Pioneering watercolourist William Henry Hunt was one of the most influential artists of the 19th century. Hunt contributed to the elevation of watercolour painting as a medium as well as being influential in securing the rising respect and popularity for still life painting. His work saw him greatly celebrated in his time, and Hunt became a forerunner to several enduring styles in art history, such as impressionism and the Pre-Raphaelites.
Growing up the son of a tinplate maker, Hunt was hindered in helping his father’s business by a physical disability to his legs. The father agreed, therefore, for his son to pursue the artistic zeal he had always shown, and acquired him an apprenticeship under watercolourist John Varley (1778-1842). During his time with Varley, the young Hunt would often make sketches of the surrounding landscapes, often with his friend and fellow pupil John Linnell (1792-1882). It was perhaps these younger years with Varley that infused Hunt with a love for nature. Varley would often say: ‘go to nature for everything.’
It was through Varley that Hunt was introduced to Doctor Thomas Munro (1759-1833). Monro was a patron to young watercolourists and took many notable aspiring artists under his wing, including J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and Peter de Wint (1784-1849). Hunt was in good company, and alongside the nourishing environment Munro offered him, he also attended lessons at the Royal Academy Schools. He began exhibiting within its hallowed halls in 1807.
The productions of Hunt’s early years were primarily landscapes and architectural drawings. Indeed, by 1815 it seems he had established himself as an artist producing these types of work. There is a vibrancy of colour in these early works which would become a staple of Hunt’s oeuvre as his career progressed. The dining room at the Earl of Essex’s residence of Cassiobury House is drenched in glorious emerald wallpaper. Gold glints with unnerving realism from the luxurious furniture and decoration.
Indeed, the Earl of Essex would become an important early patron for Hunt’s art, as would the Duke of Devonshire. As Hunt’s career progressed and he became more renowned, they would also become figures of jealousy for others. Novelist William Makepeace Thackeray would comment that if he were the Duke of Devonshire, he would hang ‘a couple of Hunts in every room in all my houses’!
As Hunt began to establish himself, his interest shifted. He had been working in both oil and watercolours, however, by the 1820s he began to work almost exclusively in watercolour. He drifted, too, from the Royal Academy, becoming an Associate of the Society of Painters in Watercolours. Established in 1804, the Society had been formed from artists breaking away from the Royal Academy, who they believed did not afford sufficient respect for the medium of water colouring painting. Oil painting was traditionally seen as the ‘highest’ medium.
It was Hunt, and other prominent artists such as J.M.W. Turner, who would elevate the status of watercolour further. With John Varley’s celebration of nature instilled in his mind, Hunt began to produce still life paintings focussing on the minutiae of the natural world around him. That Hunt was made a full member of the Society for Painters in Watercolour only two years after becoming an associate is an indication of the influence and renown he was beginning to garner.
These still life scenes of hedgerow plants and lush fruit were instilled with the vibrancy his earlier work had shown, yet elevated Hunt’s strong use of colour even further. ‘Colour as brilliant as the pigments employed could render them,’ The Art Journal would celebrate. Indeed, pigmentation was key to the process Hunt employed. Instead of applying his colours with a wash of water, Hunt formulated a process which saw him lay down a white base of gouache, overtop of which he would stipple layer and layer of pure, coloured pigment. ‘Colour over colour,’ the artist would say. The effect was to create a glorious pigmentation not yet seen in watercolour. Combined with a sharp realism, fruit appears so fresh, one feels compelled to reach out to take a bite.
Hunt’s still life paintings could ‘rival nature herself,’ fellow watercolourists would conclude. Hunt was very much part of a move towards nature as the greatest mentor an art student could hope to learn from that was occurring in the 19th century. Hunt himself would say: ‘you will find drawing, expression, colour, and light and shade, all of the most perfect kind,’ in the study of nature. Indeed, the processes through which Hunt achieved his depictions of nature would inspire the later pupils of nature. It's argued that his stippled technique indirectly influenced the post-impressionists, such as Jean Seurat (1851-1891) and Paul Signac (1863-1935). He was a forerunner, a pivotal painter in the turn towards nature as well as the development in watercolour.
Still life, too, saw an elevation under his hand. Typically regarded as the lowest genre of art, it was the work of Hunt and others that would garner it an increasing respect both in the art world and amongst the public. Hunt saw many buyers among the middle classes. With the breaking down of the old traditional hierarchies and the growing celebration of nature, Hunt’s works seem to represent a convergence of some of the key art developments of the 19th century.
Whilst his still life paintings are his most enduring legacy, Hunt would also produce a number of successful genre scenes during his career. These images focussed on subjects of a more rural, rustic life, often posed in cottages or farmhouses. Injected with Hunt’s typical realism and strong colourisation, they are executed with varying levels of humour or gravitas.
The boy model John Swain is a common feature of these scenes and subject paintings. Used frequently by Hunt, he embodies a cheeky child caught up in all kinds of mischief. A pair of paintings depicting the boy before and after he has devoured a large pie were of great delight to the public. William Makepeace Thackeray called them ‘grand, good-humoured pictures’ on par with the satirical workings of William Hogarth (1697-1743).
The influential art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) was not as keen on these humorous images. He was, however, a great admirer of Hunt’s more grounded, reflective works. The child who has tugged on his father’s boots and stands proudly, the leather footwear climbing almost up to his thighs, was a particular favourite. The message it seems to convey about the admiration of a boy for his father, how it seems to represent how the son will take over from the father in the running of their rural life, as simply as the night follows the day, struck Ruskin. Hunt’s work was ‘illustrative of rural life in its vivacity and purity, without the slightest endeavour at idealisation, and still less with any wish either to caricature or deplore its imperfections.’
Each of Hunt’s genre scenes found its own audience, and they were incredibly successful in their own way.
John Ruskin’s admiration of Hunt was not exclusive to his genre scenes. Indeed, the art critic received lessons from the artist for almost a decade. He would also ask for examples of Hunt’s work to use in the drawing lessons he gave at the Working Men’s College and in Oxford. In the many publications Ruskin produced about art, he often recommended Hunt as an example of a great artist.
In his pamphlet ‘Pre-Raphaelitism,’ defending the works of the growing Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Ruskin utilises Hunt’s reputation to defend their work and celebrates his ‘keen eye for truth’ and ‘power so universal.’ Indeed, to the Pre-Raphaelites, Hunt’s painstaking studies of nature and his luminous use of colour were a great inspiration for their glorious coloured and exquisitely detailed depictions of nature.
Upon Hunt’s death in 1864, Ruskin would write to his daughter, Emma, that ‘no one living of your father’s friends will mourn him more deeply than I… It was my pride, that I could recognise his unrivalled powers in art.’
William Henry Hunt’s delicate, exquisite still life paintings might appear simple, gentle beings, yet the power of artistic form and influence they embody is substantial. Hunt led the way for watercolour and for the elevation of still life, becoming an advocate of the naturalism that was taking the art world by storm.
Though greatly celebrated, Hunt never seemed to rest on his laurels. He famously said that ‘it is never late to do better.’ It was this constant challenging of his own artistic abilities, his dynamism and willingness to diversify, that make Hunt one of the key artists of the 19th century.
Born in London, Britain.
Became apprenticed under John Varley.
Exhibited frequently at the Royal Academy.
Began studying at the Royal Academy Schools.
Exhibited frequently at the British Institution.
Became an associate of the Society of Painters in Watercolours.
Became a member of the Society of Painters in Watercolours.
Married Sarah Holloway.
Elected a member of the Royal Academy in Amsterdam, Holland.
Awarded a certificate of merit at the Paris Exhibition Universelle.
Died in London, Britain. Buried in Highgate Cemetery.