[ilds] Durrell & Holman Hunt

slighcl slighcl at wfu.edu
Mon Dec 24 09:04:10 PST 2007

See below for a surprising reference to Durrell's /Pied Piper of Lovers/. 



Monday, December 24, 2007

    The Light fantastic

Loved but neglected painting of Jesus became a touchstone of mass culture

*Robert Fulford,  National Post  *Published: Monday, December 24, 2007

Nathan Denette/National Post

A century ago The Light of the World, a painting of Jesus Christ by 
Holman Hunt, was the most popular picture in the British Empire. Hunt's 
reputation has more or less disappeared but his best-known work still 
evokes another age, when a single image could touch masses of people.

The last time I thought much about The Light of the World was in the 
1950s when an evangelical Christian I worked with told me it was the 
greatest picture ever painted. He felt that as an art critic I should 
have this essential information. The subject comes up now because 
Katharine Lochnan, the distinguished curator, is preparing a historical 
show focused on The Light of the World, to appear in early 2009 in Frank 
Gehry's new version of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The Light was the most popular product of the Pre-Raphaelite 
Brotherhood, a movement founded by Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John 
Everett Millais and several others. They wanted to reform art by 
rejecting the mechanistic approach of the Mannerists -- successors to 
Raphael. Hunt began painting The Light of the World in 1851, inspired by 
a passage in Revelations and believing that he was following a divine 
command. Over the years he produced three versions; the first is now at 
Keeble College, Oxford, the second in the Manchester Art Gallery, the 
third in St. Paul's Cathedral.

All of them show Christ bringing salvation to a broken world by knocking 
on the door of a house that's been neglected. In his hand he holds a 
lamp, symbolizing revelation. The door stands for the closed conscience 
of the world and untended plants represent chaos.

A strange light, possibly celestial, fills most of the picture. Hunt 
worked on it at night, sometimes by moonlight. Though he wanted to 
create up-to-date Christian art, he dressed Jesus in a golden 
ecclesiastical robe. That may be one reason Protestants criticized the 
picture as too Catholic. John Ruskin, the most eminent art critic of the 
age, defended Hunt's symbolism.

Engraving, the mass visual medium of the age, carried the image to a 
large audience. In 1860, when a black and white engraving of the picture 
first appeared, the Illustrated London News called it "one of the most 
perfect things modern art has produced." It was widely copied, and soon 
the image was in thousands of homes and churches across Britain.

Working its way into the public subconscious, Hunt's version of Jesus 
became the English equivalent of a Russian icon. It inspired a multitude 
of poems and became the subject of an endless stream of hymns.

For Protestants in several countries, it was inescapable. Placed in 
nurseries, it was often the first art in the life of a child.

In 1905 the third version, on which Hunt needed assistance because he 
was losing his sight, set off on a Commonwealth tour, beginning with 
Halifax. Usually it was shown all by itself, with no other pictures to 
detract from its majesty. Halifax showed it at the Masonic Hall, Ottawa 
at the Goldsmiths' Hall on Sparks Street. In Toronto it was given a room 
of its own in the Ontario Society of Artists gallery on King Street. 
There (according to Jeremy Maas's book, Holman Hunt and 'The light of 
the world,' published in 1984) it "was draped with crimson, and a strong 
light was thrown on it, while the rest of the room was plunged into 
semi-darkness." That was typical: A visit by this painting was as much a 
religious as an artistic event.

Eastern Canada was not quite as excited as Hunt's admirers might have 
desired, although some Christians were deeply impressed. Nine years 
later, when the huge Timothy Eaton Memorial Church was built in Toronto, 
one of its stained-glass windows reproduced The Light of the World, with 
spotlights outside the church placed to emphasize the lantern in 
Christ's hand. Churches across Canada used the same image.

As it turned out, Australians loved it best. According to the people 
running the tour, it was viewed by four-fifths of Australia's five 
million residents. In Melbourne in 1906 visitors stampeded, anxious to 
see it the moment it was open to the public. But if the crowd was rowdy 
at first, Maas writes, soon "an air of reverential awe descended on the 
gathering." Men removed their hats, voices fell to a whisper. Some 
people stood or sat gazing at it for hours. A few visitors fainted. 
Later it toured South Africa and in 1907 returned in triumph to Britain 
and its final destination, St. Paul's.

The installation in 1908 was celebrated with a special service at which 
the passage from Revelations that inspired Hunt ("Behold, I stand at the 
door, and knock...") was read. Hunt stood before his painting, in tears.

When he died two years later, in September, 1910, The Times suggested 
his remains be interred in St. Paul's. His ashes were carried into the 
cathedral by Hunt's young Canadian friend, Charles Trick Currelly, who 
would later become the great assembler of Chinese art for the Royal 
Ontario Museum in Toronto. They rest now beside those of Christopher 
Wren, Joshua Reynolds and J.M.W. Turner, three great figures whose 
reputations have long outlived Hunt's.

While his reputation as an artist declined, his celebrity status and the 
messages in his work made him a favourite reference point for writers. 
*In Lawrence Durrell's first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, a pious old 
woman hangs Hunt reproductions on her walls. *In Brideshead Revisited, 
Evelyn Waugh refers to Hunt's The Awakening Conscience, in which an 
innocent young woman suddenly leaps up from the lap of her boyfriend 
because she remembers that what she's doing is sinful. Brian Aldiss's 
science-fiction novel Report On Probability A concerns three characters 
who secretly watch a house from separate vantage points while they 
themselves are observed by creatures in another world. They all wonder 
about the picture in the house, Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd, in which a 
shepherd neglects his duty to seduce a maiden. The extraterrestrials 
speculate that perhaps the painting is a form of television depicting a 
world where time has stopped.

Hardly anyone today admires The Light of the World as art but it remains 
a historic moment in mass culture, the beginning of the great age of 
reproduction, the first image that millions of people knew intimately, 
and often loved.

robert.fulford at utoronto.ca

Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
Wake Forest University
slighcl at wfu.edu

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