William Henry Hunt: Country People

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. [inset: The Gardener and The Head Gardener]

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. [inset: The Gamekeeper (c. 1824-25) and The Poacher]

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. [inset: The Kitchen Maid, The Gamekeeper]

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

Bruegel to Freud: Work in Focus

Rachel Sloan, Assistant Curator of Works on Paper

View of the print by Jacques Callot, The Fan, 1619

Jacques Callot, The Fan, 1619

We’re used to thinking of prints as objects to be framed and admired on gallery walls, or kept in a portfolio and perused at leisure. However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Prints have been put to many different, and sometimes surprising, uses over the centuries: they’ve been used as maps, playing cards, and, in the case of this superb etching by Jacques Callot, as fans.

Callot (1592-1635) hailed from Nancy, in eastern France, although he spent the first part of his career in Italy. One of the most accomplished and innovative printmakers of his age, he soon found employment in the Medici court in Florence, where Grand Duke Cosimo II commissioned him to record – and enhance – the extravagant festivals and pageants for which both court and city were renowned.

One of these festivals was a mock battle staged annually on an artificial island in the River Arno by the rival guilds of weavers and dyers. In 1619, Cosimo asked Callot to design a fan to commemorate the event – the etched design would be printed, then cut out and stuck down on board before being distributed to 500 lucky spectators. (A thousand impressions were printed, so a large number of impressions – including this one – were never actually cut out and transformed into fans.)

As is often the case with Callot’s prints, the pleasure is in the details. Hundreds of tiny figures, their elegant costumes meticulously recorded, are massed along the riverbank, and the bridges, the battle itself and the distant city are depicted with exquisite care.

Detail view of Jacques Callot, The Fan, 1619 (banks of the river and bridge)

Jacques Callot, The Fan, 1619 (Detail)

Callot had initially trained as a goldsmith, something which no doubt honed his ability to render figures on a miniature scale – and it’s worth remembering that the two most time-honoured intaglio printmaking techniques, engraving and etching, both evolved from the goldsmith’s craft.

Callot embraced the freedom and ease of the etching technique (drawing a design with a needle on a wax-coated plate is much less laborious than painstakingly incising it) but he didn’t want to give up the elegance and control of the engraved line, which typically swells in the middle and tapers gracefully at each end.

He found the solution in a tool called an échoppe, whose oval head allowed him to achieve the same effect. You can see how skilfully he used the échoppe to achieve the swooping curves that form the borders of the fan.

One of the distinguishing features of many of Callot’s prints is their playfulness, and The Fan is no exception. On the curling scrolls that form the lower border are perched several small figures.

One of them, just right of centre, is glancing back over his shoulder and brandishing a fan. One of Callot’s?

Detail View of Jacques Callot, The Fan, 1619 (man holding a fan)

Jacques Callot, The Fan, 1619 (Detail)


Bruegel to Freud: Prints from The Courtauld Gallery runs 19 June-21 September.