Hunt is an artist I’d not heard of, so his show at the Courtauld Institute was an eye opener. Born near Covent Garden in 1790, he was disabled, so unable to do physical work, but fortunately he showed a talent for art so was apprenticed at the age of 14 to John Varley who shared his interest in painting from nature. He obtained the patronage and support of Dr Thomas Monroe, the Duke of Devonshire and The Earl of Essex. He became a member of what became the Old Water Colour Society but his work in the open air was limited so he turned to indoor work, especially humble cottages and barns, with rural characters shown sympathetically. He gave lessons to art critic John Ruskin and inspired the Pre-Raphaelites. His work is also noteworthy as he was unable to stand, so his images are from a low, sitting position.
Like the earlier and more prolific W.H. Pyne, his paintings of ordinary people were warm and sympathetic, though his dependence on aristocrats tended to lead him to feature servants of estates such as gardeners and gamekeepers rather than the working or struggling poor, so he was less radical than many of his peers, and again, his infirmities often led him to depict models rather than real people, but he presents us with fascinating insights into working people of the period.
I especially like his ‘Maid and the Gamekeeper’ of c1825, a relaxed image of a woman plaiting straw, an important means of income for the rural poor, while the gamekeeper relaxes with his gun. Her face is almost photographic, her dress windblown so she seems in motion whereas the man’s is laid back, fascinated by her handiwork.
I also love this ‘Study of a Countryman Reading’. It is an image popular with Victorians, showing the God fearing rural poor, to put the more affluent at ease, but it has a charm to it.
There’s a touch of Che Guevera about this man collecting twigs for brushmaking
And this old man breaking rocks to be granted charity has an unusual dignity to it.
And who can resist a girl sleeping?