Because his unfinished project Christ the Pilot (ca. 1894) has so much to tell us about the painter's aims and attitudes at this point in his career, it provides us with a valuable point of departure. Sometime around the beginning of 1894, Hunt began a triptych that drew its iconology from popular religious imagery rather than from his more usual sources, which included biblical typology, Early Netherlandish painting, Hogarth, and major works of literature. The artist never completed this project, but one of the surviving sketches, which was recently sold at auction, tells us much about Hunt, his career-long experiments with pictorial symbolism, and his conceptions of religious painting appropriate for a modern age.

The catalogue for the Sotheby's Belgravia sale of June 29, 1976 describes Lot 52 as William Holman Hunt's "Christ Crossing the Sea of Galilee, a sketch, canvas laid on panel; 14 1/4 by 25 in; 36 by 63.5cm" , but the accompanying black-and-white reproduction reveals that Hunt's sketch of Christ as the helmsman of a boat containing men, a woman, and children illustrates not the episode from Mark 4:37-41 but rather the conceit commonplace in Evangelical hymns and religious verse of Christ the pilot. Such an identification is supported by a letter of June 25, 1894, now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, which Hunt wrote to G. F. Watts. Hunt wrote "to explain a fact of some importance bearing on your purpose of painting a picture called The Life Boat with our Lord as pilot" [source]. According to Hunt, he had himself begun a similar project at the urging of a London gallery owner:

Some six months since, the Gallery of Sacred Art manager in Bond Street wrote to propose an interview with me about a picture he wished me to paint for him. He bound me to secret as to the exact subject, but I may say that it involved the representation of Christ in spirit at the helm in a boat. As he explained his conception it was preposterously claptrap in character, but he agreed to leave the treatment to me, assuring me at the same time he would pay my price, and from the money placed in trust, he would give me a handsome portion on the commencement of the painting — I therefore went to sea and otherwise studied the subject, making three sketches in oil, a central and two sides.

However, when Hunt submitted his trial sketches, the gallery owner "reverted to his own claptrap conception as preferable" and then went to " another artist who will be more obliging." Hunt then adds that he has put his sketches by for the time being but that he still intended to execute the subject "because of the interest I feel in the invention and incidents I conceived so that these, and the time and money spent on the preparation[,] may not be lost to me." although he ends his letter with the statement that Watts can still paint this subject of Christ the Pilot, Hunt seems to be staking his own claims to it. Nonetheless, in a letter he wrote to Watts on August 20, 1884, he admitted that "the chances are however very great that I shall never do more than complete the sketches. I cannot afford to work altogether regardless of renumeration, and my religious pictures do not please picture buyers — still less the clergy or the church" [Bodleian Library MS Eng lett e. 116]. Unless a completed version of what Hunt in the same letter called "my triptych" turns up, one must conclude that, unlike Watts who painted this subject, he never in fact completed it or the sketches.

As I have argued elsewhere, Hunt had long been attracted to the pictorial theme of the visionary or symbolic boat, which he had employed in both paintings and book illustrations, but the main inspiration of this triptych lay in Evangelical hymnody. One must emphasize that such drawing upon popular imagery in this planned triptych is not only unique in Hunt's career but also represents a selfconscious turning away from the canons of High Art in order to gain a popular audience. Hymns, it is important to note, came quite late to the Church of England — they were not accepted as part of the service until the 1860's — for they were long regarded, particularly by those with High Church sympathies, as subversive Evangelical means of inculcating ultra-Protestant doctrine. The long association of hymns with dissent and with the lower classes meant that in drawing upon such sources, Hunt risked alienating a great many in his intended audience.

The artist's increasing bitterness at his lack of encouragement from the religious establishment accounts for his turning away from usual sources of both patronage and iconology. As the painter himself explained to the Reverend Robert St. John Tyrwhitt, a Ruskinian who advanced Hunt's cause in print, he felt betrayed by such lack of appreciation:

As I talk so openly and am now fast becoming an old man, I will talk "as a fool." Why is [it] that I have been so persistently overlooked all my life by the very people who as Christians should have employed me? I know no other artist who is so outspoken and declared a follower of our Lord as myself. I don't boast of my excellence — only of my earnestness. I from the beginning of my career offended the great influential worldly ones by my refusal to make any compromises and I lost much fortune and much opportunity of showing my full powers to advantage. No one can illustrate Christian history and teaching who does not believe. I was 23 when I began, and — from my poverty — 26 when I finished "The Light of the World" and then in the whole 3s [years] since I have never had an honour, and never a commission offered by the Church, by either of the Universities, or by the City of London in the very heart of which I was born — but in the place of myself who was the very originator of modern Art reform, every first and second hand follower of mine has been sniffed out and honoured.

Hunt frequently felt such bitterness at this period in his career, although he did finally begin to receive official recognition of the sort he had long desired — though never in the form of major commissions. He always found painful the fact that many whom he most wished to include in his audience were hostile to his art. As he told Watts in a letter of June 25, 1894, "I often find myself somewhat lonely in questions concerning religion for the Orthodox people hate my words, as they hate my pictures, and the major part of the reforming world have a stronger disapproval of the point at which I stop" [Bodleian Library MS Eng lett e. 118].

although Hunt finally did not complete his projected painting of Christ the Pilot, his last years as an active painter reveal the same concern with appealing directly to the wider public that marked this planned work. Furthermore, as his remarks to Tyrwhitt reveal, at this period he frequently found himself drawn back to his first successful religious painting — The Light of the World, a painting by which many of the members of Hunt's hoped-for audience knew him. The artist's fascination, even obsession, with his first great popular success left its mark not only in obvious ways, such as his painting the late version that now hangs in St. Paul's Cathedral, but also in the effects it had upon the composition and themes of his later art.

Shadows Cast by the Light of the World: William Holman Hunt's Religious Paintings, 1893-1905

[This article originally appeared in The Art Bulletin, 65 (1983), 471-84.]

  1. Introduction
  2. The Importunate Neighbour
  3. The Miracle of the Holy Fire in the Church of the Sepulchre at Jerusalem
  4. The Beloved
  5. Hunt's Themes of Conversion and Illumination Throughout His Career

Created December 2001

Last modified 8 January 2022