Like my previous post about Pre-Raphaelite livestock, I must begin this with a personal note. In 2001, when I was 8 years old, my family moved from Shropshire down to Cornwall, where I spent the next 10 years. We lived for that time in and around a village called Feock, a few miles outside Truro and near the so-called Carrick Roads (not a road at all, but actually an estuary of the River Fal). Although I no longer live in Cornwall, I remain fond of the beautiful county where I spent my formative years. So I was fascinated to discover that William Holman Hunt visited it and produced a number of exquisite watercolours and sketches of the Cornish coastline. Here I should note that much of the information in this post has been gleaned from two sources: Judith Bronkhurst’s exhaustive and indispensable catalogue raisonne of Hunt’s paintings, drawings and watercolours; and Hunt’s two-volume memoir first published in 1905, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (previously discussed here; available online on the Internet Archive, Volume 1 and Volume 2).
Anyone who has visited Cornwall will have some idea of its geographical remoteness – a characteristic which is both the region’s blessing and its curse. Its miles of rugged cliffs and unspoilt beaches, as well as the exceptional quality of its light and the unusual, even Mediterranean ‘blueness’ of the ocean in the summer months, have appealed to many British artists for more than 200 years. Turner, John William Inchbold, John Brett and Henry Scott Tuke all travelled to the south west in the 19th century (Tuke’s family had moved to Falmouth in 1859). The late nineteenth century saw the flourishing of the so-called ‘Newlyn School’, a colony of realist painters based in the village of Newlyn near Penzance. Virginia Woolf summered in Cornwall as a child in the 1880s and ’90s, and her first truly experimental novel, Jacob’s Room (1922), opens with impressionistic descriptions of the Cornish seaside; not to mention To the Lighthouse (1927), informed by childhood memories of St Ives. In the 20th century, most famously, the county attracted and inspired a large circle of modernist painters, sculptors and writers – among them Barbara Hepworth, Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Patrick Heron, Sven Berlin and Christopher Wood – who decamped from London to settle in St Ives. The Tate opened an outpost museum there in 1993, and also maintain the Barbara Hepworth Museum in St Ives, as a result of the town’s prominent role in the development of modern British art.
In September 1860 Holman Hunt and Valentine Cameron Prinsep travelled from London down to Penzance. They took the boat over to the Scilly Isles to join Alfred Lord Tennyson, Francis Turner Palgrave and Thomas Woolner, who were beginning a walking tour of Cornwall. I speak from personal experience when I say that this is no small journey to make, even today; the trip from London down to the south-westernmost tip of the country must have felt like quite the artistic pilgrimage in 1860. Presumably Hunt and Prinsep travelled by train – the Penzance station opened in 1852, allowing easier access to one of the most remote spots in Britain. ‘After a day spent in visiting the gardens of the Scilly Isles,’ Hunt writes, ‘we returned to Penzance. During the intercourse of this journey we were much engaged in discussions on the character of English poetry of all periods.’ (Woolner had left them by this point.) We are told that F. T. Palgrave was working at that time on compiling his famous Golden Treasury, which would be published the following year. Palgrave was understandably giddy with excitement at spending so much time in the company of the Poet Laureate; The Golden Treasury is actually dedicated to Tennyson, whose ‘encouragement, given while traversing the the wild scenery of Treryn Dinas [in Cornwall], led me to begin the work’.
Hunt supplies evocative descriptions of the group as they roamed the Cornish coast: ‘Tennyson in his slouch hat, his rusty black suit, and his clinging coat, wandering away among the rocks, assiduously attended by [Palgrave], and if by chance the poet escaped his eyes for a minute, the voice of Palgrave was heard above the sea and the wind calling “Tennyson, Tennyson”.’ Hunt recounts a conversation regarding Tennyson’s paranoia about his celebrity status – the poet feared that mobs of admirers lurked to accost him at every turn, and asked his companions not to say his name out loud in hotels and other public places – and tells of how the party journeyed to Helston, with Tennyson travelling in a dog-cart because of an injured foot. They also spent three days at Falmouth, where they chanced to meet Julia and Hester Sterling, the nieces of the Reverend F. D. Maurice, the Christian Socialist minister who was depicted in Ford Madox Brown’s Work (1852-63). Most of the time, however, Hunt and Prinsep sat on the cliffs and sketched and painted. Asparagus Island, located in Kynance Cove on the Lizard Peninsula, was the subject of a gloriously detailed and luminous watercolour by Hunt (below).
Hunt has applied watercolour in a dense, meticulous fashion that disguises the liquidity and spontaneity traditionally associated with that medium. (Compare it with Inchbold’s atmospheric watercolour study of the cliffs at Tintagel in Cornwall executed at around the same time, below.) His depiction of the landscape – or seascape, perhaps – is intensely textural, in that he contrasts the hard ruggedness of the cliffs with the foaming, swirling waves that have gradually and relentlessly hewn the rocks into their present forms over thousands of years. In his memoir the artist expressed a preference for ‘the purple marble rock polished and made lustrous by the sea washing it in calm and storm.’ With this in mind, Asparagus Island appears a kind of semi-precious stone set into a water surround. It also reflects the Victorian interest in geology, previously explored by Hunt in Our English Coasts, 1852, another cliffside scene. The consistent level of detail throughout the watercolour does not prioritise one element over another, and the sea, in a constant state of flux, is depicted with the same minuteness as the island of bastite serpentine rock that squats unmoving at the centre of the composition. Colours are carefully balanced, so that the turquoise gradations of the ocean are softer notes echoing the stronger blues and greens of Asparagus Island. These are beautifully offset by a space of yellow sand to the right, visible at low tide. There are no visible human figures; instead, we as viewers are placed into the picture to become the observers observing the elements. Hunt has positioned us on a high promontory overlooking the cove, precariously, as if in midair. One can feel the strong Cornish sunlight warming the back of one’s neck; the wind blowing off the English Channel ruffles one’s hair.
It is a testament to Hunt’s powers of concentration that he painted the majority of his painstakingly detailed Asparagus Island in situ, perched on the clifftop – almost leading to the picture being lost forever. He gives an alarming account of how
For two or three days Val [Prinsep] and I remained working on the cliffs. My drawing was on a block, of which the sun had gradually drawn up one corner; this warped surface did not seriously interfere with my progress until one day a sudden gust of wind compelled me to put my hand on brushes in danger of going to perdition, when, turning round on my saddle seat, I saw my nearly completed picture circling about among the gulls in the abyss below. Luckily, a fresh gust of wind bore it aloft, until the paper was caught by a tuft of grass at the brink of the precipice. It proved to be within reach of my umbrella, which fixed it to the spot until with the help of my friend, I was able to rescue the flighty thing for completion. [Hunt, ‘Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’, vol. 2, p. 214-215.]
After its adventure of flying with seagulls and nearly plunging to a watery grave, the picture returned to the artist’s studio and was eventually purchased by Thomas Plint for 60 guineas, two years later, in 1862. This was an impressive sum for a watercolour.
Bronkhurst stresses the importance of the Cornwall tour for the artist: he produced ‘a prolific series [of works] on the trip in a creative burst of energy comparable to that characterising Hunt’s 1854-5 visit to the East.’ This series includes further landscape watercolours of the Lizard and also of Helston (one below, unfortunately in black-and-white).
Two further observational sketches are preserved in an album once in the collection of Charles Stanley Pollitt, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (acquired 2007; accession number WA2007.8). One is an accurate study of the sundial over the south porch of St Pol de Léon’s Church in the village of Paul, near Penzance; the other depicts the ancient Celtic cross in the churchyard at St Buryan, also near Penzance. The latter drawing also bears an interesting inscription, recording a discussion about the cross with the rural-accented sextoness of St Buryan: ‘Is there any history about it? or anything said about why it was put up? “Wull, it’s aboot as oold & ancient as the Church, it’s jist a foin thing for the stranger folk to see, but it wants a dale of pointing”.’
Although these Ashmolean drawings are undated they were almost certainly executed during the 1860 trip, as Hunt is not thought to have visited Cornwall again until the 1890s, and even that is uncertain. They also indicate the impressive number of sites that Hunt, Prinsep and their travelling companions were able to reach in a relatively short space of time; they ‘got around’. By the end of September they had left Cornwall to explore Devon – at which most Cornish folk will give a sharp intake of breath. They do their scones differently over the Tamar, you see, they spread the cream on first, before the jam, like barbarians.