Mention William Henry Hunt to most watercolour enthusiasts and you’re likely to hear something along the lines of ‘Oh, the one who did all the birds’ nests.’ Not for nothing was Hunt (1790-1864) nicknamed ‘Bird’s Nest’ Hunt; both during his lifetime and after, he was best known for his luminous, richly detailed still lifes of flowers, feathers and bird’s nests.
However, there’s another side to Hunt’s work, every bit as fascinating, that’s overshadowed by the birds’ nests: a remarkable series of single figure studies of rural labourers produced mostly during the middle of his career, in the 1820s and 1830s. William Henry Hunt: Country People (on view in the Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery until 17 September) sheds light on this important aspect of his work. At the heart of the show are two works in The Courtauld Gallery’s collection, one of them exhibited here for the first time, depicting two gardeners on the estate of Hunt’s patron, the Earl of Essex.
The cast of characters – gardeners, gamekeepers, farmers, millers, kitchen maids and more – might strike us as appealingly nostalgic, capturing a lost golden age. In fact, the English countryside was undergoing tremendous social change while Hunt was painting its denizens, and some of these tensions are apparent in his choice of subject matter. Among the prosperous-looking gamekeepers, we find a poacher – a figure who undermined the age-old order the gamekeeper represented.
Hunt’s portrayals of country people are notable for their sympathetic dignity and their meticulous detail. Many of them come across as portraits of distinct individuals, but in some cases we now know he worked from a costumed model: sometimes the same figure appears in different guises, as in The Kitchen Maid and The Orphan, both modelled by his wife; in another instance, a ‘gamekeeper’s’ incorrect (and dangerous!) hold on a gun reveals that he is more likely a model than the professional of the title.
Whether records of actual rural workers or studies of a posed model, however, all of Hunt’s watercolours suggest a close encounter with his subjects. Disabled from birth and unable to work as freely out of doors as his peers, Hunt made a virtue of necessity by concentrating on figures and still lifes, closely observed in indoor settings. He insisted on working entirely from life and the vivid naturalism of his figures suggests his tireless engagement with the world around him. John Ruskin, a great admirer of Hunt’s work, called his watercolours ‘virtually faultless’. Come to the Drawings Gallery and see for yourself!
By Dr Rachel Sloan