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Transcript of 'A Tuscan Girl' podcast

Good afternoon everybody, welcome to the Lady Lever Art Gallery. I'm Sandra Penketh, Head of the Lady Lever Art Gallery and today we're going to talk about this small and rather wonderful painting by William Holman Hunt.

It has various titles, sometimes it's called 'The Tuscan Girl' and sometimes it's called 'The Italian Girl'. I'll let you take your pick, but I tend to call it 'The Tuscan Girl'.

We're very lucky to have the painting in the gallery at the moment. It's not one that is part of our collection. It's actually on long-term loan to us from a private collection so it's wonderful to get it out on show and to give people the chance to see something that is normally in a private home.

Obviously it's wonderful to be able to compare it to other paintings that we have in the collection by William Holman Hunt, most famously of course 'The Scapegoat' which is hanging just in the main hall here.

Holman Hunt was one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He was born in London in 1827. He was the son of a warehouse manager so he came from a relatively humble background. From a very early age he was interested in drawing. In fact, in his book on the Pre-Raphaelite movement which was published in 1905 he said that he can't remember not drawing. That he was always drawing and sketching and he enjoyed playing with the other children but whenever there was a bit of quiet time he would go away and be making pencil sketches and fiddling in. Remember things from memory or studying things.

It was something that was a real passion for him from a young age but his father was against the idea of him becoming a full-time artist so it was a real struggle for Holman Hunt right from the beginning. I think that's something really important to remember when we're thinking about him as an artist and also thinking about his work because his character shines through his work.

He was determined. He was resolute. He would not be put off by anything and he was always determined to get things absolutely right. I think that comes across in the style of his painting. It is something that we should think about.

Holman Hunt was rather clever as well. Although his father did not want him to become a full-time artist or indeed to encourage him in training to be an artist, Hunt found a way around that. He was articled to be a clerk in his early teenage years but he made sure that who he was articled to was someone who was interested in art.

In fact, somebody who then encouraged him in his painting and his drawing. Hunt also took lessons with the Mechanics Institute which was a means for less well-off young boys to get some training in different disciplines. Despite the discouragement of his father he did continue to train and to practise as an artist.

At the age of 16 he did a portrait of a local businessman and it was so well-received by the business community that his father relented and said 'Obviously you have some talent and therefore you can spend some of your wages on getting proper lessons in art. You can train with an artist.'

Hunt trained with the local portrait artist Henry Rogers. I think that's important too. That his training was about portraits. So when we're looking at this wonderful portrait here it's important to remember that that's really how Holman Hunt started, with a portrait artist. His initial success was through portraiture.

Hunt applied to the Royal Academy several times and was finally accepted in July 1844 as a probationer and became a full student in the December of that year. I suppose that is really when it all started for Holman Hunt because he met John Everett Millais and later he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti and they formed the nucleus of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

A group of young men who were dissatisfied with Victorian art training. They felt that it didn't take nature and all that it meant seriously. That followed rules and regulations without actually thinking about what was happening in the world or the true meaning of a subject. They felt people were so bound up with rules that they weren't really looking at what was around them and what it all meant.

It's important to think about this group of young, energetic and almost revolutionary group of artists getting together and ready to change the world of art in 1848. They formed a brotherhood that recognises a close relationship. A group of young men who truly admired early renaissance painting. Painting before the great time of Raphael, hence the name of the group.

I think what's amazing is they loved this work but they'd never been to Italy. Not one of them. But they'd learnt about this work through visiting galleries in this country and also through engravings. They were studying meticulously. They were drawing ideas from other early artists. From writings and from visits to other art galleries.

What they aspired to was art that was true to nature. That studied in detail the world around them. Art that had a serious subject to it, a considered subject. That the subjects were of interest to people who were going to be looking at the pictures. That they have perhaps more messages about them.

There's a sort of serious intent in terms of what they were doing, but a liveliness and vigour as well. I think that is the key to them, the passion and drive that they had. And key towards that was Holman Hunt. As I said before, he was such a determined character and at times when this group of young artists were struggling, when they first started to exhibit their works, they were quite well-received.

But as their theories and writings became better-known and also, one the secret title of the group leaked out, the critics turned and they were quite savage in the way they appreciated, or not appreciated, the Pre-Raphaelites.

That was a very difficult time. If you imagine just being in your early twenties and receiving this type of very heavy criticism. To have the determination to carry on with what you believe in was quite hard. It was Hunt really who held them together because he didn't want to be moved from this path.

In 1847, before the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he'd read John Ruskin's Modern Painters. Having read it, he said words to the effect 'If that book was written for anybody it was written for me'. It was about the importance of meeting in art and the importance of nature in art.

Hunt was determined to carry that through his painting career. More so than any other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood he maintained that principle throughout his painting career. He became known as one of the greatest religious painters of the Victorian era and probably of all time.

He decided because of his belief in the moral nature of art to concentrate on religious painting as his primary subjects. That in itself can be surprising because he wasn't a devoutly religious man himself. He was a believer but almost outside of the main thrust of the church. He always saw himself as slightly outside the main movement of the church. I think partially that explains his determination in his work.

As part of his belief in truth to nature and his painting of religious subjects he travelled to the Middle East and of course the Lady Lever Art Gallery's Scapegoat picture painted in 1854 was painted in the Middle East. Hunt made a number of trips to that part of the world and in 1865, having just married Fanny Wall, he set out on another trip to Palestine, travelling through the continent and through Italy.

When they reached Florence they found that they were stuck there because there had been an outbreak of disease. They had to stay in the city and indeed Fanny gave birth to their son Cyril whilst there and died shortly afterwards at the end of 1866.

So Hunt found himself in Italy. Found himself with a new-born son that he couldn't look after on his own. So Fanny's sister came out from England to help him. But he was determined to commemorate Fanny and set about creating a memorial to her. Whilst in Italy, whilst doing this, he set up a studio in the stables of the villa of William Blundell Spence, an art dealer, musician and painter himself. A friend of Hunt's.

Really I suppose Hunt is biding time. He wants to finish this memorial to his wife but obviously he is also wanting to continue to paint. To carry on with the subjects that enthral him. But also to try out new subjects and he came upon the idea of painting portraits of the children of Spence's gardener.

He painted this wonderful portrait that we simply know of as 'The Italian Girl'. It's the daughter of Spence's gardener, the villa's gardener. It was one of a pair of portraits and the other one is simply called 'Caught'. I'll just show you illustrations of both so you get an idea of how they work together. Beautiful endearing portraits, obviously a younger and older child. Both girls although the younger child does look like a boy but Hunt in correspondence talked about two girls.

Both beautiful, both painted almost to match. To be a pair, in terms of the costume, the colouring and how it works across the two paintings. Hunt also designed the frames for both pictures which were similar in detail and you may or may not have noticed looking at the picture before the talk. It's very simply decorated with four medallions but if you look within the medallions you've got the motif of a daisy flower which seems very appropriate for a portrait of a young child.

It's a lovely portrait and you've seen the pair that goes with it. But for Hunt it was quite unusual in terms of a subject. He did paint portraits, wonderful portraits of friends and family, but perhaps its setting and what he was trying to do in this portrait, he seems to be echoing the style of renaissance paintings. The portraits or religious figures set against the Italian landscape.

Hunt himself referred to the fact that he had painted a face similar to the style of Peregino. That he was admitting some sort of reference to the early Italian artist. Hunt would have known works by Peregino, both from the Petit Palais but also from the National Gallery in London.

The sort of thing he would have seen would have been perhaps a virgin child image, virgin and child with St John, which shows the religious groups set against the Italian landscape and that's what Hunt has done here. That's what was slightly different in his approach to this work.

Then in the portrait of the younger child, it has many similarities to a 17th century Dutch painting, a portrait with elements of still life in it. I think Hunt is thinking about these different reference points when he is painting these portraits.

It's worth taking some time and looking at the detail of the picture and that landscape after the talk. It's easy to miss because the image of the young girl is so beguiling and we concentrate on her as we look at the picture.

Hunt shows her plaiting straw and straw plaiting was one of the major cottage industries of Florence in the 19th century. He's showing her doing something that she would do normally as part of her everyday life but there's wonderful detail again to that. So typical of Holman Hunt. When you look at the detail of that straw, when you look at the detail of the collar dove sat on the shoulder of the young girl. The individual feathers are so beautifully shown.

Then of course the detail of her costume. Of what she's wearing in terms of the pattern of it and the textures of it. That's so typical of Pre-Raphaelite painting - to get across that wonderful range of detail and textures. And the colour is amazing as it always is Holman Hunt's paintings.

He seems to capture a colour that is slightly hyper real. I'm not quite sure how to put it. He's slightly brighter or more intense in colour than most of us might have imagined it would have appeared when Hunt was looking at it.

It's a really interesting point that contemporary friends or artists noticed that Holman Hunt had amazing eyesight but an amazing perception of colour as well. I'll read you a short extract that describes that:

A friend of Hunt, a writer and art critic Francis Turner Palgrave accompanied Hunt on a tour of the West Country in 1860, not too long before this picture was painted in late 1868. Palgrave described how Hunt decided to paint a cave which he could see across a rocky valley, quite a distance I suppose. The shadowing in this cave he painted a very lively blue. Palgrave goes on to question the colour that Hunt has used.

He says: 'Was this tint that to me looked degrees to brilliant due to the inevitable conventions of limited human art or did it simply present what he saw? Hunt held his paper against the rock and assured me that to his eye the two exactly matched.'

Another friend comes along and he asks the same question and Hunt replies as before, that to him the colours exactly match. Palgrave goes on, 'We thought ourselves hence justified in believing that to our friend's perception, colour, the most subjective of the senses in art, had a peculiar and personal quality'.

I think when looking at Hunt's pictures, any picture by him, it's worth thinking about that description that his friends gave about Hunt observed detail and colour. I think it explains a lot about his pictures.

Obviously what we're looking at is a portrait and I think when looking at portraits it's always important to consider the relationship between the person in the portrait and the person who is painting it. The most successful portraits are always, I think, the result of a good relationship between the sitter and the artist. It allows the artist to connect with the sitter. To bring out something of their true character.

Hunt was an incredible portrait artist. I'll show you a few examples in a moment but you can see just by looking round the gallery here how good an artist he was at portraits. If you look at the painting of May Morning at Magdalen Tower, Oxford, which is at the end of the Main Hall here, it's a procession of people and every person illustrated in that picture is shown as an absolute individual. Each one was a portrait painted. The difference of character that comes across, the difference of image that comes across is absolutely wonderful and it's great to look at that picture and compare it to these portraits as well.

Hunt often painted friends and family. He did also paint children. I think painting children and drawing children presents its won challenges. Unlike an adult sitting you can't get them to stay still for very long without getting bored. It's hard enough as an adult to sit for an artist for a lengthy period whilst they're drawing or painting you but imagine with a relatively young child.

Hunt seems to have had the talent to do that. Despite his intensity as a painter and his passion for many different subjects one might think of him as quite a serious and perhaps even difficult person but he's described often as light-hearted, great fun, jovial and so on. That aspect of his character was of great benefit when he was doing portraits of children because in effect he entertained them as he was painting them.

There's a really nice description by Cathy Madox Brown who was the daughter of one of his greatest friends that Hunt was always gentle with children and that he said they cheered him up and he could make them laugh. So he obviously liked that relationship with children.

She describes how in 1864, he rose to the challenge of painting a group of children out of doors. I'll show you the picture in a moment. How he did it was by not appearing engrossed with the painting but on the contrary principally interested in playing the fool to attract their attention and amuse them. He's managed to capture them.

I think in painting this young girl here, 'The Tuscan Girl', and her younger sister that's exactly what Hunt had to do. Interesting enough, writing to his friends about painting the picture, Hunt always really laboured over his pictures. Because of the detail, the colour, his desire to just get it right. A friend said 'Are you sending those portraits to London now?'. Hunt replied, 'No, they need three more days work. I'll only be satisfied when I've done that other three days work'. Probably to anybody else they would have looked fantastic but Hunt had to just get it right.

He also said, 'I'll be glad when they're finished because I don't have to entertain these kids anymore.'

I'll just show you this wonderful picture of a group of children that Hunt painted because it makes you think of the challenges that one might face in painting a group of children out of doors. This is called 'A Children's Holiday' and its Mrs Thomas Fairburn and her children. You've got five children in the picture plus the dog plus Mum. It's painted out of doors so just imagine trying to do that portrait. That's the one that Cathy Madox Brown referred to in her notes. He managed to entertain these children to paint this amazing portrait for that length of time.

It would have been a long and quite arduous process.

As I mentioned before, for Hunt this subject he really didn’t paint lots of portraits but the way he set the subject against the landscape was quite unusual. It was a bit of an experiment for him. Why he suddenly turned to painting these portraits whilst in Italy is difficult to say for sure. As I mentioned before he may have been filling time, experimenting whilst he was staying in Italy.

He might have been conscious of a number of child portraits that John Everett Millais did in the 1860s which were incredibly successful commercially. Hunt may have thought that this was something he could try also. Not just merely for the challenges it presented him as an artist but also that it might be something that would sell and of course for any artist that is important.

Indeed, once the pictures were sent to London to the dealer, Gambart, we know that shortly afterwards a cheque for £600 was deposited in Hunt's accounts so they obviously were sold and were successful. They immediately went into private hands and this work wasn't exhibited publicly until 1877, a considerable period after it was completed in 1869.

It was shown at the first exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery which was a very important exhibition. It was the first big exhibition that put itself up against the Royal Academy exhibition, the annual exhibition held in London each year that most artists wanted to get into.

Of course, Hunt had been a member of this group that was trying to break with the establishment and so he was keen to support the Grosvenor Gallery who was trying to display artworks in a different way and to give opportunities to artists exploring new avenues.

Interestingly, the Lady Lever Art Gallery's painting by Edward Burne-Jones, 'The Beguiling of Merlin', was also shown at that exhibition. It's nice to think about similar pictures on show here which originally were shown together in the Victorian period. When it was exhibited for the first time the reviews on the whole were quite favourable. As I put in my original notes to the picture, the review from The Spectator regarded it as a gem, a wonderful way of describing it.

One or two other reviewers weren't as kind and what they hit on was the expression of the child. She looked a bit serious, or almost non-expressive. Perhaps what they were expecting was something lively and animated and smiling. Something more typical of a child portrait.

I think one reviewer did pick out which was quite right was the detail and genuineness of her face. That she isn't made fancy in any way. What you see is what Hunt saw. It's not trying to get across an image of a certain type of child or a certain type of person or what we as a viewer might expect from a child portrait.

What he's trying to get across is what he saw. It was very much his truth to nature.

Thank you very much.