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' 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 her feast, 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's arms by the jealous rivalry between their two families, are the principal figures of the poem and the painting. On St Agnes' Eve, Porphyro gained access to Madeleine's bedroom, pretending at first to be a vision. After revealing his true identity he persuaded 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 are described as escaping. The following lines from Keats's poem were included in the catalogue of the 1848 Royal Academy Exhibition when the larger version was first shown:
'They glide, like phantoms into the wide hall;
Like phantoms, to the iron porch they glide;
Where lay the Porter, in uneasy sprawl,
With a huge empty flagon by his side:
The wakeful bloodhound rose, and shook his hide,
But his sagacious eye an inmate owns;
By one, and one, the bolts full easy slide:-
The chains lie silent on the footworn stones
The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans.'
Nobody else is awake in the poem, rather 'In all the house was heard no human sound'. However, Hunt has increased the tension of the moment of escape by adding feasting guests of Madeleine's father 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.