The Awakening Conscience

By Stephen Basdeo

William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853) is one of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Holman Hunt 1

Holman Hunt was a religious man and this was a companion piece to another painting of Jesus Christ entitled The Light of the World (1853).

Hunt had moral principles that were in line with most of his Victorian contemporaries. Through his art he wished to make a moral point about a story which was all-too-familiar to many Victorians: that of the adulterous married man who had a ‘kept woman’ or ‘mistress’. Often a very rich aristocratic or upper middle-class man would seduce a woman and pay for her to live in a fashionable apartment where he could have sex with her without arousing the suspicion of his wife. In G. W. M. Reynolds’s novel The Mysteries of London and The Mysteries of the Court of London (1844–56), for example, there are several aristocratic characters, and even the Prince Regent himself, who keep a woman maintained in an apartment at their beck-and-call.

Holman Hunt 2

And the woman in question here is being ‘well-kept’; she lacks a wedding ring yet she is frolicking around with another man—this would have been immediately obvious to the Victorians. Such women were usually from the poorer classes everything in the apartment is brand new, seen from the bright gleam of the varnish on the furnishings.

The clock is likewise an expensive item; it is gold when most people’s clocks in all but the grandest homes would have been relatively modest wooden constructions—this is certainly not what we would expect to see when we enter a relatively small Victorian apartment.

Holman Hunt 4

The man has essentially ‘trapped’ her in this lifestyle; she had nothing and he had everything. The idea that she is trapped comes from the cat under the table, who has caught a bird.

And when the man visits, he has one thing on his mind: sex. This is why Holman Hunt has depicted the man’s face as full of lust.

Holman Hunt 3

Usually the pair are used to probably having some fun and games beforehand, and on the grand piano which he has bought, the man is playing a tune: Thomas Moore’s Oft in the Stilly Night:

Oft, in the stilly night, 

Ere slumber’s chain has bound me, 

Fond memory brings the light 

Of other days around me; 

The smiles, the tears, 

Of boyhood’s years, 

The words of love then spoken; 

The eyes that shone, 

Now dimm’d and gone, 

The cheerful hearts now broken! 

Thus, in the stilly night, 

Ere slumber’s chain hath bound me, 

Sad memory brings the light 

Of other days around me. 

When I remember all 

The friends, so link’d together, 

I’ve seen around me fall, 

Like leaves in wintry weather; 

I feel like one 

Who treads alone 

Some banquet-hall deserted, 

Whose lights are fled, 

Whose garlands dead, 

And all but he departed! 

Thus, in the stilly night, 

Ere slumber’s chain has bound me, 

Sad memory brings the light 

Of other days around me.

To the man, this is just some silly old tune written by a long-dead poet and is of little consequence. It is background music to the main event. But it is the playing of this tune which kick-starts the woman’s ‘awakening conscience’. She can remember the tune from her childhood and this reminds her of her ‘lost innocence’.

So suddenly she starts to repent of her life and does not want to have any more “fun” with the man who has entrapped her in this lifestyle. Finally, Holman Hunt makes clear that there is only one way out of this lifestyle for her: we see from the mirror at the back that she is looking out of an open window, signifying that for her to be truly free and regain lost innocence she must leave this apartment and, by extension, her lifestyle.

Holman Hunt 5

And if she does not take this opportunity to escape this lifestyle, Holman Hunt reminds us, through the discarded glove on the floor, what often happens to many mistresses: the man gets bored and abandons them.

Holman Hunt 8


Further Reading

Leslie Parris (ed.), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1994, pp.120-21

Marcia R. Pointon (ed.), Pre-Raphaelites Re-viewed (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989)

Advertisements

Book Review: “The Art of Law: Three Centuries of Justice Depicted” (2017)

Stefan Huygebaert et al (eds.), The Art of Law: Three Centuries of Justice Depicted (Tielt: Lannoo, 2016), 205pp. ISBN9789401440417 RRP £20.

This lavishly illustrated book is related to a recent exhibition at the Groeningemuseum in Brugge, Belgium. The aim of the exhibition was to give an overview of how justice and the workings of the law have been depicted in European high art between the medieval and early modern periods. To this end, the Groeningemuseum displayed paintings from its own collection, such as the fifteenth-century work by Gerard David, Het Oordeel van Cambyses (“The Judgement of Cambyses”), as well as rare manuscripts, books, and artefacts. The exhibition was then supplemented by an academic conference on the theme of law and justice in art which is currently a neglected area of scholarship.[i]

The introduction by Georges Martyn is highly informative, prefacing the ensuing case studies by raising several interesting points about the reason why art and architecture is highly important to the operation of the law:

Throughout history, law and justice have been surrounded by an aura of sacredness. To judge is to exercise power […] in the 19th– and 20th-century courts of law, architecture played a vital role in legitimising authority. With their richly decorated rooms and the impressive robes of the togati, these ‘Temples of Themis’ inspired awe […] Art depicting law and justice helped to legitimise the power of the courts.[ii]

It was recognised at the time that artistic depictions of the law helped to shore up the power of the ruling elites. This is why, after all, many of the paintings displayed at the exhibition were often commissioned by Magistrates and other public officials, and it had become common practice to exhibit these paintings within official buildings.[iii]

The book is divided into a series of case studies by various authors, each of which analyses a particular painting or object and discusses it in its historical context. One interesting essay in the collection is Vanessa Pauman’s discussion of the afore-mentioned Het Oordeel van Cambyses. This painting was commissioned by the Magistrates of Bruges but was not intended to awe offenders with a sense of the power and glory of the workings of the law. Rather, as Paumen points out, it was a moral message for the judges who passed sentences. The painting tells the story of a judge who served the King of Persia. The judge, Cambyses, had been accepting bribes from offenders and thus ‘had tainted his noble profession’.[iv] As punishment, the King ordered Cambyses to be flayed alive, and had his skin to decorate the judges’ chair as a permanent reminder of the sacredness of their profession.

judgment-of-cambyses
The Judgement of Cambyses. Oil on Canvas. Groeninngemuseum.

Additionally, in the medieval and early modern periods, the idea of earthly justice was intertwined with that of divine justice. Societies in those ages were, of course, more religious. While the Last Judgement features heavily in a lot of art, Georges Martyn also picks examines other lesser-known Biblical episodes which featured in a visual representations of justice. For example, Francis Floris I’s The Judgement of Solomon (1547) was exhibited in Antwerp City Hall in order to provide public officials with an example of the difficulties of trying to judge a case when it is a matter of one person’s word against another. Works such as Het Oordeel van Cambyses and The Judgement of Solomon remind us that the representation of justice is not always about aweing commoners into submission.

Other highlights include Jos Monballyu’s discussion of paintings depicting the Flemish jurist, Joos de Damhauder (1507-1581). The man was a ‘celebrity’ public official: the author of a highly influential law treatise entitled Practycke Criminele (1570), and appeared in numerous contemporary prints. Another highlight in the collection of essays is Stefan Huygebaert’s discussion of the uses of the sword in images of justice. The reason that recognisable figures in the iconography of the law carry a sword, we are told, is because such images draw upon images of Christ from the book of revelation. The sword carried by images of Lady Justice symbolises not only a willingness to judge (as Christ does at the Last Judgement), but also a willingness to protect the weak and vulnerable.

The book focuses heavily on paintings and prints, but one thing that could have enhanced this work is if it had discussed more artefacts. Huygebaert and Kristel Van Audenaeren co-author a chapter on a fifteenth century silver sculpture shaped like a fist and called, perhaps unsurprisingly, The Fist of Justice (there appear to be no public domain images of this and therefore I cannot show it). Such pieces were known as ‘penalty pieces’, imposed upon wealthy offenders who had committed violent acts and exhibited in the courtroom for future offenders to see. This was a person’s way of ‘giving something back to society’, so to speak. In spite of the highly interesting history of this and similar objects given by Huygebaert and Audenaeren, however, the subsequent chapters revert to discussing paintings.

floris-last-judgement
Frans Floris, The Judgement of Solomon. Oil on Canvas. Antwerp: Museum von Schone Kunsten.

Although this is an academic book, at twenty pounds it is relatively affordable when compared to the standard monograph price of approximately seventy pounds. The subject matter will render it useful to both researchers and students interested in the visual representation of the law, a sub-discipline of art, crime and legal history that is gaining ground. Moreover, its highly visual content will, furthermore, render the book popular with general readers interested in legal and crime history.


Notes

[i] In Britain, Plymouth University recently held a conference with a similar theme entitled ‘A Time of Judgement: The Operation and Representation of Judgement in 19th Century Cultures’ at which I gave a paper, although the focus at this conference was literature rather than art and material culture.

[ii] Georges Martyn, ‘Divine Judgement, Worldly Justice’ in The Art of Law: Three Centuries of Justice Depicted ed. by Stefan Huygebaert et al (Tielt: Lannoo, 2016), pp.15-28 (p.15).

[iii] Vannessa Pauman, ‘The Skin of the Judge: The Judgment of Cambyses’ in The Art of Law: Three Centuries of Justice Depicted ed. by Stefan Huygebaert et al (Tielt: Lannoo, 2016), pp.81-91 (p.91).

[iv] Ibid.

William Windus’ “The Outlaw” (1861)

Robin Hood has always been popular, in that he has always been a people’s hero. But rarely does he make forays into ‘high’ culture. The expensive three volume novels which were aimed at the middle classes, such as Ivanhoe (1819), Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822), Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower (1838), and G. P. R. James’ Forest Days (1843) do not feature him in the title, although he is the hero of the narratives. Most likely this is a result of writers’ and publishers’ fears of casting an outlaw as the hero. In fact, Robin only got his first novel title when Pierce Egan the Younger, in a penny dreadful (incidentally aimed at the working classes) entitled Robin Hood and Little John (1838-40).

While Robin does feature prominently in literature (if not always in the titles of those works), one area he is, with one or two exceptions, altogether absent from is paintings. Daniel Maclise painted a scene from Ivanhoe in 1839, but images of Robin Hood have tended to be consigned to children’s book illustrations in the nineteenth century, or crude woodcuts on penny broadsides in the seventeenth and eigheenth centuries.

It is even more striking that Robin makes no appearance in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites. From 1849 onwards the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood led the way in Victorian medievalism. [2] The Pre-Raphaelites rejected classicist artistic conventions which, they thought, began with Raphael, and aimed to return art to what it was like before Raphael and Michelangelo; hence the ‘Pre’ in ‘Pre-Raphaelite’. For many of their paintings they took inspiration from (though not exclusively) medieval subjects; for example, William Holman Hunt painted The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro in 1848, which is based upon John Keats’ poem The Eve of St. Agnes (1819).

180px-William_Lindsay_Windus-Self-portraitWilliam Windus – Self Portrait (Source: Wikipedia)

The founding members of the PRB were Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), John Everett Millais (1829-1896), and William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). They were later joined in their endeavours by William Michael Rossetti (1819-1919), James Collinson (1825-1881), Frederic George Stephens (1827-1907) and Thomas Woolner (1825-1892), while their principles were shared by others such as Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893).

Another group which were influenced by the principles of Pre-Raphaelites was the Liverpool School of Painters. And from this school was William Windus (1822-1907) who painted The Outlaw in 1861 (see header image). The scene is a medieval greenwood, and the figure of a woman cradles the head of an injured man. The woman turns her head slightly to the side, and appears to look apprehensive. The outlaw and his woman are probably being chased by the authorities, signified by the fact that a bloodhound is running down the hill after them.

The main feature of the painting is the landscape, and the two human figures are almost slipping out of the picture. In the Robin Hood tradition, outlaws are always associated with the natural world. The natural world represents freedom from the laws of men and freedom from mainstream society. [3] Although evidently in this scene, the unjust world of men has begun to encroach upon the outlaw world.

To me, and readers here may disagree, while the title of the painting does not blatantly say that the two figures are supposed to be Robin Hood and Maid Marian, I think they are. Which other outlaw in popular imagination would have had a woman caring him for him the way that the woman in the picture is caring for the outlaw? The one thing which complicates this reasoning, however, is the fact that there is no comparable scene in the Robin Hood tradition.

There is nothing in Windus’ life to suggest that he was a fan of the Robin Hood tradition, and his life appears to have been the model of Victorian respectability. His wife died the year after the painting was completed, leaving Windus a single father. A brief biography [4] of him states that after the death of his wife, and being of some independent means, he wholly abandoned painting. He died in 1907 and The Outlaw can now be seen in Manchester Art Gallery. The Pre-Raphaelites never touched Robin Hood, but if Windus’ painting was intended to refer to Robin Hood, this is the only example of Pre-Raphaelite medievalism that does


References

[1] William Windus The Outlaw (1861) Manchester Art Gallery Oil on Canvas Accession No. 1937.28 [Internet <<http://artuk.org/discover/artworks/the-outlaw-206425>&gt; Accessed 20 March 2016].
[2] Chris Brooks, The Gothic Revival (Phaidon, 1999), 283.
[3] Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003), 13.
[4] Bob Speel, ‘William Windus’ [Internet <http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/speel/paint/windus.htm&gt; Accessed 20 March 2016].