Monday, 4 July 2011

The Human Touch

After our previous discussion of Rossetti, I would do well to back away from images of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but I have to say, while looking at the pictures, I gained an opinion of one of the brothers that I didn’t have before.  It’s true that the process of taking photographs didn’t exactly lend itself to showing people at their most relaxed, but look at the following picture.

Now here is a double act I didn’t expect.  It’s like the two old hecklers from the Muppets made flesh.  I love the look on the right-hand gentleman’s face, the crinkle of his eyes as he smiles and his hand on his companion’s arm.

They are John Ruskin and William Holman Hunt.
No, really.

William Holman Hunt is one of those chaps who has a bad reputation.  He’s like the Hemingway of the PRB, all hunting, shooting and tying up goats for fun.  You don’t get landed with nicknames like ‘Maniac’ and ‘Mad’ without people thinking you are a bit of a nutter, helpfully emphasised by Desperate Romantics (I will let it go eventually, I promise).  What I didn’t expect to think about Bill Hunt is that he was, well, nice.  Look at this…
Ahhh, look at the wrinkles, he looks like a smashing chap, and thoroughly human.  If you think about the portraits of Rossetti or Millais at this point then the difference is amazing.

John Everett Millais, too important to look at the camera, apparently.
Gosh, aren’t I grand?  While Rossetti was off getting all the controversy and Millais was off getting all the money, Hunt seems to have pottered on, doing his thing, painting his hyper-coloured paintings until he finally went blind.  I think the most heartbreaking picture I’ve seen of him is the one where he is sat in his home, his eyesight gone.

Not only that, but I also stumbled on this picture of his wife and model Edith Homan Hunt:

Somehow I can’t see any of the other PRB women posing with a cat on their back.  This isn’t a criticism of Lizzie, Jane, Effie or Fanny, but more a comment on how they were perceived by their men and others.  There seems to be a casualness, contrary to how we imagine the Hunt household to be.  Maybe it’s the intensity of his work, maybe it’s his own reputation, but despite his connections and artistic style, Hunt seems relaxed, content even.  Despite the beard entirely obscuring his mouth, I get the impression he is smiling.  Smiling!  Can you imagine?  It’s like he doesn’t take himself seriously…

Oh, for goodness sake, now you’re just being silly.  I expect more from the creator of The Scapegoat.

Compared to Millais at home, the difference in approach is remarkable.  You know what they say about the size of a man's mantlepiece... he must be really important, although I’m not sure how he hangs up his Christmas socking, or maybe he has an underling to stand on.

Bell Scott, Rossetti and Ruskin, just hanging out, having some laughs...

 I know it’s a good few years before, but the awkwardness between Ruskin, Rossetti and Bell Scott is so formal, as if each is considering their own legacy.  The thing that delights me about the pictures of the Hunts is that they are almost timeless. I think a better comparison is Edward Burne-Jones...

Edward Burne-Jones with children
Burne-Jones also broke the golden rule of Victorian photography and appeared at ease, with people he liked.  No cat, however, which is a shame.  I think I was most surprised at Holman Hunt as I assumed he would be formal and serious in his photographs as his art is without compromise.  By contrast, his photographs show a man who appears content, a little playful even.  It strikes me that Millais sought greatness and when he got it he acted the part.  Rossetti is a bit of a tense emotional mess of 'friends' and 'family' and 'persona'.  Holman Hunt did big, intense pictures, but in photos looks relaxed and, well, happy. Fancy that...


  1. What ab original post.I aggree with you.

  2. Another great post! I'm loving your blog and glad I found it! No cats in the photos but there are an awful lot of cartoons drawn by Ned Burne-Jones of himself and cats...apparently he was very fond of them.

  3. I loved this post! It shows just why Hunt is my favourite person out of the pre-raphaelite group, he probably was a 'maniac', but he sure wasn't a diva, unlike Millais. I also love this photo of him with his son, Cyril, as a kid

  4. That is adorable. He had passion, but since when is that a bad thing? He put his passion and violence into his work, which is why his paintings are so powerful. Hurrah for Hunt!

  5. I have only discovered your brilliant blog recently so am steadily working through your "back catalogue". Your comment about Rossetti and Ruskin is funny. I can't imagine that anyone could be at ease when with Ruskin (in those days). Later on when he was an old and broken man, his pomposity and sense of self-importance punctured, I assume he was more human and he and Hunt were able to relax together. I find the facial hair, even by Victorian standards to be shocking (idea for a future blog post?). I'm not sure why beards became so popular after 1850 or so (was it something to do with the Crimean War?). I have to say Hunt, Ruskin etc looked so much better before they started to grow their out of control beardery(?) Even Tennyson transformed himself from a handsome demi-god to a "dirty monk" by growing a beard. Not withstanding your disparaging comments about Millais, I think it is to his credit that he stayed clean-shaven. Tidy face, tidy mind, tidy mantelpiece, tidy paintings, tidy bank balance...

  6. That is a very interesting comment and I have enquired of Mr Walker his opinion of the origins of the Victorian giant beard. It has to be added that when Mr Walker grew a beard earlier in the year, he turned from the demi-god-like Adonis I married into Charles Darwin. It was most disconcerting....


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx