“Mr. Holman Hunt: The Flight Into Egypt”

[“Portraits in Words—LVI,” originally published in The Whitehall Review (April 21, 1881): 509-10.]

EXPECTATION and curiosity have been raised to an unwonted pitch in certain circles concerning “The Flight into Egypt,” upon which Mr. Holman Hunt has now been engaged for some years. In truth this much-discussed picture reveals a startlingly original treatment of a well-worn subject.   Now that we have seen it our discretion is severely tried in not being permitted to launch into description forthwith.  But it is the artist more than his art that concerns us here; and we shall allude to the latter only as it is an outcome and necessary corollary of the man himself.  Nothing, indeed, could well be more interesting than to note the family likeness which exists between Mr. Holman Hunt and his pictures. That burning intentness which has graven deep trenches in the ponderous brow; that focussing of all the forces of the intellect to one point which  lights up the  keen,  white-grey  eyes (and beautiful eyes they are,  too),  giving them  an almost  mesmeric quality ;that unflagging, infinite patience in the elaboration of detail, shown  amidst other things, in a certain long-drawn-out conscientiousness of narrative; that strength of purpose which, for tenacity, is the English bulldog’s, whom nothing will make let go his prey once he has got his teeth in it, are such marked characteristics of Mr. Hunt’s personality that, even supposing one had never seen his works, one could not but infer the qualities which would make them most remarkable.

To stand before Mr. Hunt’s striking canvas, with its magnificent background of star-pierced sky and moonlit plain, and hear him explaining its hidden wealth of symbolism, or describing the scenes and circumstances under which it was painted, or the many hindrances and tribulations encountered by him during its progress, is in turn to be thrilled by tales of hair-breadth escapes, or instructed by recondite ethnological speculations, or amused by incidents of Eastern home-life, which, for quaint humour and vivid elaboration of detail, might be the product of some master of fiction.  Each one of his pictures, indeed, serves as a nucleus for an accumulation of romantic adventures not usually associated with the peaceful life of the studios. The Oriental moonlight of this picture is a miracle of art, and could only have been rendered by one who had himself journeyed in remote places beneath The balmy moon of blessed Israel–a moon which seems to flood the deep blue gloom with breadths of quiet light, save where it is trenched on by the effulgency radiated from a supernatural element introduced into the picture. This daring contrast of opposing keys of silvery and golden light looks almost like a challenge to nature. But  Mr. Hunt is  prepared,  if  necessary,  with  a  rationalistic  explanation  of the supernatural phenomenon worthy of a contemporary of M. Rénan.  He has discovered for himself that when the cold rays of the moon are concentrated upon any object through a lens, that object will appear to be under the full effect of sunlight.  If it so pleases us we may assume, therefore, that parts of this picture are illuminated through some body, such as an aqueous cloud, which, by interposing between them and the moon, acts as a focus.  Although we may not trespass on the forbidden ground of description or criticism, we cannot  refrain  from  alluding  to  the  beauty  of design and execution In some of the figures, to the deliciously infantine action of Jesus pushing His little hand under the Virgin’s chin, and to the vigorous drawing of Joseph leading the donkey through a shallow piece of water full of the stars.  This pool, in which some of the reflected stars are broken into luminous spray by the advancing Joseph, is a particularly exquisite bit of colour.  Long ago, during his first stay in the East, Mr. Hunt lost his way on Mount Tabor; hot, thirsty, and worn out with fatigue, he came upon such a pool in the middle of the night;  and, seemingly fathomless, with the stars shining through it, it appeared like a bit of sky drawn down to the earth.  The impression never faded from his mind, and has at last found its adequate rendering in this composition.

Mr. Hunt, as is well known, resides chiefly in Jerusalem, in order to impart that intense fidelity to his biblical pictures for which he has been justly renowned since the exhibition in 1860 of his “Christ in the Temple.”  Indeed, for the last twenty years, since he first began this course of life, his existence has not only been one of hard labour but of great privations and considerable peril.  It is almost pathetic to hear him expatiate on the combination of circumstances which constantly delayed the completion of his “Flight into Egypt.” Thus, the ill-constructed roof of his studio let the wet in one rainy season, doing incalculable damage to his belongings, worst of all to his picture.  For, after bringing it to England, nearly finished, apparently, the previous, wetting caused the canvas to pucker, and the endeavour to remedy this injury gave him not only an additional year and a half’s work, but produced an amount of worry and anxiety which helped to bring on the dangerous fever which prostrated him some time ago.  To find the rain spoiling his work was only one of the many difficulties Mr. Hunt has had to cope with. Another problem now was to get models, for the ignorant and semi-barbarous inhabitants of the Turkish dominions dread nothing more than having their likeness taken.

“I was  not  a   little   puzzled   as   to  the  cause   of  this   strange aversion,” said Mr. Hunt; and one day, after being again disappointed of a model, I asked a venerable Mahomedan the reason of it, and learned that for a man to sit for his picture was tantamount to selling his soul.  ‘You see,’ said he, ‘on the Day of Judgment, when we appear before the recording angel, our names will all be called out in turn; but, of course, there will be such a vast amount of work that confusion must arise; then, might not my effigy get to the gates of Paradise before I did? and, on the angel’s calling out, “Mustapha, thou mayest enter,” my double would slip in in my stead.  What would follow ?  On my arrival the angel, hearing the same name, would say, “Why, Mustapha is within; you cannot enter, too” and, on my remonstrating, he would only reply,  ‘ Too late! too late! you must go hence!  you have yourself to blame for the mistake of having your portrait  taken!”’  This notion that part of the essence or life of an object is transferred to its pictorial representation is not only widespread, but extends even to inanimate objects, and was near bringing me into considerable danger once.”

“It’s the same superstition, no doubt, which induced the ancients to burn their enemies in effigy?”

“It happened  during  my first   visit   to  the   East, when I was painting in the background of my ‘Scapegoat,’ on the shore of the Dead Sea, about fifteen miles from Jerusalem. While painting in the salt-incrusted foreground, with no one but my servant Solomon in attendance, a party of fierce-looking Arabs emerged from a defile and halted at a little distance, examining my work with suspicious eyes, and eagerly talking and gesticulating among themselves.  Their looks and demeanour were ominous, but it seemed best to go on painting unconcernedly.  After much discussion they united in some decision, and at last rode off, to my intense relief.  I then learnt from my servant that they were acquainted with the stories of the destruction of the Cities of the Plain, whose ruins lay beneath the salt waters; that they looked upon me as a conjuror whose sole object in transferring this scene to his canvas was to lay hold of the buried treasures of Sodom and Gomorrah; which, when the spell was complete, I should easily effect by pronouncing the proper magical formula.  But was it complete ? That was the subject of this eager consultation. To kill me and carry off the results of my supposed transmutation of matter was a mere question of expediency.  In answer to their greedy questionings, the cunning Solomon told them that it would require another fortnight for the spell to take effect; whereas he knew quite well that three or four days more would suffice me. So, intending to return when I should have finally secured the long-buried treasure, they considerately spared my life for the present.”

“When you painted the goat in that picture which was so near costing you your life, how did you manage to get its extraordinary expression of dazed anguish?”

“It was the most difficult thing in the world to procure the kind of white goat I wanted.  When at last I did, and was fairly at work, the poor creature sickened and, in spite of all my care and tendance, died.  The expression of the dying animal was of great use to me, I confess.  I had to send for another white goat to the other side of the Jordan, and after more trouble and more expense got one at last, but after a day or two the attendant came to me, saying: ‘Master, the poor creature is sick; ‘ and my second model passed away from me.”

“The miasma from the Dead  Sea  must have  killed  the  goats; they were not sustained by your enthusiasm for art.”

“So a third animal had to be procured, and that, I am glad to say, survived the perils of the situation, and lived to skip about its native hills.”

“Perish a holocaust  of  goats to  produce  such  a quintessential creature as that in your picture!”

“After all  the  trouble  and  time  and  money ‘The Scapegoat’ had cost me I could not even realise the sums I had spent upon it. The critics said I could not do that sort of subject, and had best go on painting pictures such as the ‘Claudio and Isabella.’ ”

Mr. Hunt spoke feelingly of the hardships and difficulties which had beset him at the beginning of his career, and one could not help contrasting this hard-earned reputation with the easy triumphs of vastly inferior artists.  One can see the traces of an almost consuming passion for his art in Mr. Hunt’s whole person.  He is as zealous an apostle for work as Carlyle was.

“I have always found that people who delayed doing their work till after a certain period did nothing at all,” said he.  “The resolution was gone.  Nothing is more fatal than putting off doing a things till to-morrow.   Who has not known students  at the Academy, for example, young men whom we all expected to do great things some day; but they went on studying, studying; they never put their shoulder to the wheel–perhaps a whole generation went by thus–always expecting something, and their day had passed before they were aware of it ?   Work is the great thing—the man who works is religious; he adds something to the world to make it  better,   richer,  more  complete;   it  is   capital  of   which  the interest must go on increasing incalculably.  What I call ‘work’ is a man giving his whole  soul  to  it,  shirking  not  the meanest duty connected with it.  Thus, an artist should not be above grinding his own colours or doing the more mechanical details which his art brings with it.  To dawdle over your work, to leave little things undone connected with it, or go out of your way to evening parties, and the like, is to be amateurish, and that the artist should avoid above all things.  What a pity it is that we learn everything when it is too late! We learn to live when we have done with life; we learn to educate our children when they are grown up; we earn to paint when our chief work is accomplished; we always feel how much better we could do the thing if only we had the chance of doing it over again.”

Mr. Holman Hunt thus insensibly glided into the subject which is the great hobby of his life, the purity of colours and the villainies of the British artists’ colourman.  The methods advocated by him to secure the former and steer clear of the latter have become familiarised to the public by the lecture he delivered before the Society of Arts a few months ago.  This lecture created no little sensation, for it professed to disclose the seed of corruption which threatens to undermine the subtlest harmonies of the English school of art; a war of colours productive of unspeakable havoc to the canvases of some of the greatest English masters.  As a remedy for this evil Mr. Hunt proposes to found a society or guild in which artists might be brought into direct contact with the chemist? Who prepare their pigments.  In such a society the experience of artists in mixing their colours, gradually acquired in the course of long practice, might be transmitted to a succeeding generation, instead of, as now, being suffered to perish along with them.

Mr. Holman Hunt has been experimenting for years on the chemistry of colours.  He now took me to see his workshop or laboratory.  The walls were hung with slabs of varying size covered with dabs of colour, soft yellow ochres, celestial blues, glowing carmines, some of them given to the artist by missionaries from China and India.  They were in every stage of amalgamation and discoloration.  The floor was covered with all sorts of boxes, bottles, and pails, containing mineral, vegetable, and animal substances; Mr. Hunt, moving about amidst this curious collection, explained their various natures and properties, looking not unlike the magician for which the Arabs had taken him.

He is an excellent and indefatigable talker; and in his soft, fluent monotone will pour forth a continual stream of conversation, which, beginning let us say, with theology, will touch on art, morals, physiology, stock-broking, to be illustrated in turn by the quaintest of stories and anecdotes.  With his sinewy, well-knit figure of middle height, his luxuriant hair and auburn beard, Mr. Holman Hunt still has the appearance of a young man, but of one prematurely worn, as if parched with desert heats and toilsome travels.   Indeed, from the lack of home comfort and luxury in his studio (his costly furniture being mostly stowed away in packing-cases), one can see that he is but a bird of passage here, only appearing in this country at rare intervals, when about to enrich the art-treasures of England with a fresh work of his genius.