This painting is an oil sketch for Holman Hunt's large painting of the 'Eve of St Agnes', completed in 1848, which now hangs in the Guildhall Art Gallery in London. Hunt didn't finish the Walker Art Gallery's version until 1857, ten years after it was begun. Hunt finished it for his Liverpool patron, the merchant John Miller (about 1796 - 1876).
Both paintings were inspired by John Keats's poem of the same name. The poem was based upon the ancient belief that if a young woman prayed to St Agnes on the eve of the saint's feast day, then she would see in her sleep the face of the man she was destined to marry. Madeleine and Porphyro, two lovers who have been kept from each other by their two families, are the principal figures of the poem and the painting. On St Agnes' Eve, Porphyro gains access to Madeleine's bedroom, pretending at first to be a vision. After revealing his true identity he persuades her to leave her father's house and marry him.
Hunt's painting illustrates the penultimate verse of the poem, in which the two lovers escape. Nobody else is awake in the poem, but Hunt has increased the tension of the moment of escape by adding feasting guests to the scene. These debauched partygoers are significantly placed on the left hand side (traditionally the side associated with evil), in contrast to the goodness and piety of the couple escaping through a door on the right (traditionally the side of righteousness).
Unlike the larger painting, this smaller version uses more lurid pigment, especially in the clothing of the main characters. Hunt finished the picture after his first visit to the Holy Land, during which his colour had become markedly brighter.