Anyone who lives in Oxford will be familiar with the ceremony of May Morning, on the 1st of May, when hundreds of students and citizens from Oxford gather on Magdalen Bridge in the minutes before sunrise. At 6 a.m., shortly after dawn, the bell of Magdalen Tower chimes the hour and the choir of Magdalen College sing the Hymnus Eucharisticus to greet the coming day. It’s a centuries-old practice in which, for a few moments suspended in time, the Christian and the pagan coexist in beautiful harmony: the act of praising the arrival of spring and the rebirth of nature on May Day is a British custom rooted in the pre-Christian past, expressed in Oxford’s May Morning through Christian prayers and hymns. I’ve attended the ceremony twice now — last year and last week — and both times I’ve been haunted by the beauty of it all; the hymn echoes from the battlements over the gathered crowd and melts with the dawn birdsong into the still air and bright sunlight. For a long time I’ve been interested in the rites and rituals of pre-Christian Europe, and there’s something particularly special about Oxford’s tradition which may be Druidic in origin. So I was intrigued to discover that William Holman Hunt had painted his own version of May Morning on Magdalen Tower.
Hunt began the first version of the painting in 1888. On May Day of that year he was present on the Tower to witness the ceremony firsthand, and in the following weeks (as he writes in his memoirs) he ‘mounted the Tower roof about four in the morning with [his] small canvas to watch for the first rays of the rising sun, and to choose the sky which was most suitable for the subject.’ Here, then, Hunt remains ever faithful to the Pre-Raphaelite creed of portraying nature as truthfully as possible. This smaller painting, now in Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, was a preparatory version for the much larger canvas which Hunt worked on at the same time, which is now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool. (Compare the two versions below.)
The large version was first shown in a one-picture exhibition at the Gainsborough Gallery, London, in May 1891. According to the pamphlet which accompanied it, Hunt expressed an interest in painting the May Morning ceremony as early as 1851, during his visits to Oxford. Thus, according to Judith Bronkhurst, May Morning may originally have been conceived as a pendant piece for Hunt’s A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids of 1849-50. The pamphlet also suggests that Hunt considered May Morning a religious work, in its portrayal of ‘a reverent act of worship [that accepts] the sun as a perfect symbol of the creative power’. No doubt the timeless, spiritual atmosphere of the ceremony chimed with his universalist, all-embracing religious sympathies: although the majority of the painting’s figures are clothed in Anglican choir gowns the act of singing to the rising sun is practiced in many world cultures, while the scattered flowers on the roof are a throwback to the venerations of Flora in spring festivals. In keeping with this pantheist ethos, on the far right of the painting is the figure of a Parsee, modelled for by ‘Mr Cama, an Indian merchant’ who apparently wished to be present on the roof. It’s also worth noting that the Indian Institute in Oxford was established five years before in 1883. All the other figures in the picture were painted from life, and Hunt searched the choirs of St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and the Duke of York’s School for models. Yet the boys found posing for Hunt a little tiring, and one boy, named Bramley, complained: ‘I had to stand for an hour on a plank with my mouth wide open.’
This painting is one of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite images — not only because of its connection with Oxford, reawakening memories of previous May Days in the city, but also for its gorgeous colours and abundant floral details. I particularly admire Hunt’s depiction of natural light on a spring morning, with large portions of the canvas filled with pinkish wisps of clouds and the brightening sky. It makes the painting feel airy and open, with glimpses through the battlements of the distant blue horizon to the south which the golden rays of the rising sun are yet to illuminate. Further details of the River Cherwell and, I presume, the greenhouse of the Botanic Gardens, can also be seen through the gaps in the Gothic masonry. The flock of birds flitting joyously overhead echoes the line of young choristers underneath; both the birds and the people are singing their dawn choruses in the fresh light of spring. If online reproductions are anything to go by, the two versions of the painting are different in colouring: the Birmingham version is brighter, paler and more golden; the Liverpool version has deeper contrast and shadows and the light is rosier and more vivid, with a stronger sense of the sun having only just risen. Bronkhurst also notes a difference between the two versions in the bearded figure in the left foreground of Dr Varley Roberts, Organist of Magdalen College. In the Birmingham picture his right hand is raised over his head (see the detail above), but in the main version Hunt corrects this by positioning the hand outstretched at shoulder level, making it clearer that he is conducting the Hymnus Eucharisticus. Apparently, too, the larger version is more accurate as there were only 16 choirboys at Magdalen, and you can count 17 in the preparatory version. Nevertheless, in both paintings Hunt beautifully recreates the mood of reverence and the veneration of nature on May Day. Finally, a note on frames. The Birmingham version is set in a large circular copper frame which Hunt designed. It was executed by John Williams, a member of the Guild of Handicraft, which was founded by the Arts and Crafts designer Charles Robert Ashbee in 1888. Sunbursts radiate from the oblong panel, and on ribbons a quotation from Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale is inscribed in Middle English: ‘And Fyry Phoebus ryseth up so brighte / That all the orient laugheth at the sight [sic]’. The outer edge of the frame is decorated with a scrolling floral pattern, and a lark outstretches its wings at the top. A considerably lavish treatment, given that this version is a study for a larger work! Pictures of the equally beautiful frame of the Liverpool version can be viewed on the Frame Blog.
- Judith Bronkhurst, William Holman Hunt: A Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. 1: Paintings (Yale: Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 265-269.
- Many videos of the May Morning ceremony and the Hymnus Eucharisticus can be found on Youtube. Here is a particularly good one from 2013, taken from the quadrangle of Magdalen College. The Latin words of the hymn, with engravings, can be read here.
- The Birmingham version on the Google Art Project.