John Francis Austen, of Capel Manor, Horsmonden Kent
His executors’ sale, Christie’s, 10 July 1931, lot 56, bought by Gooden & Fox, London on behalf of William Hulme Lever, 2nd Viscount Leverhulme and thence by descent
London, Grosvenor Gallery, 1877, no.47
London, Fine Art Society, The Pictures of Mr William Holman Hunt, 1886, no.10 as A Tuscan Girl
Port Sunlight, Lady Lever Art Gallery, The Pre-Raphaelites: Their Friends and Followers, 1948, no.120
Bournemouth, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Paintings and Drawings by the Pre-Raphaelites and their Followers, 1951, no.16
Manchester City Art Gallery, Works of Art from Private Collections in the North West of England and North Wales, 1960, no.176
Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, William Holman Hunt: An Exhibition Arranged by the Walker Art Gallery, 1969, no.44
Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery and Christie’s, London, Treasures of the North: An Exhibition to Benefit the Christie Hospital, Manchester, 2000, no.71
Cardiff, National Museums and Galleries of Wales, Victorian Dreamers: Welsh Collections of 19th Century Art, 2005-6
Manchester City Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto and Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision, 2008-9, unnumbered catalogue
Stockholmk, National Museum, The Pre-Raphaelites, 2009, no.107
Ravenna, Museo d'Arte della citta di Ravenna, I preraffelliti: il sogno de '400 italiano da Beata Angelico a Perugino da Rossetti a Burne-Jones, 2010, no.85
Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy, 2010, no.81
W.M. Rossetti, Academy, XI, 26 May 1877, p.467
H.H. Statham, Macmillan’s Magazine, XXXVI, May 1877, p.41
Spectator, 20 March 1886, p.388
Athenaeum, 1 March 1890, p.283
A. Meynell and F.W. Farrar, Life and Works of William Holman Hunt, 1893, reproduced, p.14
G. Williamson, Holman Hunt, 1902, p.8
William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 2 volumes, 1905, vol.II, p.256, reproduced opposite p.144
O.J.W. von Schleinitz, William Holman Hunt, 1907, p.87, reproduced plate 84
Mary Bennett, ‘Footnotes to the Holman Hunt Exhibition’, Liverpool Bulletin, XIII, 1968-1970, pp.60-61
I. Horowitz, ‘The Picture Frame, 1848-1892: The Pre-Raphaelites, Whistler, Paris’, MA Report, Queens College, City University of New York, 1974, p.41
J.H.Coombs, A.M. Scott, G.P. Landow and A.A. Sanders (eds.), A Pre-Raphaelite Friendship: The Correspondence of William Holman Hunt and John Lucas Tupper, 1986, p.227
Judith Bronkhurst, William Holman Hunt, A Catalogue Raisonne, 2006, 2 volumes, Vol.I, pp.217-218, reproduced p.218, Vol.II, reproduced in its frame p.332
Spectator, 19 May 1877, p.631
A little Italian peasant girl with big brown eyes and her hair drawn back in an informal plait, is standing in a Tuscan landscape of rolling hills clad in morning mist, punctuated by red-roofed buildings, cypresses and olive trees. On her shoulder is perched a pet collared dove (streptopelia decaoto) to whom she is singing and she is plaiting straw into a long ribbon. This delightful picture was painted in Fiesole in the winter of 1869 and captures the crisp light of the central Italian plains with a little chill in the air that has ruffled the feather of the bird and flushed the cheeks of the girl.
William Holman Hunt arrived in Florence in June 1868 with a sad purpose – to design and supervise the building of the memorial to his late wife Fanny (née Waugh) who had died in December 1866 in Florence, following the birth of their son Cyril. The tomb was erected in the Protestant Cemetery near the Porta Pinti in Florence, but Hunt preferred to stay in the quieter refuge of Fiesole in the hills above the city. He found the air in Fiesole fresher and he loved the landscape, painting several remarkable landscapes including Sunset in the Val d’Arno, from Fiesole (Johannesburg Art Gallery) and A Fiesta at Fiesole (sold in these rooms, 20 June 1988, lot 41), in which glorious sunlight appears to have an almost religious symbolism, suggesting hope and rebirth. At Fiesole, Hunt also found models among the farming community who reminded him of the figures in his beloved Renaissance paintings. Two of these models were the daughters of the gardener at the Villa Medici, one of whom posed for Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw, while the other was pictured in its pendant Caught (sold in these rooms, 17 June 1986, lot 89). ‘As my health required me to live out of the city, I went up to Fiesole, where I painted a damsel as a Tuscan straw-plaiter of the type of gentle features peculiar to the cities of the Appenines (sic), such as Perugino loved to picture' (Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 2 volumes, 1st edition, 1905, vol. II, p.256).
According to Walburga, Lady Paget, Hunt was the guest of William Blundell Spence at the Villa Medici and he made his studio in the stables at the back of the old villa – probably the buildings visible over the girl’s left shoulder. Hunt had first visited Spence in 1867 and in late 1868 and early 1869 he based himself at the villa. William Blundell Spence (1814-1900) was born in Drypool in Yorkshire, the son of the noted entomologist William Spence and his wife Elizabeth Blundell. He spent the years 1826 to 1832 travelling with his parents and eventually settled in Italy in 1836. He remained in Italy for the rest of his life, becoming a successful painter and art dealer. His hospitality was far-reaching and his home at the beautiful and ancient Villa Medici above Florence became the centre for the Anglo-Italian community. The villa had always been a cultural magnet for artists, writers and wealthy patrons since it was built four centuries earlier and its walls were steeped in history. Described by Giorgio Vasari, the villa was built by order of Cosimo the Elder in the mid fifteenth century. In the time of Lorenzo de’ Medici, it became the site of meetings of illustrious contemporary scholars and artists – the meeting place for humanists and philosophers like Pico della Mirandola, Cristoforo Landino, Marsilio Ficino and Angelo Ambrogini, known as Poliziano, who wrote celebratory verses of the roses that grew in the little ‘secret garden’, and here composed his Rusticus. Although the villa was sold by the Medici family in 1671 and the complex had numerous owners until it was purchased by Spence (including Horace Walpole’s sister-in-law, Lady Orford), its links to the Medicis were always significant. The villa originally boasted a Laurentian gardens of fountains, fruit trees and terraces, but much of this was gone by the time Spence and his family moved there (even less survives today, although what remains is now protected).
Three pencil sketches (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) relating to An Italian Child suggest that the subject of Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw was not from the artist’s imagination, but was suggested by a real incident witnessed by Hunt. Two of the rough pencil sketches show a girl plaiting straw while a pet bird sits on her shoulder as she works. The first of the three sketches depicts an older child seated with her straw-plait and looking affectionately at a dove perched on her shoulder, whilst two further drawings show her standing with the bird in the same position. However, there was a precedent for the format of the painting in Hunt’s existing oeuvre, the beautiful little oil painting begun in 1858 entitled The School Girl’s Hymn (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). Both Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw and The School Girl’s Hymn depict the innocence and youthful energy of children and share a similar composition of a half-length figure set against a rolling landscape. The fundamental difference in the two paintings (apart from the geographical location) is what the two children are holding in their young hands. In the earlier painting the girl is poor (the seams of her jersey are coming apart and her costume is humble) and the model was the foster daughter of a shepherd, but she is at school and therefore has a chance of a better life than her parents. Holman Hunt was a firm believer in the power of education to lift people from squalor and his paintings were intended to be pictorial lessons for everyone. The girl depicted in Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw has little chance of an education and her hands are nimbly working the straw as part of a cottage industry from which she will probably never escape. In Florence in the 1860s an estimated £300,000 worth of straw plaiting was exported every year and it was one of the most important cottage industries of the region. Undoubtedly Hunt intended the subject to be picturesque and to suggest the continuing traditions of handicrafts in the region, but the young age of the girl also makes a social comment about the children who worked in the industry. However, back at home in England, children even younger faced greater hardships in the mills and factories where infant mortality was common and life was very tough. This little Tuscan girl has bright eyes and a clean, healthy complexion from her life in the clear rural air and she is well fed and beautifully dressed. The dove perhaps symbolises peace and certainly suggests contentment.
While in Fiesole, Hunt also painted the younger sister of the girl who posed for Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw. Entitled Caught, this small painting depicts a child (sometimes incorrectly identified as a boy) with an expression of guilt and surprise standing in the light flooding through a door that has been flung open to reveal her hiding place. Beside her is the peeled skin of a scrumped apple that the child has been caught eating. With different dimensions, the two paintings do not appear to have been painted as a pair, but were conceived alongside one another and have the same design of frame.
These angelic-looking children proved to be difficult for Hunt to control. They were half-wild country children, full of the restless energy of youth and did not much enjoy being told to sit still in Hunt’s studio while he painted them as they wanted to be outside playing. On 23 February 1869 Hunt wrote of his frustration to Frederic George Stephens, shortly after completing the pictures, that he was: ‘very very glad… to have done with the long weary task of keeping the little unruly savages moderately attentive to their work’ (letter, Bodleian Library, Oxford).
The feathered model for the picture was hardly more co-operative but their species held a particular fascination for the artist. Five years earlier, while struggling to paint the first version of The Afterglow in Egypt (Southampton Art Gallery) Hunt wrote to the painter Edward Lear: ‘I will try and get free somehow from the eternal pigeons which threaten to occupy me for the remainder of my life’. Despite this protestation, in 1865 Hunt painted The Festival of St Swithin (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) depicting the pigeon-house in the back garden of his home in Tor Villas, Campden Hill. Towards the end of his life Hunt again painted doves flying among the floating tapestry threads in The Lady of Shalott, completed in 1905 (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut). Religious symbolism is never wholly absent from Hunt’s work; the dove exemplifies the special care Christ affords to young children. Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw perfectly captures the innocence of the child model, protected by Christ’s blessing. The presence of the dove brings to mind John Everett Millais’ painting of The Return of the Dove to the Ark of 1851 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).
Hunt had expected to paint Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw and Caught relatively quickly and the subjects were ones that he felt were commercially attractive and rivalled the children’s portraits that Millais had lately been painting. However, they took longer to paint than he envisaged and he invested more artistic energy into them than he originally intended. On 23 February 1869 he wrote to his patron and business advisor Thomas Combe: ‘Your notion of… sending them home without giving myself the opportunity of touching them more amuses me. If I sent them home now not only would Gambart refuse to give me as much as I asked – he would object to pay me one pound for them – while from the two I expect to get at a least £500 when they have had another three days work divided between them… Now I ought to soften a few things and change the colour of a bit of drapery in one and send them home…’ They were finally completed by 14 March and the £600 recorded in the records of Coutts bank on 10 May 1869 was almost certainly in payment for them from Ernest Gambart.
Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw was first exhibited at the inaugural exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 where it was shown in the west gallery – the principle and most prestigious room. Hunt’s decision to exhibit at the Grosvenor Gallery was a rebellious move and a commercial choice. After years as an enemy of the Royal Academy Hunt saw the Grosvenor Gallery exhibition as an opportunity to ‘break through the very inconvenient spell which has prevented me from selling any works for so many years.’ (Letter from Hunt to Fred Stephens, 23 April 1877, Bodleian Library) He exhibited three pictures with Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw, all of which were oriental subjects: The Afterglow in Egypt, The Lantern-maker’s Courtship and On the Plains of Esdraelon above Nazareth. Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw was shown in close proximity to work by Edward Burne-Jones, James Whistler, George Frederic Watts and Millais. William Michael Rossetti wrote of the picture when he saw it in the Grosvenor Exhibition: ‘There is nothing in the exhibition more thoroughly carried out from its own point of view: it is a picture which… one could live with.’ (Academy, 26 May 1877, XI, p.467)
At the Grosvenor Gallery Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw was compared favourably to Millais’ portrait of the daughters of the Duke of Westminster: ‘Though the first three are ladies of the highest rank and cultivation, and the fourth is only a peasant’s child, yet… there is far greater grace, refinement, and delicacy about the last than the first-named pictures. And how are we to account for this? Do you suppose that there was so much expression and feeling in the child which Holman Hunt painted, and that there was none in the faces of the Ladies Grosvenor? Not a bit of it.’ (Spectator, 19 May 1877, p.631)
The picture is contained in its original gilt frame, decorated with medallions incorporating stylised daisies, appropriate for a picture of a young child. The design had been carefully thought out by Hunt who drew the decorative motif himself to be given to Joseph Green of Charles Street in London to make the frame. Joseph Green made the frame for several pictures by Hunt, including that for The Scapegoat.
By 1877, when Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, it was owned by John Francis Austen, a relative of the novelist Jane Austen. In 1860 Austen built Capel Manor, a sprawling Italianate villa with no less than twenty-six bedrooms at Horsmonden in Kent (demolished in 1966). Austen also collected Italian art and along with the Italian style of the architecture of Capel Manor, Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw was well placed in his home. It is likely that Austen had bought Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw from Gambart soon after it had been consigned to him for sale and it remained at Capel Manor until 1931, when it was sold by his executors at Christie’s and bought on behalf of William Hulme Lever, the 2nd Viscount Leverhulme. It hung in the French Drawing Room of his beautiful home, Thornton Manor on Merseyside.
William Hulme Lever was the second generation of his family to own pictures by Holman Hunt. It was his first significant purchase. His father, 1st Viscount, had purchased his first watercolour by Hunt in 1892, Mosque As-Sakreh – Interior (sold Sotheby’s, 26-28 June 2001, lot 395). This watercolour had been painted in the Holy Land on Hunt’s visit there immediately following his trip to Italy. In April 1919, Hunt’s widow offered Lord Leverhulme the magnificent May Morning on Magdalen Tower (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), which had been retained by the artist for his own collection, at a price of 5,000 guineas. Leverhulme declined, but subsequently purchased the picture when it appeared at Christie’s on 18 July 1919, for only 1,900 guineas. The most important of all Lord Leverhulme’s paintings by Hunt was the prime version of The Scapegoat (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight) which had first been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856. This had been bought from the Quilter collection on 22 June 1923 for 4,600 guineas.
We are very grateful to Judith Bronkhurst for her help with the cataloguing of this picture.
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