[This article originally appeared in The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic Studies. 1 (1987), 59-65.] I am deeply grateful to Mr. J. P. Birch, the great-nephew of the artist, who kindly invited me to inspect the manuscripts he has placed on deposit at the Rylands Library, for his permitting me to publish them. I would also like to thank my good friend the late Frank Taylor, Principal Keeper Emeritus of the Rylands Library, who checked my transcriptions of Seddon's poem.]
According to Allen Staley, Thomas Seddon's Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehosophat was the first — and for along time, the only-- Pre-Raphaelite picture in a public collection. It therefore attracted a degree of attention that otherwise it would hardly have deserved, and in books such as Richard and Samuel Redgraves' Century of Painters of the English School, published in 1866, or Philip Gilbert Hamerton's Life of Turner, published in 1878, it "stood for the movement" (Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, I, 447.). After surveying the artist's brief career, Staley concludes: "Despite disclaimers, and despite the limited and derivative nature of the works themselves, Seddon was the purest Pre-Raphaelite landscape painter" (106), by which I take it he means that Seddon produced the purest (or most extreme) examples of landscape in hard-edge Pre-Raphaelite style characteristic of the early brotherhood.
New manuscript evidence in the form of "Moriah, where God stayed faith's hand upraised," a poem that the artist wrote and planned to append to Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehosophat, suggests that his most famous work exemplifies early Pre-Raphaelitism in a second, equally important sense. This poem shows that while at work on his Jerusalem landscape the artist shared Hunt's conceptions of a Pre-Raphaelite symbolical realism. Like Hunt, Millais, Rossetti, and Collins, Seddon understood early Pre-Raphaelitism as necessarily combining hard-edge style with symbolical programs ultimately based upon biblical typology that generated an integrated or magical realism.
Before examining this manuscript evidence, we shall briefly look at the painter's relationship with Hunt and at his own religious experience of the landscape he painted. Finally, we shall consider several explanations why Seddon did not finally append to Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehosophat this poem that would both have made clear his aesthetic and iconsological program and have aligned his art with that of Hunt. As previous discussions of their relationship have pointed out, Hunt considered Seddon to be a student working more or less under his supervision. A letter now in the John Rylands University Library of Manchester postmarked "Alexandria Jy 12 1854" reveals that Hunt influenced Seddon's religious as well as his artistic beliefs. Indeed, as he wrote his sister Mary in a letter from Jerusalem: "I want to know what you think of Hunt's pictures. He is a thoroughly worthy fellow & in other respects than painting it is a great privilege to have been with him. Tell John it has knocked some of my pooh-poohing skepticism out of me."
For a time Hunt's earnestness seems to have had a great influence on Seddon, affecting both his notions of painting and his reactions to the Bible lands.
Like Hunt, Seddon believed that his visit to the Middle East had provided him with invaluable access to visible truths unavailable to those without first-hand knowledge of the landscape. Experiencing the landscapes that had provided the setting for the events of sacred history itself made that history appear more authentic and more believable. As he wrote from Jerusalem on 10 June 1854, "Besides the beauty of this land, one cannot help feeling that one is treading upon holy ground; and it is impossible to tread the same soil which our Lord trod, and wander over His favourite walks with the apostles, and follow the very road He went from Gethsemane to the Cross, without seriously feeling that it is a solemn reality, and no dream" (Memoir, 85). Like his companion, Seddon accepted that his first-hand encounter with the landscape of Jerusalem and other sacred sites offered both a high artistic opportunity and an equally high artistic duty. Before he arrived in Jerusalem Seddon wrote to his future wife he believed that he must "wield my brush in defence of the holy city from all misrepresentation."
In this same letter he also told her about an encounter with John Keble's Christian Year that reinforced his conceptions of sacred landscape painting: "Last night I was reading in Keble the poem for the Monday before Easter, which I remember was your favourite. Its exquisite verses have inspired me with a great desire to paint the Garden of Gethsemane by moonlight, if it be possible" (Memoir, 70). Seddon refers to "The Monday before Easter," which bears the subtitle "Christ waiting for the Cross." Since this poem from John Keble's extraordinarily popular Christian Year was in his thoughts while he was at work on Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehosophat, it deserves our attention. The sixth and seventh stanzas of Keble's poem simultaneously urge the inestimable value — and yet the intrinsic impossibility — of tracing Christ's presence in the original landscape of Gospel events:
Ye vaulted cells where martyr'd seers of old
Far in the rocky walls of Sion sleep,
Green terraces and arched fountains cold,
Where lies the cypress shade so still and deep,
Dear sacred haunts of glory and of woe,
Help us, one hour, to trace His musings high and low:
One heart-ennobling hour! It may not be:
Th'unearthly thoughts have pass'd from earth away,
And fast as evening sunbeams from the sea
Thy footsteps all in Sion's deep decay
Were blotted from the holy ground: yet dear
Is every stone of hers; For thou wast surely here. (Christian Year, 118)
The succeeding verses tell Christ that if his worshipers could see the "spot within this sacred dale/ That felt Thee kneeling," then they would find all vows easier to keep, and faith easier to sustain. Keble closes the poem with an effective turn, for his speaker at last realizes that such pleas are but mere evasions of our own weakness, mere "self-flattering" dreams. True, we
Miss . . . the light, Gethsemane, that streams
From thy dear name, where in His page of woe
But we who miss the clear light of Bible truth, Keble reminds himself, would also remain unconvinced even had we been present at the Saviour's death: "Who vainly reads it there, in vain had seen Him die."
Keble's conclusion in one sense runs counter to the entire project of Seddon's Jerusalem and the Valley of the Jehosophat --and, for that matter, to all paintings that attempt to stimulate the beholder's religious feelings by providing him with an imaginative experience of the setting of sacred events. Of course, Seddon and any other landscape painter who had visited the Holy Land could reason that Keble's point had been to chasten believers--the poet himself included--who sought to excuse a weak or ineffectual faith. If, however, one had been to the Middle East and actually experienced powerful religious feelings at the sight of its landscapes, then one, in contrast, was bound to use one's pictorial gifts to present these experiences to one's fellow men. The desire to communicate an intensely personal experience of the setting of gospel events compelled the artist's imagination as it also compelled that of Holman Hunt. Therefore, picking those elements from Keble's poem that appealed to him and discarding all others, he simply paid no attention to the poet's concluding rejection of the need for such an imaginativeexperience of landscape.
The artist's description of his first sight of the Holy City on 10 June 1854 effectively communicates the powerful emotions he unexpectedly experienced:
We had been expecting for some time to come in sight of Jerusalem, when all at once, from the top of the hill, it came in view. I do not know how or why — for I hate romance, and always have thought that travellers put themselves into raptures when they came to Jerusalem — but I never was so effected in my life at the sight of any place, and could hardly help bursting into tears. It brought the life and death of Jesus Christ so vividly and really before me, that it almost seemed to destroy the eighteen hundred years which dim its force so much, and make it appear as a story of bygone days; for in a few minutes I should be within the very walls where He endured so much suffering and agony for me: I felt that I stood on holy ground. [Memoir]
Keble's poem provides an insight into the general motivation that informs Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehosophat, but Seddon's own "Moriah" tells us more about both his themes of that specific work and his conception of a typically Pre-Raphaelite symbolic realism — this last something entirely unexpected until the appearance of this manuscript evidence. The poem containing Seddon's symbolic program for his most famous work appears in a letter written to his aunt from Jerusalem during July and August 1854. There he told his aunt, "I very much like the little poem of Fanny's which shews a power that deserves cultivating[.] I suggested her trying her hand at a sonnet or 2 as a good poetic exercise, & want her to try and make one out of the ideas in the lines I enclose to be descriptive of my picture. I have m[ad]e a slight sketch to shew where the different places come." Several pages later Seddon continues his remarks on poetry in a brief postscript: "One of the most perfect sonnets in Eng[li]sh is Milton's on his blindness, indeed all of his." The poem itself appears in a separate enclosure, in which he explains: "I tried to write a sonnet but I found the Rhymes an insuperable objection so I just wrote down the thoughts I wished embodied in a rather crabbed metre, I fear. I intended it to scan like Milton's sonnet barring the Rhyme." Seddon then includes the following sixteen lines, which for the reader's convenience I present in rough original form (left) and in a slightly emended, punctuated version (right):
Moriah where God stayed faith's hand upraised
Over thee Olivet the Saviour daily passed
Moriah, where God stayed faith's hand upraised
Over thee, Olivet, the Saviour daily passed
Some explanatory notes
- child: Genesis 22:2. The child is Isaac, both ancestor and type of Christ.
- mosk-crowned: Mosque-crowned
- temple wail: 2 Chronicles 3:1 identifies Mount Moriah as the site of Solomon's Temple.
- On us & on our children: Matthew 27:25
- you: "You" apparently refers to Olivet, the setting of Christ's agony, and not to the Jews who rejected him.
Moriah appears twice in the Bible, both times in the Old Testament. In Genesis 22:2, God commands Abraham: "Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of." Later in 2 Chronicles 3:1, we are told: "Then Solomon began to build the house of the Lord at Jerusalem on mount Moriah, where the Lord appeared unto David his father, in the place that David had prepared in the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite." As these passages reveal, Moriah was a sacred place where God appeared to men and decisively changed both their lives and the nature of religion by which they worshiped him. Given Seddon's own intense emotional and spiritual experiences of same landscape, the artist may well have made a covert autobiographical statement in choosing this particular scene to paint.
Furthermore, Moriah was a sacred place in which God had brought to pass events that prefigured the coming of Christ: The sacrifice of Isaac, like the temple at Jerusalem, served as a divinely intended type of the Saviour and His dispensation, but in each case, like all such types, the prefiguration falls far short of the high reality, Christ, it anticipates. Indeed, the purpose of a type, as Victorian preachers frequently reminded their congregations, was simultaneouly to figure forth an anticipation of Christ and His coming order and also, by emphasizing a gap between Judaic and Christian dispensations, to present man's obvious need for a saviour.
Seddon, who cites both types, places major emphasis upon the fact that the Jews who thus provided all mankind with a type of Christ rejected him when he appeared and for this reason lost their own temple, which, in any case lost its meaning and function as the setting for animal sacrifice once Christ appeared on earth. Seddon opens his Miltonic imitation with an apostrophe to Moriah itself, which he immediately identifies as the scene of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac at God's command. Seddon mentions both Abraham's faith and the equally important divine act that "stayed faith's hand upraised/ To kill" the ancestor of Jesus. This local instance of Hebrew faith functions to underline the results of the later lack of faith that occurred in this same landscape centuries afterward. When the Jews did not accept Jesus as the Christ, God, says Seddon, punished "Abram's faithless sons" by sweeping them from "the holy ground," and now they wail around Moriah's "mosque-crowned head" and mourn their vanished temple. Leaving "all they can, their bones," on Moriah, they afront its slopes and prove — both demonstrate and test — the curse that Matthew 27:25 says the Jews accepted. When Pilate disclaimed responsibility for Christ's death, "Then answered all the people and said, His blood be on us, and on our children."
This dual emphasis upon the "invoked curse's heavy weight" and the "blood" of Jesus prepares for the poem's concluding presentation of Christ at Gethsemane when He was "Bent by the loathsome weight of all the sin/Of all the world; till every pore dropped blood." Seddon's clumsy Miltonic imitation thus effectively presents the landscape which his painting depicts as one of the centers of sacred history, for this site of Abraham's intended sacrifice of Isaac, God's merciful halting of that sacrifice, and Christ's sacrifice of Himself thus provides a meditation on divine mercy. At the same time, by providing an image of the dispossession of the Jews, the intended epigraph also provides divine warning about those who have spurned God's mercy. Like Keble's poem, in other words, Seddon's concerns those who fail to profit from adequate evidence for accepting Christ. Seddon, who seems to have felt guilty about his own religious failures, may have been attracted to points that had particular bearing upon his own own case.
Awkward and stylistically inept as it obviously is, Seddon's "Moriah, where God stayed faith's hand upraised" has an imaginative power that derives from biblical typology. Whether conceived as a companion-piece to Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehosophat or simply as an epigraph, it uses typology to root a single image in multiple historical times or contexts and thus has the potential to enrich Seddon's painting by endowing it with considerable imaginative power and religious significance. In fact, the poem goes a long way toward making Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehosophat into the embodiment of Hunt's own program for Pre-Raphaelite sacred art. Even without the poem, Seddon's painting answers to Hunt's Ruskinian belief that the artist should go to nature to see for himself, and its careful rendition of topographical detail and avoidance of landscape convention also fulfills some of Hunt's prescriptions for a new sacred art. The poem, however, uses typology to add a poetic and imaginative dimension to what otherwise might seem a dry, scientific record of external phenomena; and finally, also in the manner of Hunt, it blends personal and public themes to make the work a covert autobiography while yet masking that intention from the public.
The Finding of the Saviour inthe Temple by W. Holman Hunt. [Click on thumbnail for larger image and a discussion of the work.]
Why, then, if this draft-poem does all these things did Seddon not finally append it to his painting? Several explanations immediately come to mind, the most obvious of which, perhaps, is that neither the artist nor anyone in his family was able to work his draft-poem into a satisfactory final version. It is also possible that having been inspired to a large extent by Hunt, Seddon was unwilling to anticipate his companion's own planned attempts to implement his program in The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple and The Scapegoat. Another possible explanation lies in the fact that Seddon, who knew that Hunt was dissatisfied with him, rejected his conceptions of art upon his return home to England.
Hunt had a major influence upon Seddon while they were in the Middle East, and this influence clearly appears in the letters the younger artist wrote home, which are remarkable because they so resemble those written by Hunt himself. Like his traveling companion, Seddon found Eygpt a disappointment but was delighted by Jerusalem, and like Hunt, his encounters with the landscapes within which Bible events had taken place produced spiritual experiences so intense that they amounted to religious conversions. Like Hunt, Seddon devoted significant portions to his letters to describing and meditating upon these landscapes, and like his companion, his painting relates importantly to those emotional experiences of landscape. Finally, while painting his major work produced during this stay in the Middle East, he shared Hunt's idea that typological symbolism could enrich the pictorial image. Hunt, we know, also continued to assist Seddon after his return home by completing one of his watercolors, and he also helped in the sale of Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehosophat to benefit the artist's family after his death.
Nonetheless, Hunt never felt particularly close to Seddon, and he did not entirely approve of his work as an artist. Annoyed by what he termed Seddon's "cockneyism" (which included writing on public monuments), Hunt also believed that he refused to make the necessary sacrifice to become a really good painter (See Pre-Raphaelitism, I, 383, and his letter of March 1855 to Dante Gabriel Rossetti).
Hunt's mentions of Thomas Seddon in his memoirs show that he considered him more a student or apprentice than an equal. Accepting the role of teacher and guide, Hunt took that role quite seriously — just as he did everything else that concerned him — and part of his disappointment in Seddon derives from the fact that he believed his friend had shown himself unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to become a first-rate painter. According to Hunt, when Seddon showed him Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehosophat in October 1855 and asked for his criticism, he saw that "It was painted throughout elaborately and delicately, but it was scarcely in the pictorial sense a landscape. Sitting before the spot I pointed out to him how completely the tones and tints failed." Hunt thereupon urged his friend to remain in Jerusalem three more weeks, and Seddon appeared willing to follow his advice, but after the arrival of aletter (apparently from his fiancé in Dinans) he became upset and determined to leave as soon as possible.
Shortly after conferring with Seddon about Jerusalem and the Valley of Jeosophat, Hunt wrote to urge him once again to stay in Jerusalem until hehad completed it. In addition to providing an intimate glance of his work as a teacher, Hunt's undated letter also sets forth his art theory:
I must at once assure you that I don't wish to persuade you to do anything against your will, but as the remarks you made yesterday and previously seem to me difficult to reconcile with a reasonable view of your position, I will ask you to take the short time that remains to examine your plans. You say that you have had to work on each of the previous pictures several weeks after you have had them home. This is true and further also that the work was harmonised and rendered more agreeable to all eyes in each case — and therefore the three or four weeks were well spent, seeing that you had no other means of reconciling their condition. Remember however that away from nature itself this can only be effected by removing or at least confusing features that you have markd down; before nature the simplifying is done by adding — now your pictures hitherto have doubtless been successful to that degree to which they to have pretended have been promising from the fidelity and patience they exhibited and have had other merits, but the course of treatment you have pursued with them must not be any example to you in future. No man improves in any art spontaneously. Each new task must be done with the determination of avoiding the weak points of his last work. Now you say again that your object in returning is of more importance than any picture. It may be regarded so, but then you can not separate them unless you give up your profession.
therwise they are identical as far as I understand: if your object in coming out here was to paint pictures to supply you with means and towards procuring a firmness of position for a certain object, surely it were unwise to sacrifice the strength of your best chance for the sake of a week or two — especially seeing that delay for the opposite case would be for a much more serious time.
As we noticed yesterday the picture has that aspect which cannot fail to attract attention in an Exhibition. In some cases this is an advantage — it mostly however procures the opposition of half the world, and the consequent desire to find faults. The hangers are glad to find any excuse for putting it in a bad light and then such a work finds double enemies.
Hunt's earnest arguments could not sway Seddon, however, and he soon left Jerusalem to see his fiancée. In the final result, neither Hunt nor Brown found Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehosophat satisfactory. Despite Hunt's admission in closing this same letter that "were [he] in love" he "might prefer [to act] without prudence . . . rather than wait patiently," Seddon must have realized that his companion and sometime-teacher was disappointed in him, and whether he resented what one could take to be Hunt's lack of sympathy or simply found that Hunt's methods clearly demanded more time and resources than Seddon had available, he finally did not include the poem that would have so clearly allied and aligned himself and his art with Hunt.
Hunt, William Holman. Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. 2 vols. London: 1905.
Keble, John. The Christian Year: Thoughts in Verse for the Sundays and Holydays throughout the Year. Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1841.
Landow, George P. "William Holman Hunt's 'The Shadow of Death.'" Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 55 (1972): 197--239.
_____. William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979 [Full text].
Memoir and Letters of the Late Thomas Seddon, Artist. ed. John P. Seddon. London: James Nisbet, 1858.
Staley, Alan. The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 19.
Sussman, Herbert L. Fact into Figure: Typology in Carlyle, Ruskin, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio University State Press, 1979.
Last modified 24 July 2001