William Holman Hunt. May Morning on Magdalen Tower. 1888-91. Oil on canvas 62 x 80 ½ inches. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

The interest in combining the realistic with the visionary appears again in his two major later works, May Morning on Magdalen Tower and The Lady of Shalott. The first of these pictures, like so many of his works, embodies Hunt" s desire to capture a fact which for him had poetic, imaginative value. The artist had long been interested in recording the Oxford custom of greeting the sun on May Morning with hymns from Magdalen Tower, in part because he believed the ceremony "testifies to a latent but strong racial poetic feeling in the English nature" (This and succeeding remarks by Hunt about his painting are taken from a letter the artist wrote to Barrow Cadbury which is quoted in Bennett, William Holman Hunt, 59-60).

Nonetheless, although he wished to preserve the factual appearance of the celebration, he made no pretensions to creating a completely realistic record of the event. In the first place, he left out the many undergraduates whose "youthful frolic" distracted attention from the ceremony, and he also removed an unsightly rail and added many flowers. His justification for this addition to the ceremony as he had experienced it is quite interesting, because it demonstrates how far from a realistic view of art he had moved: "And as for the abundant flowers, though few are now displayed, Anthony Wood, writing well-nigh three centuries ago, speaks of the service as floral, which is retained in the fact that the choristers, having a holiday on May Day, go into the fields flower collecting."

Two details from May Morning, one, the flowers, an instance of pure realism, the other rendering something imagined the (ancient?) sun worshipper in the same mode.

In other words, to capture the reality of the May Morning celebration, Hunt freely ranged through time, combining his carefully painted portraits and study of morning light with what happened long before. His boldest departure from the prosaically real appears in his inclusion of the Parsee, the Persian sun worshipper, whom he places amid the Oxford celebrants of the ritual. Like the visionary spheres in The Triumph of the Innocents, the Parsee transforms the entire work into a visionary event, for this figure from an alien place and time both prefigures the current Christian ritual and by his presence places it in a wider, more imaginary context.

The Lady of Shalott. c. 1886-1905. Oil on canvas, 74 x 57 ½ inches. Courtesy of the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut. Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection

The Lady of Shalott, an explicitly visionary or mythic painting, again uses Hunt's realistic pictorial style to create an intensely imagined image - the greatest of the many pictorial versions of Tennyson's figure of the artist. This picture reveals that Hunt, having relied upon typological symbolism for three decades to combine realism and iconography, towards the end of his career nevertheless felt free to combine the apparently contradictory modes without any typological justification.

Hercules seizing the golden apples.

Types do appear in both paintings, to be sure, but they no longer convey the main themes. The Parsee, an unorthodox type, and the figure of Hercules, a common prefiguration of Christ, both comment upon the main actions of the pictures in which they appear. They do not, however, serve as the generating force or symbol in these works. William Holman Hunt, who had long sought to find ways to portray reality infused with significance, had become less dependent upon typology in the closing years of his career. Typological prefigurative symbolism had provided him with the basis for the central works of his career, accustoming him to use realistic technique to depict essentially visionary themes, but had allowed him at the end to employ this technique without restriction.

Note: A half dozen year after the publication of this study of Holman Hunt and Pre-Raphaelite iconography, the author organized an international loan exhibition entitled Ladies of Shalott: A Victorian Masterpiece and Its Contexts, which marked the first time the Hartford Athenaeum lent the painting to an exhibition. Links to some of the relevant essays from the exhibition are available can be found at the borrom of the column at left and also linked to the homepage for Tennyson’s poem.

Created 2001; last modified 30 October 2020