The overriding purpose of William Holman Hunt's epic, thousand-page autobiography, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, was to prove that its author — and not Dante Gabriel Rossetti — had been the first, and was now, in 1905, the last 'true' Pre-Raphaelite.. Implicitly, the retrospective exhibition of Hunt's paintings in Manchester the following year offered the ultimate, pictorial proof of the validity of the written claims Hunt made about himself.
Among his assembled works was the last of Hunt's numerous representations of Tennyson's 'The Lady of Shalott'. His lengthy catalogue entry for this painting begins: 'Tennyson, in his poem of "The Lady of Shalott", deals with a romantic story which contains an eternal truth' (I refer to the slightly expanded entry printed in Hunt 1913, vol 2, p. 401) The object of this study is to examine the nature of the relationship between Hunt's three major versions of The Lady of Shalott — made in 1850 (figure 1), 1857 (figure 2), and between 1886 and 1905 (figure 3) — and the image he gradually constructed of himself as the 'true' Pre-Raphaelite; an interpreter of 'eternal truth'.
I shall be arguing that this relationship functions within a complex matrix involving five major factors: first, a series of interactions between literature and the visual arts; second, Hunt's relationship with the ideas and personality of Tennyson; third, his relationship with the critical theories and personality of Ruskin — especially after 1880; fourth, his increasing use of the Victorian iconography of the fallen woman in his representations of the Lady of Shalott; and finally, his conception of religious art and his relationship with the established church.
I begin — in medias res — with the event which proved to be the catalyst in the intensification of Hunt's crusade to establish his credentials as 'true Pre-Raphaelite'; the death of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Since Rossetti's death in 1882, a formidable host of writers had successfully promoted the idea of his pre-eminence in the Pre-Raphaelite movement. [Among the works which promoted the idea of Rossetti's preeminence in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood soon after his death were: his first biography, Thomas Hall Caine's Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London: Stock, 1882) William Sharp's Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Record and a Study (London: Macmillan, 1882; and, Theodore Watts [Dunton's] and F. G. Stephens's obituary, 'Mr Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Athenaeum, no. 2842 (15 April 1882), pp 480-482.] Consequently, Hunt chose as epigraph for his alternative account of the genesis and history of 'Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood' a remark of Theocritus which pithily encapsulated his sense of neglect and isolation: "'I am but a single voice"'. (The most fully documented account of Hunt's attempt, after Rossetti's death, to promote his own image is Jack T. Harris's 'The True Pre-Raphaelite [W.H.H. ]', Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, 6 (1) (1986), pp. 24-33. In a more diffuse manner, the same thesis underlies Anne Clark Amor's recent biography, William Holman Hunt: The True Pre-Raphaelite (London: Constable, 1989).) Hunt's one-man campaign for public recognition began — in the wake of Rossetti's critical apotheosis — in 1886, with a series of articles published in The Contemporary Review, combatively entitled: 'Pre-Raphaelitism: A fight for art'. In one of these pieces he calls himself 'the only Pre-Raphaelite'(Hunt, 1886, p.746), a claim on which he considerably enlarges in Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Herein Hunt recalls that when all his Pre-Raphaelite Brothers had fallen by the wayside, he 'alone still worked on the single principle of Pre-Raphaelitism, which, being the unending study of Nature, is an eternal law...' (Hunt 1905, II, 334) Subsequently, Hunt feels sufficiently confident to tell his readers: 'I think any one who really wishes to know the truth will be satisfied with the evidence I have given...' (Hunt 1905, II, 452)
Not surprisingly in view of such outspoken and dogmatic statements as these,
much modern criticism has engaged with the ideological conditions, strategies
and implications of Hunt's construction of himself as possessor and purveyor
of 'truth'. Establishing the broad context in which Hunt's ideas of 'truth'
can be placed, Laura Marcus points out that in Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite
Brotherhood he assumes the familiar but, by 1905, conspicuously obsolete
role of Victorian 'sage and prophet' (Marcus, 1989, p.18). The work of George
Landow has conclusively demonstrated that Hunt's claims to authority as an artist
blessed with prophetic insight into divine 'truth' depended heavily on the extensive
use of typology in both his painting and his writing. See, for example, George
P. Landow's William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism (1979), and Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows: Biblical
Typology in Victorian Literature Art and Thought (1880).
Contemporary feminist criticism has also been quick to identify and dissect the authoritarian stategies apparent in Hunt's pictorial and written representations of women. Thus Griselda Pollock argues that 'for Hunt ... high art, which has a public and moral function, should clearly handle the pressing issues of sexuality by demonstrating the ideals of manliness and ladyhood and by contextualising the fallen and the weak' (Pollock 1988, p.131). This sort of critical approach is clearly applicable to a painting such as Hunt's Awakening Conscience, but as will be argued [314/315] subsequently, it is also valuable in a discussion of the different orders of authority and truth invoked by Hunt's treatments of The Lady of Shalott.