Painting of the month for December 2014

Our English Coast (Strayed Sheep)

1852. Oil on canvas Tate, London

I took so long to decide what to do this month because I was desperately trying to pick something radically different to my other POTMs (not a Caravaggio or 19th century painting. So I chose a late 19th century painting. But it is different in that it is a pastoral scene. Not only is this a beautiful example of landscape painting, but I think it is also the most exquisite depiction of sheep in the whole of art history.

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) was a rebel. After an initial rejection he was accepted into the Royal Academy of Arts, from which point he decided to go against the evolution of art, specifically the avocations of its founder Sir Joshua Reynolds. In 1848 with fellow students Dante Gabrielle Rossetti and John Everett Millais the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed. The three sought an art that returned to nature and dealt with moral and religious themes. They disregarded the rational and idealised Renaissance style of their peers for a more Medieval observation of truth and subject matter. On the whole, the PRB were not great landscape painters, and it wasn’t often the sole subject of their works. They mainly focused on romantic themes from literature, Arthurian legend or religion. However the background would often be treated with the same level of detail as the subject, think of the clarity and precision in Millais’ Ophelia, with all of the individual flowers on the river bank and the lace of her dress. Here William Holman Hunt has depicted everything almost photographically. John Ruskin, the PRB’s staunch defender, wrote extensive theories for young artists and Hunt was directly influenced by them. In fact Hunt and Ruskin exchanged ideas frequently, although apparently they did not get on very well. In Ruskin’s Modern Painters (1843) he instructs ‘go to Nature in all singleness of heart… having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning, and remember her instructions; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing; believing all things to be right and good, and rejoicing always in the truth.’ Interestingly, he wrote this book in reaction to the bad press of the radical late works of Turner, an artist whose style was visually very different to that of the Pre-Raphaelites. I think this painting of Hunt’s visually embodies Ruskin’s words. It is topographically accurate. In fact the reproduction here falls flat of the stunning splendour of colour and meticulous detail of the painting in the flesh. Compositionally it is quite unusual but it feels natural, as if the artist was walking and stumbled across the scene. It is divided diagonally with a sheep-filled clifftop on one side and an idyllic coastal landscape on the other. I love the light, it is so bright and warm, the perfect image of an English Summers day complete with overcast skies. To put it inarticulately, you can see the air. That clean and pure kind only found near the sea which leaves you feeling renewed. The grass on the hillside and horizon is a wonderfully vibrant green, textured with trodden paths, craggy rocks and shadowed by the trees above. It is a picturesque scene of nature. But there is more to this painting than meets the eye.

Originally painted as a version of Hunt’s earlier work The Hireling Shepherd (1851), this painting was intended for the walls of a Naturalist. Perhaps explaining the exclusion of people and the focus on nature. The location is known as Lover’s Seat, a coastal cliff near Hastings. Although one can imagine the artist painting this en plein air, much of the detail was actually painted in Hunt’s studio. When it was exhibited in the 1853 Royal Academy exhibition under the original title Our English Coast (Lost Sheep), it did not receive the reception you might expect. It was seen as some as satire, a metaphor for England’s lax defences against foreign invasion, linked through location to the Battle of Hastings and time period to the Crimean war. When the painting was exhibited again in Paris in 1855 Hunt changed the title to Strayed Sheep (the patriotic part was dropped too), to stress the religious rather than political or moral symbolism. We know that Hunt was a deeply religious man, and many of his works are purely religious. But in considering and appreciating this painting, don’t you think the meaning is unnecessary? Standing in front of it does not leave me pondering over hidden symbols or possible translations. Instead I find myself thinking ‘how the hell did Hunt paint this?’ Perhaps a naive reaction, but as someone who has attempted painting myself I cannot help but be overwhelmed by the technical ability of Hunt. The truth to nature from every blade of grass to the light coming through the ears of the sheep is stunning. And it is charged with feeling, rejoicing in the glory of nature. Despite the absence of humans the sheep provide an emotional counterpart to the idyllic beauty of the picture. Some are dangerously close to the precipice, which makes me feel anxious. The eyes of the little white sheep caught amongst the brambles in the foreground plead for help. There are two who are almost embracing on the right, and another pair lay just behind them. Whatever Hunt’s meaning was, the finished product is beautiful, original, and proved that the new generation of English painters were a force to be reckoned with.

"William Holman Hunt - Our English Coasts, 1852 (`Strayed Sheep') - Google Art Project" by William Holman Hunt - _wF_pFx9qFQ8vw at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum Tate Images ( Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -,_1852_(%60Strayed_Sheep%27)_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg#mediaviewer/File:William_Holman_Hunt_-_Our_English_Coasts,_1852_(%60Strayed_Sheep%27)_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg