Sunday, 1 December 2013

William Holman Hunt and The Victorian Hypocrisy

There is an irony in Victorian culture in that they are famous for both debauchery and a ‘buttoned up’ attitude. Consider the Victorian fascination with scandal in newspapers, including gory details of murders that aren’t necessarily needed. The treatment of women also, that there were strict rules about marriage, divorce and the way they dressed; yet prostitution was a large business.

Dickens' characterization in his writing shows this Victorian hypocrisy. Look at the last frame: does the woman there not resemble a child more than a lady?

It seems to me that the religious, polite Victorian attitude could have been a polar opposite existing to counter this debauchery, or as I’m more inclined to think, it existed to hide it. Of
course, there lived some religious characters not corrupted by debauchery in the period, but they aren’t famous, for the simple reason that they would probably be quite boring. Therefore I will not focus on them. Instead, I want to look at the figure of William Holman Hunt.
Hunt was a painter in the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood. As a bit of a Pre Raphaelite fan girl, I can admit to having several postcards of another of the member’s paintings: Rossetti. But the reason why Hunt is so interesting is because he is sort of the bass player of the band, while Rossetti is the charismatic, attractive lead singer- it was one of his paintings that adorned the official poster of the recent Pre Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate Britain.

I went to this exhibition myself and found the detail of the paintings incredible
Hunt was a devout Protestant who was meticulous and stringent in his paintings, using them to recreate scenes from the Bible and comment on current social issues. I think he is a brilliant example of this coexistence of debauchery and piety in Victorian society because of his temptation into debauchery but attempts to resist and reform himself and society. I will be looking at his painting ‘The Hireling Shepherd’ to show this.


‘The Hireling Shepherd’ depicts a shepherd being distracted by a shepherdess and neglecting his flock. Judith Bronkurst talks about how ‘Shortly after his arrival at Kingston Hunt read [John] Ruskin’s recently published pamphlet, Notes on the Construction of Sheepfolds. This castigated the divisions between Tractarians and Evangelicals [rival Anglican groups] for deflecting the clergy from their real task of combating Romanism [Catholicism]’ and that is what Hunt is representing in this painting with the two characters in the foreground. The woman quite vividly representing the more catholic of the two denominations, through Hunt’s painting her in a red reminiscent of a Cardinal’s robes.
Hunt himself describes the narrative of the painting thus: ‘[h]e [the shepherd] was a type thus of other muddle headed pastors who instead of performing their services to their flock…discuss vain questions… My fool has found a death’s head moth, and this fills his mind with forebodings of evil and he takes it to an equally sage counselor for her opinion. She scorns his anxiety from ignorance rather than profundity, but only the more distracts his faithfulness: while she feeds her lamb with sour apples his sheep have burst bounds and got into the corn.’ So from Hunt’s description the painting has a very serious context; Hunt sounds very angry at the Anglican situation of the time and yet, when one looks at the picture I think they are most drawn to the woman’s face, which is placed almost in its centre. Though her face is supposed to reflect this sinful behaviour of the Tractarians, contemporary viewers and I think, you today, noted before learning the context, the seductive nature of her expression and pose. Then you may understand the bad reception ‘The Hireling Shepherd’ received for being a painting depicting drunken farmers getting a little excited in the fields. Victorian prudishness was prevalent also in the art world and the ‘wildness’ depicted was deemed untasteful. I think it would be ignorant to defend the painting as not sexual at all because I think Hunt may have subconsciously painted it that way after planning it, because of his sitter: Annie Miller. She was a prostitute and Hunt fell in love with her, no doubt tainting his religious convictions along the way, so he decided to educate her into a lady in order for them to be able to have a respectable marriage. This expression is an accurate portrayal of a woman who knows sexual deviancy very well; it’s no wonder the Victorian audience picked up on that, because it’s very realistic. Although, ‘deviancy’ is a deliberately ironic word choice, since prostitution was a wide spread business of the era: the painting’s reception only emphasizes the hypocrisy of Victorian culture. It actually being about something serious, but the attention is turned towards its ‘untasteful’ features which viewers apparently didn’t want to see, when they themselves probably witnessed its existence in the everyday.

Hunt being the religious man he was and a keen realistic painter, went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to create more biblical pieces with accurate backgrounds whilst he was engaged to Annie Miller. This appears to me to be similar to the Victorian tendency to try and deny the ‘underworld’ that existed with religious zeal. The engagement however, never reached a marriage and that may have been due to Annie not being used to monogamy or that Hunt was not attracted to upper class women-something which may have been a common problem for Victorian men as the author of ‘My Secret Life’ expresses having a similar predicament. His work from Jerusalem marked a new style for him and was well recieved by Victorian critics, only affirming what I mentioned previously: that the Victorian art world wanted art that reflected the culture they were fabricating of prudishness and religious dedication. This kind of depiction is what the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood were reversing, they considered the pattern sewn by Raphael and popular with the Victorians to be superficial art. Viewers would not be able to relate to a painting of cherubs, but a painting of a kept woman will certainly stir something more in a viewer, because it reflected the underworld of Victorian culture. If such a painting gets a negative reception I believe it only suggests further those critics to be in denial, a part of this Victorian fabrication.   

J.D. Macmillan, “Holman Hunt’s Hireling Shepherd: Some Reflections on a Victorian Pastoral,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 54, no. 2 (June 1972): 188.
Judith Bronkhurst, William Holman Hunt. A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1 (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 148.



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