William Holman Hunt was born in London in 1827. He started off his working life as a clerk but moved away from the life of commerce and studied at the British Museum and National Gallery. He, along with Dante Rossetti and John Millais, all members of the Royal Academy, formed the Pre-Raphelite Movement in 1848. This newly formed group sort to reform art by emphasising the detailed observation of the natural world in a spirit of quasi-religious devotion to the truth. They took on board the spiritual qualities of medieval art in opposition to the rationalism of the Renaissance personified by the likes of Raphael. In 1854 Hunt went to the Holy Land to portray scenes from the life of Christ, aiming to achieve total historical and archaeological truth. He returned to Palestine in 1869 and again in 1873. Hunt died in London in 1910, aged 83.
Today’s painting is Our English Coasts which Hunt painted in 1852 and was commissioned by Charles Maud. This painting, which featured sheep, followed an earlier painting of his which featured sheep in the background and was very well received, The Hireling Shepherds . Hunt used the cliffs of Fairlight, east of Hastings, as the background for this work. As with a lot of Pre-Raphelite work, there is an element of symbolism in their paintings. Art historians believe that the use of the cliffs at Hastings, overlooking the English Channel, symbolised the fear of a possible French invasion of England. The brilliance of the colours Hunt used made it the most remarkable of Hunt’s landscapes.
The painting can be found in the Tate Britain gallery, London.