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)


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


[1] William Windus The Outlaw (1861) Manchester Art Gallery Oil on Canvas Accession No. 1937.28 [Internet <<>&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 <; Accessed 20 March 2016].