied by Katherine Lochnan and Carol Jacobi, 2008).

Arched painting of Christ holding a lantern and knocking on a wooden door covered with brambles

The Light of the World, St Paul's Cathedral version, 1900-04. © Christie's 2008, reproduced with permission of the Dean & Chapter of St Paul's Cathedral

Hunt took tragic circumstances and relationships and infused them with hope, symbolising the forgiveness promised by Christ. Though strong religious symbolism was a main theme of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, it was not until painting his first version The Light of the World (1851-56) that Hunt converted to Christianity, after having a revelation of Christ.

In this painting, Hunt’s depiction of Christ knocking on a door covered with brambles symbolises Christ knocking to enter a sinner’s soul: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” (Revelation 3:20), while the lantern he holds symbolises Christ being the “light of the world” (John 9:5), providing hope in the darkness.

Painting of Jesus' family travelling by donkey, surrounded by flying cherubs

The Triumph of the Innocents, 1883-5. © Tate, London 2008

Merging two concepts again, The Triumph of the Innocents (1883-85) puts hope into the Biblical tale of Herod slaughtering baby Jewish boys, by depicting Jesus’ family fleeing Egypt and witnessing the resurrection of these babies.

“This painting strongly reflects Hunt’s own hopes and fears,” says Carol Jacobi, co-curator of the exhibition. “He was plagued with doubts about Christianity and wondered if his first wife Fanny could really be resurrected in Heaven. One of the cherubs is inspecting his healed wound in disbelief.”

“At the same time, he was anxious about the safety of his second wife and child, who modelled for the painting. This is a rare scene of a happy family, but it failed to make Hunt happy – he thought he would die painting it, and it took 12 years to complete.”

Hunt’s devotion to capturing the truth drove him to paint this scene by moonlight during his trips to the Holy Land. He even tried to recreate the effect of moonlight by inspecting it through a magnifying glass.

Painting of an injured goat stumbling across a barren, salty desert

The Scapegoat, 1854-55. © Manchester City Galleries

This seems mild compared to having to paint with a brush in one hand and a shotgun in the other. Hunt painted The Scapegoat (1854-55) in the most southerly part of the Dead Sea, where savage Bedouin Tribes roamed.

As with many of his paintings, this was a spiritual journey for Hunt. He felt that working in such an inhospitable place would expiate his sins, sympathising with the goat from ancient Jewish texts that was cast out into the desert to die, taking with it all of the Israelites' sins.

“He believed that the scapegoat, as a symbol of forgiveness of sins, was the similarity between Christianity and Judaism, and that it would help them reconcile in Jerusalem,” says Katherine Locnan, from the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Hunt’s passion for creating one true religion caused him to spend six-and-a-half years in the Holy Land (Palestine), in three stages between 1854 and 1878, painting and witnessing archaeologists’ attempts to prove the credibility of the Bible’s stories.

Painting of Christ streching in a carpentry workshop, creating the shadow of a cross, which Mary sees

The Shadow of Death, 1870-73. © Manchester City Galleries

Hunt’s preference for private religion between God and the worshipper is reflected in The Shadow of Death (1870-73), which depicts Jesus as a working carpenter. Disregarding Catholic icon worship, Hunt controversially painted the Virgin Mary’s back, and adorned her with jewellery and muscles.

Drawing on part of the Bible not used today, this painting shows Mary to be staring at a shadow that predicts Jesus’ crucifixion. Up until this point she had thought Jesus would be a king of earthly wealth, rather than spiritual.

Though this painting took four years to produce, rather than 12, “Hunt repainted Christ’s face daily almost, trying to create an effect that was impossible to get,” says Locnan. The Pre-Raphaelite motto of staying true to nature extended beyond Hunt’s botanical subjects – everything had to be perfect.

Painting of a woman in white draping her black hair over a pot of basil

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1867. © Tyne & Wear Museums

As the only Pre-Raphaelite Brother to devote his entire life to minute, stippled brushwork, Hunt’s paintings come to life the closer you get. His attraction to the intricate designs on women’s dresses ran in the family, as his father and grandfather both owned fabric warehouses.

Like the Impressionists, Hunt created strong contrasts between light and dark, which is how he captured the numerous shades of white on Isabella’s nightdress. Applying this technique to the flesh gave every crease and bulge more prominence, explaining why Mary in The Shadow of Death and the cherubs in The Triumph of the Innocents appear so muscular.

Photo of a lantern with arches and shaped piercings

Lantern designed by William Holman Hunt. © Manchester City Galleries

Every object had to be painted from real life, which is why Hunt designed, and had made, the lantern that Jesus holds in The Light of the World. This lantern is on display in the exhibition, along with Hunt’s palette, brushes and spectacles, and maps and notebooks from his travels.

“This exhibition reveals a new Hunt,” says Locnan. The painter seemed to select the most complicated scenes and designs that would keep him occupied for years, giving him more time to think about his faith.

Was Hunt's obsession with The Light of the World a plea for others to hear Christ's knocking, or a reminder to himself to keep opening the door?

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