About the artwork
Welcoming the first rays of the rising sun from a high place was said to be a relic of Druidical worship. The 17th Century antiquary, Anthony Wood, emphasised the essentially pagan roots of the ceremony shown in this month’s picture: ‘the choral ministers of Magdalen College, Oxford do, according to ancient custom, salute Flora every year on the first of May, at four o’clock in the morning, with vocal music of several parts [giving] great satisfaction to the neighbourhood and auditors below.’ The custom was revived and saved from decline in the early 19th Century when the Christian 'Hymnus Euchisticus' was introduced, sung facing the rising sun at five o’clock in the morning. It continues to the present day at the slightly more sociable hour of six a.m.
William Holman Hunt began his preparations for the picture when he attended the ceremony on 1 May 1888, taking with him a sketchbook, taking notes but making no drawings on that occasion. A short time later he began painting a small canvas of about fifteen by nineteen inches, which he took to the top of the tower every morning at four o’clock, ‘to watch for the first rays of the rising sun’, he said, ‘and to choose the sky most suitable for the subject.’ When he had established the composition on a small scale he began work on the present canvas in a room placed at his disposal in the New Buildings of the College.
Forty years after the foundation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 'May Morning on Magdalen Tower' conformed to all the strictures laid down by John Ruskin for that youthful movement: ‘everything, down to the most minute detail [painted] from nature and from nature only; landscape background painted to the last touch, in the open air, from the thing itself; every minute accessory painted in the same manner; every figure a true portrait of some living person.’ Only about half of the sixteen boy choristers were painted from actual members of the College choir, others, chosen for their looks, were found elsewhere, notably Hilary Lushington Holman Hunt, the artist’s youngest son, who occupies a prominent place at the front to the right of centre. Among the adults were distinguished professors of physiology and of music, college Fellows, and the President of Magdalen, Sir Herbert Warren. The Choir Master and organist Dr John Varley Roberts, whose head appears second from the left felt offended that he was not given a more important place in the composition. Although no longer a Fellow and not even resident in Oxford at the time, Dr John Rouse Bloxam was included, fourth from the right, in recognition of his part in the 1840s revival of the May Morning ceremony. He died before the picture was exhibited. The central chorister holds a lily, emblem of St. Mary the Virgin and St Mary Magdalen to whom the college is dedicated. Among the tulips, hyacinths, lilies, imperial martagons, and fritillaries, littering the foreground, is a scalloped punch bowl, the William III silver monteith, the most celebrated and valuable piece of plate in the College’s collection.
Hunt’s aim was ‘to represent the spirit of a beautiful, primitive, and in a large sense eternal service, [and] which still carries evidence in it of the origin of our race and thoughts in the same cradle with the early Persians.’ Referring to these distant roots, he included a Parsee, one of the Zoroastran sect driven out of Persia by the Arabs in the eighth century and subsequently settled in Mumbai. The Zoroastrans believe fire, or more broadly, light, to be sacred; hence the exotic and, at first sight incongruous presence of Mr Cama, a merchant and member of the Indian Institute in Oxford, greeting the first rays of the sun on the Magdalen Tower.
The copper frame, made to the artist’s design continues the themes of dawn and Spring: ‘on the lower edge is the rising sun. On either side, the fish which gambol in the water, and the frogs leaping in the stream, indicate the glad renewal of morning life. Lilies and wild briar-roses twine about the sides of the picture, enwreathed on one side by convolvulus – a most suitable emblem here, both from its name of “morning glory”, and from its habit of unfolding at dawn and closing later in the day. At the top of the frame is a lark, shaking its wings for the first morning flight and morning song... At each corner there is a bird’s nest, at one of which the male bird is ready to take its turn beside the eggs, while in the other the parents are feeding the callow brood.’
Exhibited at the Gainsborough Galleries, Old Bond Street, in 1891, the picture had a mixed reception. D.S. MacColl, writing in 'The Athenaeum', declared it to be ‘displeasing as an arrangement in decorative colour, but also completely inadmissible as a statement of the facts of natural colour’, and questioned the use of climbing every day to the top of Magdalen Tower to study the sun rise ‘if you cannot see it when you are there.’ Archdeacon Farrar, writing in the 'Contemporary Review', however, compared it favourably with Hunt’s earlier paintings such as 'The Triumph of the Innocents', 'The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple' and 'The Scapegoat:' ‘The noble work… though it might seem less directly religious than those which were devoted to the illustration of great thoughts and scenes of Holy Scripture, is in reality a religious picture, and that in the highest sense. And in the element of simple loveliness the artist has never surpassed this latest enchanting production of his artistic imagination.’ The Archdeacon hoped it would be bought for the nartion but it remained in Hunt’s studio until his death. Sold at auction in 1919 by his widow, it was acquired by William Hesketh Lever for £2,194.