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William Holman Hunt

Hunt worked as an office clerk before he was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools in 1844. He began to exhibit his work publicly in 1845, and in 1848 formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with his friends Millais and Rossetti. His works in his new style attracted commissions from wealthy patrons, such as ‘The Awakening Conscience’ of 1853. In this dramatic painting a kept woman experiences a moment of moral awakening.

William Holman Hunt, 'The Awakening Conscience' (detail), 1853 © Tate, London (T02075)

As her wealthy lover plays the piano, she is reminded of her former, more innocent life and rises towards the sunlit garden (reflected in the mirror) as if seeking spiritual enlightenment. Every detail amplifies the narrative: the bird trying to escape the cat, the single discarded glove, and the tangled skeins of wool, all allude to an uncertain future.

In 1857, Hunt was commissioned to design an illustration of the ‘Lady of Shalott’ for an edition of Tennyson’s poems, published by Edward Moxon. The subject was one which constantly fascinated Hunt. The finished engraving shows the Lady, her hair wild, struggling with the threads of the loom in front of an enormous van Eyck-inspired mirror. The engraving served as the template for the oil version of the same subject.

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