Reinterpreting the Pre-Raphaelites: Tom Hunter

Tom Hunter is a contemporary British photographer whose work has reached international acclaim. He creates striking tableaux, often inspired by the urban landscape of east London (particularly Hackney) and drawing on the postures and compositions of Western genre and history painting, re-imagining them for a modern audience. See, for example, his Death of Coltelli (below) which uses the slumped pose of the female nude at the centre of Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus for an image of abandonment and isolation.

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Tom Hunter, Death of Coltelli, 2009.
Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) The Death of Sardanapalus Oil on canvas, 1827 154 1/4 x 195 1/4 inches (392 x 496 cm) Mus? du Louvre, Paris
Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827. Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris.

Of interest for this blog is a series of 10 photographs entitled Life and Death in Hackney which Hunter began in 1998. In them he re-stages Victorian paintings by Millais, Waterhouse, Alfred Wallis and Arthur Hughes, among others, in a contemporary London setting. The result is a peculiarly heightened sense of reality — a reality of industrial decay and patches of nature quietly existing on the fringes of urban environments. A poignance and beauty is found in these otherwise maligned locales.

Tom Hunter, The Way Home, from the series Life and Death in Hackney (1998).
Tom Hunter, The Way Home, from the series Life and Death in Hackney (1998).
John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2. Oil on canvas. Tate.
John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2. Oil on canvas. Tate.

Hunter saw modern parallels for Millais’s Ophelia in a news story about a young woman who, on her way home after a night out, slipped into a canal and was tragically drowned. Like OpheliaThe Way Home is dominated by swathes of brilliant green foliage flecked with flowers. If Millais’s painting explores (among other themes) human life competing for existence in amongst nature, then Hunter’s suggests the fight for survival in a landscape in which the natural and the urban have become jarringly intertwined. Youth and freedom waver on the brink of tragedy and danger, leaving only lost hopes and dreams.

Tom Hunter, Home, from the series Life and Death in Hackney (1998).
Tom Hunter, Home, from the series Life and Death in Hackney (1998).
Arthur Hughes, Home from Sea, 1862. Oil on panel. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Arthur Hughes, Home from Sea, 1862. Oil on panel. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

The above comparison is particularly striking, with Hunter quoting directly from Arthur Hughes’s 1862 Home from Sea. The empty arched window in the background of Hughes’s rambling country churchyard is echoed in the multiple broken windows of the abandoned warehouse in Hunter’s image; while the small bush of dog roses to the right of the young sailor’s head has expanded into a tangled mass of briars which threatens to engulf the couple. Hughes, it should be noted, originally exhibited his painting under the title A Mother’s Grave; but Hunter leaves the narrative of his photograph open-ended, for each viewer to decide. He also expresses a tension between past and present: the couple seems to be mourning for a lost loved-one, but the cemetery itself (which is probably Victorian) has been left to sink into disrepair, neglected by modern society.

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Tom Hunter, The Vale of Rest, from the series Life and Death in Hackney (1998).
John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest, 1858-59. Oil on canvas. Tate
John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest, 1858-9. Oil on canvas. Tate.
Tom Hunter, The Eve of the Party
Tom Hunter, The Eve of the Party, from the series Life and Death in Hackney (1998).
John Everett Millais, The Eve of Saint Agnes, 1863. Oil on canvas. Private collection.
John Everett Millais, The Eve of Saint Agnes, 1863. Oil on canvas. Private collection.

Just as the Pre-Raphaelites did in paint, Hunter photographs in a sharp, even focus to capture every fine detail of his sitters’ surroundings. Rich, luminous colours are combined with subtle effects of natural light. The relationship between painting and the new art/science of photography was one the original Pre-Raphaelites were conscious of, at the time — though of course paintings still had the advantage of colour over sepia and black-and-white photographs.

Hunter’s work demonstrates that, far from being distant and Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite art engaged with social themes still very much relevant today: love, loss, death, social alienation. He explains on his website that Life and Death in Hackney is rooted in urban areas which were

the epicentre of the new warehouse rave scene of the early 90s. During this time the old print factories, warehouses and workshops became the playground of a disenchanted generation, taking the DIY culture from the free festival scene and adapting it to the urban wastelands. This Venice of the East End, with its canals, rivers and waterways, made a labyrinth of pleasure gardens and pavilions in which thousands of explorers travelled through a heady mixture of music and drug induced trances.

Is there some suggestion, then, that this urge for young people in the 1990s to formulate their own vibrant subcultures, consciously breaking away from mainstream norms, had its roots in the spirit of youthful artistic rebellion which led to the founding of the P.R.B.? Such a supposition is actually quite ingenious given the persistent general view that Pre-Raphaelite art is stale and sentimental. In casting the compositions of Millais, Hughes and others in a new light, Hunter invites us to reconsider our relationship with them, as viewers in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries, and to remember how radical and controversial the art of the P.R.B. was in its day.

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