The Haunting of William Holman Hunt

John Everett Millais, 'William Holman Hunt', 1853. Pencil, 23.5 x 18.9 cm. Source: National Portrait Gallery.
John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, 1853. Pencil, 23.5 x 18.9 cm. Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Firstly, an apology for a lack of recent activity – that’s the life of a Masters student! I’ve begun research on my dissertation, the subject of which is D. G. Rossetti’s watercolours from 1850-70; watch this space. In the meantime I thought I would share a curious anecdote discovered in that most famous and comprehensive of Pre-Raphaelite documents, William Holman Hunt’s Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. First published in 1905, this two-volume work is a mine of information from one of the Brotherhood’s founding members and did much to establish a standard narrative of its formation, though its viewpoint is understandably quite biased towards Hunt himself.

However, when I was flicking through a copy of Pre-Raphaelitism in the university library I came across two intriguing phrases in the summary of Chapter XI, ‘1851’, on the contents page: ‘The mysterious night walker at Ewell’, followed by ‘The ghost of the avenue appears’. Ever the fan of ghost stories, and with the delicious possibility of uncovering an M. R. Jamesian tale involving a Pre-Raphaelite artist, I leafed through the book until I found the appropriate passages. At that time, in autumn 1851, Hunt was about to commence work on The Light of the World (below), travelling to his uncle at Ewell, Surrey, and painting the door of an abandoned hut by candlelight and moonlight to capture the naturalistic effects of Christ’s lantern. Hunt records that after he first spotted this door, ‘on the river side […] locked up and overgrown with tendrils of ivy, its step choked with weeds,’ he returned to the path and walked on, at which point ‘a five-years-old memory of an altogether unexplained experience came into my mind.’ It’s worth quoting the next paragraph in full:

William Holman Hunt, The Light of the World, 1851-52. Oil on canvas, 122 x 60.5 cm. Keble College, Oxford. Scanned from Judith Bronkhurst, ‘William Holman Hunt: A Catalogue Raisonné’ (Yale University Press, 2006).

At that date, arriving by the last train from London at the Ewell station on the other side of the village, the stationmaster shut up his office and came out with a lantern to walk home. I accompanied him, being glad of his light. When we had entered under some heavy trees I cautioned him that some white creature, probably an animal, was advancing towards us. ‘It will be sure to get out of our way,’ he said, and walked on unfalteringly. Yet I kept my eyes riveted on the approaching being. When we had come nearer I interrupted our idle chat, saying, ‘But it is steadily coming towards us.’ He turned up his gaze and was stopped by what he saw. The mysterious midnight roamer proved to be no brute, but had the semblance of a stately, tall man wrapped in white drapery round the head and down to the feet. Stopping within five paces from us, he seemed to look through me with his solemn gaze. Would he speak? I wondered. Was his ghostly clothing merely vapour? I peered at it; it seemed too solid for this, yet not solid enough for earthly garb. We both stood paralysed and expectant. Then the figure deliberately marched to our left, making a half-circle around us, till he regained the line he had been travelling upon, and paced majestically onward. (Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism, Vol. I, p. 296.)

When Hunt asks the stationmaster ‘What is it?’, the latter replies, ‘It’s a ghost. […] I have seen it more than enough.’ Hunt immediately wants to follow the shape, even asking for the man’s lantern ‘that I may pursue and examine it.’ He delays too long, however, and the white figure vanishes into the night; he arrives at his uncle’s house with the mystery unsolved. This occurrence in 1846, then, is told through the literary device of a flashback.

Cut back to 1851, five years later. Hunt goes on to describe his routine for painting The Light of the World: outdoors, at night, in an ‘old orchard’ at Ewell, sitting in a little ‘sentry-box built of hurdles’ and with his feet in a sack of straw to keep off the biting cold (such dedication to the Pre-Raphaelite cause!). He worked from about 9 p.m. to 5 a.m before retiring to the house to sleep. For the benefit of our mysterious story it is worth quoting the next paragraph, which describes a second incident:

My first experience in nocturnal labour was alarming. The handsome avenue in front of the farm was, of course, known to be haunted. I promised to be on my guard against the shameless duchess or any of her crew, that they should have no excuse for taking away my character. For an hour the stillness chequered by the going in and out of the farm servants, then my friends came out ere they retired to sleep and chatted with me, wrapped against the cold. Shortly after, the lights seen through the windows were extinguished one by one, and a quiet, deep sense of solitude reigned over all. […] I plied my brush busily, in turn warming my numbed fingers in my breast. About midnight I could hear that there was another noise, like the rustling of dead leaves, and that this grew more distinct, evidently coming nearer as I paused to listen, but the road trodden by the thing of the night was hidden from me. Yet I could not the less certainly measure the distance of the waves of disturbed dried leaves. The steps had arrived at the face of the house, and now were turning aside to the orchard, where soon indeed I could see a hundred yards off a mysterious presence. (Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism, Vol. I, p. 299-300.)

It turns out to be just the village policeman on his nightly rounds. Nevertheless Hunt reveals his talents as a writer here – his evocative descriptions, built-up suspense and genuinely creepy imagery would not be out of place in a novel by Wilkie Collins (the famous opening of The Woman in White comes to mind) or Sheridan Le Fanu (Uncle Silas in particular). Furthermore, while a natural explanation for the second incident does reveal itself, the first, involving the strange white figure in the dark woods, is left ambiguous simply because Hunt himself could discover no reason behind it.

Detail of 'The Light of the World'.
Detail of The Light of the World.

The above accounts did get me thinking about their relation to Hunt’s art. The Light of the World has always struck me as having an atmosphere somewhere between the natural and supernatural: on the one hand the many passages of minute detail, from the clustered brambles to each little aperture of the lantern, are true to what can be directly observed by both the artist and his subsequent audience (us); on the other hand the luminous greenish light of the background, indeterminable as either dawn or twilight, and the glowing disc which is simultaneously the moon and Christ’s halo, are all ethereal, unworldly elements. Gothic details can be found in the ivy and the brown bat hovering over the doorway. Christ is a supernatural presence in the context of this painting; Hunt presents the spiritual, allegorical message of Jesus knocking on the door of the soul, which can only be opened from the inside. He is a ghost of sorts, and His direct gaze establishes a supernatural encounter with each viewer. Of course, as numerous scholars have noted, The Light of the World is likely to have originated in a kind of religious epiphany Hunt experienced when reading a specific passage in the Book of Revelation: ‘Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in, &c.’ Indeed, the images I have supplied above show the spandrels of the canvas (usually concealed under the frame) in which Hunt inscribed ‘Me non praetermisso Domine!’ (‘Don’t pass me by, Lord’). Any feeling of uncanniness the painting holds is certainly enhanced by the nocturnal conditions in which Hunt painted it – not least being spooked by the village policeman rustling through the dead leaves at midnight!

William Holman Hunt, 'The Haunted Manor', 1849. Oil on board, 23.3 x 33.7 cm. Source: Tate.
William Holman Hunt, The Haunted Manor, 1849. Oil on board, 23.3 x 33.7 cm. Source: Tate.

As an addendum to this I thought I would include another painting by Hunt which has often intrigued me. Its title, The Haunted Manor, was apparently his own invention, and its size is actually very small. The majority of the foreground, with a babbling brook, was painted en plein air on a sketching trip with Millais to Wimbledon Park, south-west London, in 1849. But the background, comprising a hayrick on the left and an old manor on the right, was probably a later addition. According to Judith Bronkhurst the house is none in particular, but ‘may have been introduced in the hope that a certain narrative element would help the picture to sell at the forthcoming Liverpool Academy [of 1856].’ It is interesting, then, that the title specifies the manor as being haunted. The soft, green-gold lighting of the painting, evoking late afternoon at summer’s end, is somewhat deceiving, which is to say that its warm atmosphere does not immediately suggest a haunting – even changing the word ‘haunted’ to, say, ‘old’, ‘peaceful’ or ‘quiet’, alters the mood to something less (to use Lovecraft’s word) eldritch. Is it possible that some unknown presence resides in the distant house with the blazing windows? The literary work which immediately sprang to my mind when I first saw the painting was Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, and its setting of Bly House, though these came much later in 1898. Hunt’s is a rather generic type of old English manor, with the expected tall chimneys and high gables, recalling the notion that any ancient house probably has something brooding within its walls.


Further information

  • Both volumes of Hunt’s Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood can be read online on The Internet Archive.
  • Episode 3 of the BBC’s informative documentary series The Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Revolutionaries, has a few minutes on The Light of the World (clip starts at relevant point).