HUNT (WILLIAM HOLMAN) Six long apparently unpublished autograph letters signed, ABOUT HIS MAJOR PAINTING THE SHADOW OF DEATH, to the painter, art historian and critic [Frederic] Stephens, 1871-1872
Lot 91
Sold for £ 3,250 (US$ 4,305) inc. premium

Lot Details
Six long apparently unpublished autograph letters signed ('W. Holman Hunt' and 'W.H.H.'), ABOUT HIS MAJOR PAINTING THE SHADOW OF DEATH, to the painter, art historian and critic [Frederic] Stephens, a fellow founding-member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, writing from Jerusalem and relating his struggles with the painting, 42 pages closely written, the last sheet in two halves as sent, 8vo, Jerusalem, January 1871 to January 1872


  • The Shadow of Death, one of Hunt's major works, is illustrated in his Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1905, ii. opposite p. 306. It combined symbolic realism with original iconography, reinterpreting the Christian message for the Victorian Age. Hunt went to Palestine to find authentic locations for biblical subjects. In the book he described showing the picture to the Pasha and local people who wanted most insistently to see the back of it - 'we have been here twenty minutes looking at the front of the Messiah and the back of the Sit Miriam; is it not natural that now we should wish to see the face of Sit Miriam and the back of Christ?'

    '...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...I go on thro' despair as well as hope to bring it to an end...A short time since all my labor was nearly brought to an end by a gust of wind which blew down my picture [,] broke my easul [sic] and shattered the framework of my canvas...'

    Hunt deprecates his own talent, commenting on himself in relation to Millais and Rossetti and on Rossetti's talent ('...I hear R is painting a large picture from Dante I am glad of it that we may at last really see what he can is difficult for me ever to think seriously of his position in the profession...his old subject "Lucellus returning to his wife" remains in my a work which might justify great expectations...'); mentions his own painting Isabella, or, the Pot of Basil, [Simeon] Solomon, Phillips, William Michael Rossetti, Thomas Woolner, James Collinson and Thomas Combe; describes Ruskin as a major influence on himself; gives his reactions to some of Stephens's articles, including those touching on his own health; and makes lengthy comments on the Franco-Prussian War, and the dangers for England in possible involvement in it, with long passages about the state of affairs in America and about English imperial and colonial policy including the protection of the Holy Land and relations with Russia. Hunt also gives an account of how the British Museum lost the Moabite Stones (''nothing less than a record of the time of the first victory of the Jews over the Moabites') and his views of Stephens's relations with his mother and on women and life in general, describes aspects of his daily life in Jerusalem including visits to Samuel Bergheim and his experiences in trying to teach his own sister, expatiates on his principles in life, provides details of his reading, and tells Stephens the truth about his relations with [Miss Lydiard] who had been the model for his portrait Bianca, 'one of my best in respect to beauty' (' is the misfortune of a painter that others interpret all admiration to come from the motive which alone moves strongly expressed admiration for her beauty and thus if they see it directed to a woman they immediately go about saying he is furiously in love with her...she really did herself deserve it for a sweeter mass of overcoddled young bodyhood seen by lamp light could not very well be found[.] the fault I made was one that is always leading me astray...I see hundreds of things in London called beautiful rightly and wrongly which always keep on the safe side in this respect...'). Throughout, the letters are replete with introspection and full of personal news and views

    The two versions of The Shadow of Death were sold in 1872 for £11,000. The engraving of it published by Agnews' was their most widely circulated nineteenth-century print. The picture was described in an American periodical as 'probably the most talked about painting in the world'. Ruskin wrote of Hunt on seeing the picture: 'Among the men I know, or have known, he is the One (literal) Christian, of intellectual power. I have known many Christians - many men of capacity: only Hunt who is both, and who is surely endeavouring to repeat to our eyes the things when the eyes were blessed which saw'. The extreme Church party, however, denounced it as blasphemous; in the North 'it was hailed by artisans and other working men as a representation which excited their deepest interest' and they subscribed week by week for the engraving. Hunt commented: 'This was exactly what I most desired, the dutiful humility of Christ's life thus carrying its deepest lesson.' Queen Victoria asked to see the picture at Buckingham Palace and was so moved by it that she asked Hunt to repeat the head for her which she had hung in the Chapel Royal. The Shadow of Death, which with The Triumph of the Innocents took twenty years to complete, is now in the Manchester City Art Gallery. These two pictures confirmed his reputation as the greatest religious painter of the age, joining The Light of the World, as symbols of Victorian religious faith.

    Hunt and Stephens met when they were at the Royal Academy Schools together and both helped to found the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Stephens became the leading art critic for The Athenaeum and championed the paintings of Hunt and Rossetti in the 1860s and 1870s. However, he wrote devastating reviews about Hunt's The Triumph of the Innocents. Hunt never forgave Stephens's statement that he 'was concerned with the development of one idea, to which he has clung...with astonishing tenacity...' See illustration at page 64.
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