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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The natural history of an English Arcadia : Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd, the rural tradition, and pre-Darwinian science Kriz, Kay Dian


The Hire 1ing Shepherd represented William Holman Hunt's first effort at producing a modern landscape with a moral theme. To date scholarship has focused exclusively on interpreting the work's complex iconography. Such a narrow approach fails to consider the more fundamental issue of how the painting functioned within the context of the rural landscape tradition as it existed in mid-Victorian England. This present investigation will address this problem by analyzing The Hireling Shepherd in concert with its critical reception and the relevant historical circumstances which surrounded its production. An assessment of the critical response to the painting clearly indicates that Hunt's coarse, idle, rural lovers disturbed and angered a large segment of the predominantly urban, middle-class audience that viewed it at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1852. To make sense of this response it is necessary to determine first what constituted acceptable rural imagery. An examination of prints, songs, and literary descriptions, as well as paintings, reveals that a remarkably congruent vision of the countryside as a place of peace, virtue, social harmony, and plenty was presented to the urban public as an accurate representation of contemporary rural life. This normative vision was predicated upon viewer needs and expectations which, in turn, were strongly affected by the economic status of agriculture in this period, and by related social and political issues. Hunt's image, therefore, is discussed in relationship to other, more acceptable rustic landscapes and analyzed in the context of contemporary agricultural issues. Despite its generally hostile reception in the conservative and centrist press, The Hireling Shepherd did have admirers, who also wrote favorably of the two other major Pre-Raphaelite works in the exhibition, Millais' Ophelia and A Huguenot. An examination of the reviews received by these three paintings together with other contemporary writings on Pre-Raphaelitism indicates that admirers tended to be politically liberal, scientifically-oriented intellectuals. They expressed a marked preference for the highly particularized and scientifically accurate detailing of these works as opposed to the more generalized and idealized effects of paintings produced in the academic tradition established by Joshua Reynolds and perpetuated by Charles Eastlake. Having identified the public for Hunt's rustic landscape, it is necessary to understand why this group wished to promote this type of painting. A scrutiny of writings by some of the most ardent supporters of The Hireling Shepherd and other like-minded intellectuals discloses similar beliefs in the value of scientific methodology as an instrument of social and moral progress. On an artistic level The Hireling Shepherd mediates these various ideas by suggesting that a "truthful" composition rendered with scientifically accurate detail is a better vehicle for revealing moral truth than the "false" idealizations of academic classicism. The results of this investigation indicate that Holman Hunt's refusal to promote an affirmative vision of rural England was prompted by his moral commitment to an art based on scientific observation and delineation. As a consequence The Hireling Shepherd challenged traditional assumptions about the nature and purpose of rustic landscape painting and at the same time activated an even larger conflict concerning the role of science as an instrument for maintaining ideological control of English society.

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