William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). Our English Coasts, 1852 (Strayed Sheep). Oil paint on canvas. 1853. Support: 432 x 584 mm; frame: 785 x 940 x 85 mm. Tate Gallery, London, ref. no. N05665. Presented by the Art Fund in 1946. Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported). Click on image to enlarge it.
ike The Hireling Shepherd, Hunt's painting of a herd of endangered sheep on a cliff near Hastings combines religious and political satire with an elaborately realistic technique. When exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1853 it bore the title Our English Coasts, 1852, and Stephens suggests that it 'might be taken as a satire on the reported defenceless state of the country against foreign invasion. Some sheep were straying along the high cliffs that stand the southern bulwark of the island.' Considered from this vantage point, the painting either could be mocking those who thought that a country with such bulwarks was defenceless, or, more likely, could be satirizing political and religious leadership which allowed the masses to stray into such danger. Hunt's intense nationalism and his interest in the Artists" Rifleman Corps make the latter political interpretation seem plausible.
A second interpretation, which does not necessarily conflict with the first, derives from the fact that the picture began as a commission from Charles Maude to reproduce the sheep in The Hireling Shepherd, for this origin makes it likely that he was returning to his earlier themes. In this painting the pastors are not simply negligent — they are completely absent, having abandoned their flock to disaster. Parris and Shields interpret the painting rather narrowly in terms of Hunt's supposed fears of Roman Catholic aggression: "The inclusion of the date in the title is important: this, in all its beauty, is an English cliff top as Hunt sees it in 1852, but what of its future? The image is poignant because what it presents is so vulnerable. Ruskin's Protestant white cliffs are unguarded, and behind them the flock is straying" (Parris, 128.). Such an interpretation certainly seems appropriate, if not entirely complete, for the absent pastors who fail to defend the coast against Papal aggression also allow their sheep to wander to their deaths.
Nonetheless, as Stephens also pointed out, Our English Coasts had a
deeper meaning . . . of men, and not of sheep . . . One black mutton had got into trouble and thorns by going over the edge of the cliff, where he stands bewildered and entangled, without effort to free himself; others are following him into difficulty, as men do, blindly; and, as men also do . . . some of the flock [repose] heedlessly in the sun, while the frisky lambs jump over their indolent comrades, all heedless of the mischief before their eyes. [Hunt and His Works, 23].
The fact that Hunt later changed the title of this picture to Strayed Sheep enforcing a wider application, certainly supports his friend's interpretation, which the painter himself presumably approved when Stephens included it in the book he wrote for sale at the time The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple was exhibited. Even if Hunt did not draw upon Ruskin's anti-Catholic warnings for this work, "Notes on the Construction of Sheepfolds" yet provides a likely source for its imagery. In describing the nature of true Christians, Ruskin claims that
of all sheep that are fed on the earth, Christ's Sheep are the most simple . . . always losing themselves; doing little else in this world but lose themselves; never finding themselves; always found by Some One else; getting perpetually into . . . bramble thickets, like to die there, but for their Shepherd, who is for ever finding them and bearing them back, with torn fleeces and eyes full of fear. [Works, 12.534]
If such a Ruskinian passage — or its biblical sources — provided the inspiration for the painting, then it is not a satire on faithless shepherds but a simple emblem of man's needs for Christ. Perhaps it is best to conclude from the work's origin within the context of The Hireling Shepherd and its later change of title, that Hunt first intended it as a satiric emblem, and when its usefulness and topicality faded, he chose to emphasize an implicit, more general significance.
Ruskin, who was in close contact with the artist at the time he wrote The Art of England (1882), took the more general view of the picture, asserting that "in its deeper meaning, it is, actually, the first of Hunt's sacred paintings the first in which, for those who can read, the substance of the conviction and the teaching of his after life is written, though not distinctly told till afterwards in the symbolic picture of ""The Scapegoat"." After making this judgment, Ruskin then quotes Isaiah 43:6 which seems to have inspired Strayed Sheep either directly or indirectly by way, that is, of Ruskin himself: "All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all." [Works, 33.274]
Isaiah, and particularly this section of it, was Hunt's favorite part of the Bible in the 1850s, and he drew upon it for glosses to both The Awakening Conscience and The Scapegoat. Ruskin therefore seems to have seized upon both the picture's meaning and its inspiration.
One problem, of course, is that, other than his suggestive change of title, Hunt gives us no indication as to his intended meaning. When the painting was originally exhibited at the Royal Academy, he did not follow his usual practice of including texts either in the catalogue or on the frame, and some of the reviewers were frankly puzzled. It seems likely, therefore, that his later practice of appending texts directly to his pictures arose in the annoying lack of comprehension encountered by Our English Coasts. He had earlier identified the sources of his literary subjects in the Royal Academy catalogues, but the reception of this picture probably played a part in prompting him to append texts to the frame as well. He realized that he would have to adopt more Hogarthian devices if he were to have better success at communicating his meanings; and when The Light of the World, The Awakening Conscience, and The Scapegoat showed that even such appended texts were insufficient to inform the spectator, he began to accompany his pictures by key-plates, commentaries, and manifestoes.
Last modified 25 December 2021