William Holman Hunt, 1827- 1910

By Aliza Wall

William Holman Hunt,  Isabella and the Pot of Basil,  1868, oil on canvas, 187 x 116 cm, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne.  https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/isabella-and-the-pot-of-basil-36528 .

William Holman Hunt, Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1868, oil on canvas, 187 x 116 cm, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne. https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/isabella-and-the-pot-of-basil-36528.

Few artists contributed so greatly to the enrichment of British art as Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt. Born April 2, 1827 in London, Hunt was initially hindered from the art world by parental disapproval and rejection by the Academy. From 1839 to 1843, he worked as an office clerk, attending drawing classes in the evening. In 1844, after his third attempt, Hunt enrolled in the Royal Academy. His early works, such as Little Nell and Her Grandfather (1845), show little originality, conforming largely to the Academic sensibilities of the time. 

John Ruskin’s Modern Painters proved pivotally import to Hunt, instilling within the young artist a commitment to naturalistic symbolism as means to convey truth. This ideological shift can be seen in Hunt’s 1848 piece, Flight of Madeline and Porphyro during the Drunkenness Attending the Revelry. The painting depicts a scene from John Keats’s poem Eve of St Agnes, in which two young lovers elope against the wishes of their families. Hunt juxtaposes the young, innocent lovers with the debauchery of the other figures, which is emphasized by the spilled wine in the foreground. Although not highly realistic or symbolic regarding his technique, this work indicates Hunt’s early interest in medievalism, naturalism and moral didacticism. Fellow painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti was deeply impressed by the piece, leading to a friendship between the two artists and thus the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. 

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848 by Hunt, Rossetti, and John Evert Millais with the intention of establishing a new kind of art in Britain. The name “Pre-Raphaelite” refers to the artists’ admiration of art before Renaissance artist Raphael; that is, art untouched by the perceived anti-spiritual rationalism of the Renaissance. Although rooted in medieval ideas of truth and spirituality, the group’s painterly techniques and organisation were thoroughly modern. 

Unlike the accepted Academy technique, the Pre-Raphaelites would focus equally on each component of a piece, giving their paintings a sharpness and clarity. The group was also modern in its self-consciousness, writing a manifesto that outlined a commitment to a radical new style. Hunt’s only oil painting inscribed PRB is Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of his Young Brother (1849). The painting epitomizes Pre-Raphaelite style in its quotation of the pietà (a common Medieval motif) and the emphasis on the raised fist of Rienzi, which was meant to represent the higher spiritual purpose of his intended actions. The purity and clarity of the image additionally reflect the Pre-Raphaelite’s technical style.

During the 1850s, Hunt became increasingly interested in the overt expression of Christian ideals. His 1850 piece, A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids combines the medieval elements of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the artist’s growing interest in religious art. The painting depicts a Christian family hiding a priest from the crowd of heathens and Druids outside. The image is saturated with High Anglican imagery: the priest recalls Christ, the child in the loincloth John the Baptist, and the squeezed grapes the Eucharist. Hunt eventually forsook religious imagery for those of sexual morality. 

Just as Hunt’s reputation was secured in England by works like Claudio and Isabella (1850) and The Awakening Conscience (1853)he left England for the Middle East. From 1854 to 1856 Hunt travelled throughout the region, painting various faithful representations of the Holy Land. His most significant painting of the period, The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, was begun in Jerusalem in 1854 and completed in 1860. The piece epitomises Hunt’s devotion to truth in that the figures are modelled on local people and the rituals based upon Hunt’s study of ancient Judaic customs. The Finding was sold in 1860 for a record £5,500, enabling Hunt to experiment with new types of painting like Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1868)the artist’s first life-sized female figure. Isabella’s mourning of her dead lover mirrors Hunt’s own mourning following the death of his wife Fanny.

In 1875, Hunt married Edith Waugh (the sister of his late wife) in Switzerland and subsequently returned to Jerusalem. During this time, he produced only a few major oil paintings. By 1899, Hunt’s eyesight had so deteriorated that he required the help of his assistant, Edward Robert Hughes, to complete his paintings. In 1905, Hunt was awarded the Order of Merit and an honorary Doctor of Civil Law from Oxford University. In the subsequent years, he exhibited a number of one-man shows. Although Hunt’s didacticism was no longer fashionable at the time of his death, he was still greatly loved by the general public, who flocked to his 1910 funeral in London. Throughout his career, Hunt skillfully traversed the dichotomies of the medieval and the modern, the secular and religious, and the avant-garde and the practical. 




Bronkhurst, Judith and Lin Barton. “Hunt, William Holman.” Grove Art Online. September 22, 2015. http://www.oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000039544


Riggs, Terry. “William Holman Hunt.” Tate.March 1998. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/william-holman-hunt-287.


“Were the Pre-Raphaelites Britain’s first modern artists?” Tate. Accessed March 17, 2019. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/p/pre-raphaelite/were-pre-raphaelites-britains-first-modern-artists