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Thrush’s Nest with eggs and a basket of primroses against a mossy bank (LL 3859), by William Henry Hunt


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About the artwork

Hunt often composed ‘still lives’ in his studio, using materials he gathered in the wild. This perhaps explains why the primrose is placed in a basket and is not growing in the ground. The very realistic background of moss shows a great command of technique; however there is insufficient detail to be able to identify the moss accurately.

The Thrush’s nest has been removed from its natural setting (probably a hedge or bush) but the eggs are carefully arranged, as in nature. Naturalists in Victorian times had few inhibitions about collecting wild birds’ eggs and nests, an activity which is now prohibited by the Wildlife & Countryside Act of 1981.

This work using gouache (a stiffer form of watercolour in which the pigment is mixed with chalk) and watercolour is typical of the paintings Hunt produced in his later years (c. 1850) in such numbers that he became jocularly known as “Bird’s Nest Hunt”. However it includes a technical innovation – the use of a background of gum arabic mixed with Chinese White paint, over which he placed a final layer of watercolour wash – which creates an exceptional luminosity to the highlights of the flowers and eggs.

The painting is inscribed W HUNT at the lower right hand side. It was sold by its former owner James Orrock in 1904 and was one of several works by Hunt which were acquired by Lord Leverhulme in the first decade of the 20th century. Hunt was born and died in London and was a full member of the Old Watercolour Society from 1826. He married in 1830; his wife came from a miller’s family near Bramley, Hampshire and he often visited the area.

Hunt’s paintings were greatly admired by John Ruskin, Slade Professor of Art in Oxford from 1870-79 and author of many works including 'Proserpina: studies of wayside flowers' (1875-86). Ruskin expressed less charitable views of Hunt as a person in a catalogue of an exhibition of his work in 1879, where he described him as, “that good old peach and apple painter” and “plebeian – not to say vulgar”.

Hunt generally eschewed social realism, save perhaps for his The Stonebreaker (not to be confused with John Brett’s The Stonebreaker at the Walker Art Gallery, with its view of Box Hill in Surrey, which is one of my favourite paintings).

John Edmondson