Beneath the surface of a Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece

Discoveries in William Holman Hunt’s ‘The Eve of Saint Agnes’

By Guildhall Art Gallery & London's Roman Amphitheatre

The Eve of Saint Agnes (1848) by William Holman HuntOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/guildhallartgallery

When William Holman Hunt’s painting ‘The Eve of Saint Agnes’ was requested for exhibitions in England and America in 2010, it was the perfect opportunity to look closely at the painting, and understand more about the artist’s technique at such an early stage in his career.

This article will give some background to the painting, and reveal new insights gained by using analytical techniques such as examination in Infrared light, Ultraviolet light and using X-ray fluorescence.

Detail of the Baron's head from The Eve of Saint Agnes (1848) by William Holman HuntOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/guildhallartgallery

The Eve of Saint Agnes illustrates a scene from John Keats’ poem of the same name; the full title of the picture is ‘The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro during the Drunkenness Attending the Revelry’. It was painted in 1848 when Hunt was only 21 years old and still a student at the Royal Academy Schools. In his memoir ‘Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’, published in 1905, he recalls returning to the studio he shared with fellow student John Everett Millais to work on the painting late into the night. The two young artists worked on each other’s paintings. We know that Millais was responsible for painting the head of the bearded Baron in the background.

When Dante Gabriel Rossetti saw the painting on display at the Royal Academy he praised it and consequently became friends with Hunt and Millais. In September of that year the three young artists formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Pencil Study for The Eve of Saint Agnes (1848) by William Holman HuntOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/guildhallartgallery

We are lucky to have two studies for the painting in our collection. The pencil study shows Hunt working out the relationship between the fleeing couple. He originally envisioned Madeline on Porphyro’s left side, as can be seen in the thumbnail compositional sketch.

Oil Study for The Eve of Saint Agnes (1848) by William Holman HuntOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/guildhallartgallery

In Hunt’s oil study for the left side of the picture, we see him planning out the background arches. He changed the number of arches from four to three in the final painting. In the oil sketch he also played with the relationship between the bloodhounds and the recumbent Porter.

Detail of the bottom right corner of The Eve of Saint Agnes during varnish removal (1848) by William Holman HuntOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/guildhallartgallery

When the Guildhall Art Gallery’s Conservators examined the painting they found that the original canvas was supported by an additional piece of fabric adhered to the reverse at some point in the painting's history, in a process called ‘lining’ . Unfortunately the lining was failing with age and the condition of the paint layer was being compromised. The Conservators took this opportunity to remove discoloured varnish layers from the front of the painting, and reline the canvas to improve the stability of the paint layers and the overall appearance.

Scanning the painting with infrared Vidicon equipment (2010) by Guildhall Art GalleryOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/guildhallartgallery

To understand Hunt’s painting process we can use a technique called Infrared Reflectography (IRR) to gather information not detected by the human eye. Infrared light is the part of the spectrum just beyond visible light. It is capable of penetrating the upper layers of a painting (the varnish and paint layers) to reveal carbon based underdrawing beneath, if it exists. There are different types of cameras used in this technique, in this case we used a ‘vidicon’ linked to a computer, which scanned the surface of the picture taking individual black and white images called reflectograms. These are digitised to produce a composite infrared mosaic of the entire painting.

Infrared Reflectography of The Eve of Saint Agnes (2010) by Tager Stonor RichardsonOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/guildhallartgallery

This technique does not capture every type of underdrawing, but in this painting Hunt had used carbon based graphite pencil over a white ‘ground’ or preparation layer making this an ideal subject for this method of examination. Many subtle differences between the drawn composition and the final painting were found, where Hunt made changes as his ideas evolved. Usually we use the Italian term for these changes ‘pentimenti,’ which means ‘changes of the artists’ mind’.

Detail of arches from The Eve of Saint Agnes (1848) by William Holman HuntOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/guildhallartgallery

Infrared Reflectography of The Eve of Saint Agnes - detail of arches (2010) by Tager Stonor RichardsonOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/guildhallartgallery

Here we see Hunt drawing the arches both freehand and using a curved instrument. We know that Hunt was uncertain about the composition of the arches from the oil sketch, and we see that he was still working out the final layout on the canvas itself. If you look closely, there is an oval shape adjacent to the far left figure - possibly another reveller that was abandoned as the composition developed.

Detail of Madeline and Porphyro from The Eve of Saint Agnes (1848) by William Holman HuntOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/guildhallartgallery

Infrared Reflectography of The Eve of Saint Agnes - close-up of Madeline and Porphyro (2010) by Tager Stonor RichardsonOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/guildhallartgallery

The infrared image here shows that Hunt first drew the outline of the female figure nude before adding her clothing, right down to the detail of her toes and belly button! The thicker paint in the costume of Porphyro prevents us from seeing if Hunt used the same technique here.

Detail of the seated Page from The Eve of Saint Agnes (1848) by William Holman HuntOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/guildhallartgallery

Infrared detail of the seated Page from The Eve of Saint Agnes (2010) by Tager Stonor RichardsonOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/guildhallartgallery

It seems that Hunt struggled a little with the final position of the bottom of the Page’s legs, possibly scraping back the paint layers in this area before re-drawing and starting again.

Detail of Madeline and Porphyro in ultra-violet light during treatment (2010) by William Holman HuntOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/guildhallartgallery

This amazing image was taken of the painting viewed under ultraviolet radiation (UV) commonly called ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet light is often used to examine paintings during conservation treatments, as degraded natural resin varnishes exhibit a greenish fluorescence (here you can see this most obviously in Porphyro’s torso and on the floor). This fluorescence can be covered over by old damages and restorations which appear as dark areas on top of the fluorescence. The areas of bright pink do not relate to a varnish, but to a particular pigment called ‘madder lake’ which is a red pigment made from the root of the madder plant. Here Hunt has used madder mixed with blue in Madeline’s purple dress, and on its own in the figures’s lips, Porphyro’s cloak and in his shoes.

Analysing pigments with a hand-held XRF instrument (2010) by Guildhall Art GalleryOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/guildhallartgallery

Another method for identifying pigments is called X-ray fluorescence (XRF) this uses x-ray radiation with no damage to the painting itself. The technique gives data for the chemical elements present in a sampled area and this can be interpreted with knowledge of the chemical composition of paints. One example here is the presence of arsenic and copper in the green of Porphyro’s hat, indicating that Hunt used the bright but poisonous pigment Emerald green to paint it. Emerald green was a newly formulated pigment in the nineteenth century, green pigments existing before its arrival performed poorly so artists were very excited to use Emerald green.

Detail of Madeline and Porphyro's faces in ultra-violet light during treatment (2010) by William Holman HuntOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/guildhallartgallery

Using these different methods of looking at the ‘Eve of St Agnes’ has helped us to complete the conservation treatment of the painting, whilst also giving us new information about Holman Hunt’s painting process and the materials he chose to use. All of these insights have enriched our knowledge of ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ by revealing the hidden story beneath the surface.

Credits: Story

Guildhall Art Gallery would like to thank Vicky Leanse, Joyce Townsend and Carol Jacobi for their observations during the examination of the painting, Libby Sheldon and The Institute of Archaeology for the loan of the XRF instrument and Tager Stonor Richardson for the Infrared Reflectography.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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