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The Library already holds one of the most important collections of letters and papers of the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). We were therefore delighted to purchase at auction earlier this month an important set of six letters from Hunt to the art critic and historian Frederic George Stephens (1827-1907), a fellow member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The letters were written in 1871-72, while Hunt was staying  in Jerusalem, and they describe in remarkable detail the faltering progress of his major allegorical painting, The Shadow of Death.

Holman Hunt letter

Letter from Holman Hunt to Frederic Stephens, Jerusalem, 11 Nov 1871 (ref. Eng MS 1324 /4).

A flavour of the letters is given in the following passages:

“… the weather has been so very unfavorable that progress with the principal parts which ought to be done first has been impossible – the picture is a very difficult one [.] I never had and never imagined any could be so full of passages in which one’s own choice as to line [,] color [,] light and shade is denied one. The fixed conditions of the subject are so very hampering that it often makes me feel very small and quite disheartens me in fact I have even at times thought of abandoning it altogether as impracticable… I go on thro’ despair as well as hope to bring it to an end and see what it will be in its finished state.

“I cannot manage to get my work done altho’ I labor to a degree that ought to conquer any difficulty but my progress is always dependant upon the weather and now I have fallen upon evil days when most of all I want a few of the very finest and quietest but after smoking a pipe over my picture and making a great effort to suppress all unreasonable despondency I have recognised the fact that it is really very near to being finished.”

William Holman Hunt, 'The Shadow of Death'

William Holman Hunt’s painting The Shadow of Death held at Manchester Art Gallery. Wikimedia Commons image.

Hunt produced two versions of The Shadow of Death. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ‘The figures of Christ and the Virgin were painted out of doors, the models posing on the roof of Hunt’s house in the Muslim quarter. Two movable huts were constructed in an attempt to regulate the light… This was a heroic but virtually impossible task on such a large canvas and involved Hunt in continual reworking of both versions.’ The paintings were finally completed after Hunt’s return to London in July 1872, and in March 1873 were sold to the dealers Agnews for 10,000 guineas. They are now held at Manchester Art Gallery and Leeds Art Gallery.

As well as interesting art historians, the letters contain Hunt’s observations on wider social and political affairs, including the Franco-Prussian War, and of the approach of the millennium and his doubts that it will usher in an age of peace (how right he was!). He also speaks of the American Civil War, and discusses his reading matter and its shortcomings.

The letters have been allocated the reference English MS 1324, and they are now available for consultation.