I spent the first 8 years of my life on and around the family farm in south Shropshire, near the town of Ludlow where I was born—the same rural landscape described so evocatively in A. E. Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad (‘From Clee to heaven the beacon burns, / The shires have seen it plain, / From north and south the sign returns, / And beacons burn again’). Although we moved away from the farm in 2001 to go and live down in Cornwall, my memories of those early years are still very vivid: the land changing with the seasons; racing across open fields with my dad on his quad bike; the shimmering summer heat in the hay fields; the bloody massacre of a fox in a chicken coop; the dim, distinctive hush of the big barn, smelling earthily of hay and animal feed. Our livestock chiefly consisted of cattle and sheep, and I still remember the times I could sit with a warm, newborn lamb in my lap to feed with the milk-bottle.
So perhaps I have been more conditioned than other viewers to notice the surprisingly frequent appearances of livestock—particularly sheep—in Pre-Raphaelite painting. The first that springs to mind is, of course, Hunt’s Our English Coasts, 1852, with its alternative title of Strayed Sheep (below). When I first showed this painting to my dad, an ex-sheep-farmer, he was (luckily!) impressed, though reproductions don’t do justice to the vibrant, singing colours of the original now hanging in Tate Britain. Hunt, as a kind of artist-shepherd, deploys his sheep for blatantly symbolic purposes. The idea of a straying flock representing the precarious state of the nation, when anxieties about England’s south coasts being vulnerable to Napoleon III’s invading fleets were heightened in the public consciousness, can still easily be grasped by modern viewers. Interestingly—though don’t quote me on this, and I may have to ask my dad!—this particular flock is comprised of a number of different breeds perched all together on the cliffside, which would reflect the diversity of the British population. I’m reminded of Bathsheba Everdene’s (very accurate) lamentation in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd:
Sheep are such unfortunate animals!—there’s always something happening to them! I never knew a flock pass a year without getting into some scrape or other.
The symbolism of the flock in Our English Coasts, then, is decidedly secular, in that it refers to the socio-political climate of its day (hence the specific date of 1852 included in the title). But Hunt also recognised the religious and moral potential of a flock of wayward sheep. In the same period as English Coasts he painted The Hireling Shepherd (below); another icon of High-Pre-Raphaelitism, with its minute, meticulous realism and dense arrangement of symbols—including a death’s-head hawkmoth, unripe apples and a lamb enfolded in a blood-red cloth. (No doubt the flowers in the foreground carry their own Victorian meanings too.) On the one hand, it is a somewhat questionable portrayal of the rural working class, which apparently can only descend into indolence and—most shocking!—wanton sexuality.
The title itself refers to the Book of John, Chapter 10, which tells the parable of the Good Shepherd:
I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth. […] The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep.
With this in mind the painting’s ‘message’ becomes clearer, pointing to the fatal consequences of letting one’s (metaphorical) flock stray into (metaphorical) unknown pastures. According to Tim Barringer, Hunt intended the painting as ‘a commentary on a contemporary controversy concerning Anglican pastors neglecting their worshipping flocks, on which [John] Ruskin had published a tract.’ The result is chaos among the sheep: two rams are locking horns (not a pleasant sight, if anyone has ever seen rams fighting); some have slumped tiredly to the ground; others, probably out of starvation, have noticed the tempting golden cornfield behind the backs of their careless, lusty guardian and his sweetheart. Readers of Far from the Madding Crowd will also recall the dangers of sheep eating clover when left to their own devices, leading to bloat—but Hunt’s shepherd is no Gabriel Oak! One scholar has said it is fatal for lambs to eat unripe apples, though I’m not sure if this is true.
Hunt was not the only Pre-Raphaelite Brother to utilise the symbolism of the flock. Millais’s controversial masterpiece of 1849-50, Christ in the House of His Parents (below), features rows of sheep crowding expectantly behind a fence in the left-background, as if to watch the foreshadowing of the Crucifixion happening inside the house. Millais, always striving for truth to nature, famously used heads bought from a butcher to paint these rams and ewes. In this instance the sheep can be interpreted as a congregation of churchgoers; interestingly, Alistair Grieve has proposed that the layout of the carpenter’s shop explicitly echoes that of a church chancel or presbytery, with the viewer looking westwards from the east end.
A study for the painting demonstrates that the sheep were included early on, and Millais retained them even after removing other compositional elements around the edges (the window and flower box on the left, the standing figure on the right).
Ovis aries are also the subject of Ford Madox Brown’s ‘The Pretty Baa-Lambs’ (below), which was commenced in April 1851 using Brown’s garden at Stockwell and also Clapham Common as a backdrop (the distant seaside was added later, creating an imagined, composite landscape). Despite the eighteenth-century costumes of the figures, the painting does not illustrate any specific literary or historical subject and it is safe to assume that the sheep, in this instance, are there simply because they are.
The idyllic, languid innocence of the scene is best expressed in the lamb lounging flat on the grass on the far right—there are no encroaching dangers, no worm-in-the-bud undertones as in The Hireling Shepherd. As various scholars have noted, Brown was much more interested in trying to capture, as accurately as possible, the effects of bright, full, overhead sunlight on the English landscape and the human figure; scarcely any portion of the picture is in shadow, and in the hot light the mother and her baby become statuesque forms against an unusually low horizon. The colours of white fleece against green grass are particularly lovely. Brown’s plein air method of painting had a considerable influence on Hunt and Millais when they began to paint The Hireling Shepherd and Ophelia respectively, while the unusual perspective of ‘The Pretty Baa-Lambs’ may have contributed to the jarring, lopsided composition of Hunt’s English Coasts.
From these paintings it is possible to see the humble sheep as a kind of quintessentially English animal, embedded in the rural landscape and variously neglected and petted by humans. Pre-Raphaelite painters could cast their flocks in a surprising number of symbolic or metaphorical roles, ranging from Victorian anxieties of a French invasion to more moral and Biblical messages.