Saturday, September 11, 2010

William Holman Hunt - The Silver Lining

Price Realized £22,705

signed and dated '18 Whh 65' (initials in monogram) (lower right), inscribed 'W Holman Hunt H.Haslam' (on the back-board) and 'Fairlight Down/by W. Holman Hunt' (on a label on the back of the frame)
pencil and watercolour, heightened with bodycolour
5 x 6 7/8 in. (12.7 x 17.5 cm.)

Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, Fourteenth Autumn Exhibition of Modern Pictures, 1884, no. 456, priced at 35 gns.
Whitechapel, St Jude's School-House, Fine Art Loan Exhibition, 1894, no. 189, as A View in Surrey [sic], lent by Henry Haslam. Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, The Art of William Holman Hunt, O.M., D.C.L., 1907, no. 53, as The Silver Lining, lent by Henry Haslam.
Glasgow, Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Pictures and Drawings by W. Holman Hunt, O.M, D.C.L, 1907, no. 21, as The Silver Lining, lent by
Henry Haslam.

According to the inscription on the back, this watercolour was painted at Fairlight, five miles north-east of Hastings on the Sussex coast. This was one of Hunt's favourite painting grounds. He had discovered it in 1852 through his pupil Robert Martineau, whose parents had a house in the area, Fairlight Lodge. In mid-August he joined his friend Edward Lear, who was painting at Clive Vale Farm, between Hastings and Fairlight, and who had recently asked Hunt, his junior by fifteen years, to give him instruction in landscape painting. Hunt's purpose was to paint a newly commissioned picture, Our English Coasts or Strayed Sheep (fig. 1), at a well-known beauty spot overlooking the sea called the Lovers' Seat. A spin-off from the earlier Hireling Shepherd (Manchester), the picture was, like its parent work, replete with religious symbolism. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1853 and two years later at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, where it was admired by no less an authority than Delacroix.

Before he had put the finishing touches to Strayed Sheep in November 1852, Hunt had embarked on another Fairlight subject, Fairlight Downs-Sunlight on the Sea (fig. 2). This hung fire, and was not completed when the artist went to the East in January 1954. It may have been worked on when he was next at Fairlight, in July 1856, recuperating from an attack of fever, but it was not finished until September 1858, when Hunt was once again on the Sussex coast.

Hunt was to return periodically to Fairlight. He was there in 1861, painting The Road over the Downs-Sussex (Bronkhurst no. D212), and our watercolour is dated 1865. Both these later works are taken from high vantage points, a feature emphasised in our drawing by the miniscule figures and animals - a horse and cart, a man with a walking- stick, a flock of sheep - in the foreground. These have something of the 'snapshot' immediacy by which Hunt often sought to convey a heightened sense of reality. One of his favourite ruses was to place the figures or animals close to the edge, as here, or even, as in Strayed Sheep, cut them off partially by the frame. But he was incredibly inventive when it came to visual surprises. One of his cleverest ideas occurs in Fairlight Downs, where a walking-stick is seen hurtling through the air for retrieval by the Martineaus' Newfoundland dog, Caesar.

The title The Silver Lining refers to the cloud formation, the most carefully realised part of the composition. Densely worked in bodycolour, unlike the downs themselves, which are comparatively freely handled in translucent washes, it is clearly the area that engaged Hunt most, and reflects his lifelong interest in meteorological conditions. Time and again he would use his landscapes to capture some quirkily dramatic effect of sunset or moonlight, attempting, as the Art Journal put it in 1870, 'to paint what is unpaintable', and by trying to represent 'a phenomenon in Nature', producing something 'strange and startling' in art. The results often reminded critics of Turner, and it is no accident that one of the most astonishing experiments of this kind, Sunset at Chimalditi (private collection), belonged to Ruskin. He described it to Charles Eliot Norton as 'so true that everybody disbelieves it being true at all', a comment that both echoes his defence of Turner and captures something of Hunt's wilfully eccentric approach. (For a fuller account, see the chapter on Hunt in Allen Staley's book The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape, 1973, re-issued 2001).

The watercolour was still in Hunt's possession when he exhibited it at the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition in 1884, but a decade later, when it appeared at the annual exhibition at Whitechapel, it had been sold to Henry Haslam. Haslam had also lent Hunt's Bride of Bethleham, a painting of 1884 which was sold in these Rooms in 1994, to the same exhibition. He had only just acquired it, and it is possible that he bought The Silver Lining at the same time. It also seems likely that he shared Hunt's interest in the Whitechapel exhibitions, a philanthropic venture designed to bring enlightenment to the poverty- stricken East End of London. Organised by Canon Samuel Barnett, the enterprising Warden of Toynbee Hall, the exhibitions were supported by many artists (Burne-Jones, G.F.Watts and Walter Crane were also regulars contributors), and led to the establishment of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, which still exists today.

We are grateful to Dr Judith Bronkhurst for her help in preparing this entry.

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