Thursday, 20 September 2012

The Caprine Curiosity of the Passionate Pre-Raphaelite

Willie loved Annie but Annie didn’t love Willie.

William Holman Hunt

Willie was William Holman Hunt, the third of the original Pre-Raphaelite triumvirate. Unlike Millais, he struggled to gain entry to the Royal Academy Schools, but his painting The Eve of St Agnes so impressed Rossetti that he sought him out and made friends with him. Just as Rossetti had fallen for the model Elizabeth Siddal, Hunt fell for Annie Miller, another model he first saw working as a barmaid. Although stunningly beautiful, Miller lived in poverty, dressed in rags, her hair was infested with lice, she was totally illiterate and swore like a trooper. In the true spirit of Victorian philanthropy, the Pygmalion Hunt set about ‘bettering’ Miller, buying her clothes and teaching her the alphabet and manners. 

W H Hunt - The Awakening Conscience - 1854

Hunt’s paintings were either didactically moral or overtly religious; an example of the former is The Awakening Conscience, which features Miller. A ‘fallen’ woman realises her mistake and rises from her lover’s lap, her face aglow with the revelation of her folly. The Victorians would have read the painting like a book as every detail indicates the magnitude of her mistake. The furnishing of the room would have been instantly recognizable as that of the vulgar nouveau riche, bought not inherited furniture; everything is flash, cheap and nasty. He is a cad and a bounder of the worst water, with his silly dundreary whiskers, vile stripy trousers and ghastly taste in ornaments. The other details in the painting also speak for themselves – the glove tossed aside, the cat playing with the bird, the clock covered by the dome, the unfinished tapestry - it is all too plain to see what’s been going on, and none of it is good. 

W H Hunt - The Light of the World - 1854

Miller, weirdly, was also the face of Christ in The Light of the World (1854) but Hunt was dissatisfied with his religious works and resolved to travel to the Holy Land, to research the details properly and to use authentic settings. He left a list of artists who Annie would be allowed to sit for; Millais, yes, Rossetti, absolutely not! In the Holy Land, Hunt produced some of the strangest paintings ever made by the Victorians. 

W H Hunt - The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple - 1860

His wonderful The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple is a masterpiece of Orientalism and made Hunt a fortune; he exhibited it in a travelling exhibition in England, selling engravings and explanatory pamphlets, and he sold the original for a mind-numbing £5,000 (a domestic servant earned about £10 per year). 

W H Hunt - The Scapegoat - 1856

But strangest of all is The Scapegoat (1856) which may well be the oddest work of Art ever painted. Hunt travelled to Oosdoom (the site of Sodom) on the shore of the Dead Sea, where in the briny, desolate wasteland he tethered a white goat to a post and proceeded to paint it. When one died, he bought another and carried on. He sat on a travelling stool with brush and palette and with a rifle balanced beneath one arm and a pistol in his belt, as the Latin and Greek churches were at odds as to who should repair the roof of the Holy Sepulchre, an argument which had drawn in the governments of Britain, France, Russia and Turkey and threatened to break out into all out war. And out in the wilds, a mad Englishman was painting a goat, with the purple mountains of Moab in the distance. The subject came from an obscure Judaic practice mentioned in Leviticus 16:21, where a goat is sent out into the wilderness taking with it the sins of the people. 

When he got it home, everyone was flummoxed. His hard-headed dealer, Gambart, asked what it was, and patiently Hunt tried to explain the story of the Scapegoat to the incredulous Frenchman. It was, he said, a story from the Bible, an important book to the English, so Gambart sent for his English wife and her friend, who thought Yes, it was a goat and they asked Hunt when he was going to paint in the rest of the flock. The Art world was equally baffled. The Art Journal thought the work might most usefully hung in the Museum of the Zoological Gardens, the Athenaeum thought the goat was ‘… but a goat’, and the Times deemed it ‘…an excellent portrait of Lord Stratford de Redcliffe.’ 

Back in London in 1856, Hunt was dismayed to find that Annie had been sitting for Rossetti (and maybe more …) and then discovered she was also involved with the notorious womaniser the Seventh Earl of Ranelagh. He proposed to her but then broke off that engagement – Ranelagh urged her to sue for breach of promise. Eventually Annie Miller married Ranelagh’s cousin, Captain Thomas Thomson; she died, aged 90, in 1925. 

W H Hunt - Mrs Fanny Holman Hunt

In 1862, Hunt got married, an occasion that gets one line in his autobiography, “It was at this time that I married Miss Waugh.” Fanny Waugh is a shadowy figure about whom we know next to nothing. Again in his autobiography, Hunt records that his wife was ill when they were travelling in Italy and the next near-mention says, “In September of the next year I returned to England with my motherless child.” And that’s it. No details. No explanation. 

W H Hunt - Isabella, or the Pot of Basil - 1868

She had posed for one of his most beautiful paintings Isabella, or the Pot of Basil. It is the same subject as Millais’s earlier work Lorenzo and Isabella, but later in that story. Taken from the Keats’ poem of the same name, Isabella is the tale of her love for Lorenzo, who is murdered in an honour-killing by her disapproving brothers. Isabella takes her dead lover’s head and hides it in a pot of basil, which she daily waters with her tears. 

And it gets weirder. Hunt’s next act was to marry Edith, the sister of his dead wife, for which they had to travel abroad, as this was an act of incest under English law. This caused the expected ripples in English society, and in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood too, not least because the sculptor Thomas Woolner had loved Fanny from afar and had married a third sister, Alice. Nevertheless, he was appointed to the Order of Merit by Edward VII in 1905, and died five years later, in 1910, aged 83.

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