Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hunt, William Henry
HUNT, WILLIAM HENRY (1790-1864), water-colour painter, was born on 28 March 1790, at 8 Old Belton Street (now Endell Street), Long Acre, London. He was the son of John and Judith Hunt, and his father was a tinplate worker. He was a small, sickly child, crippled from weakness in the legs, and unfit for ordinary work, but his fondness for drawing was displayed early. He was probably about fourteen years old when he was apprenticed to John Varley [q.v.] for seven years. John Linnell [q.v.] was a fellow-pupil; they soon became friends and sketched together in Kensington Gravelpits and other places within easy distance, for Hunt's infirmity compelled him then as in later life to choose subjects close at hand. In 1807 he was at work with Linnell on an illumination transparency, and in 1809 he sketched with him at Hastings. It was probably before this that he made the acquaintance of Dr. Thomas Monro of Adelphi Terrace and of Bushey (near Watford), the patron of young painters in water-colour. At Adelphi Terrace he copied drawings by Gainsborough and others at 1s. 6d. or 2s. apiece, and had the opportunity of meeting the rising artists of the day. To Hunt Monro showed more than usual favour, having him to stay with him for a month at a time and paying him 7s. 6d. a day for his sketches from nature. In the neighbourhood of Bushey he used to be taken about in a sort of barrow with a hood to it, drawn by a man or a donkey, and according to one account it was while he was sketching for Monro that he was introduced to the Earl of Essex, whose seat of Cassiobury was not far from Bushey. According to another account it was the earl who introduced him to the doctor. At all events one of his earliest commissions was for `interiors' at Cassiobury for the earl, and in 1822 he exhibited at the Royal Academy a picture of the 'Dining Room at Cassiobury,' and two coloured aquatints after Hunt's drawings are to be found in Britton's `Account of Cassiobury.' The Duke of Devonshire was also an early patron. For him Hunt drew or painted the state rooms at Chatsworth. In 1807 Hunt began to exhibit at the Royal Academy, sending three `views' near Hounslow, Reading, and Leatherhead, and the year after, on the advice of William Mulready [q. v.], he entered the schools of the Academy. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1807 to 1811, when he returned from Varley's house, 15 Broad Street, Golden Square, to his father's in Old Belton Street, and again from 1822, when his address was 36 Brownlow Street, Drury Lane, to 1825, when he removed to 6 Marchmont Street, Brunswick Square. Altogether he exhibited fourteen works at the Academy. They were painted in oil colours, and were all landscapes and interiors, with the exception of `Selling Fish' (1808), and perhaps one or more of the subjects described as `sketches.' In 1814, 1815, and 1819 he exhibited ten works (landscapes and two portraits) at the (now Royal) Society of Painters in Water-colours, who for a few years (1813-21), on account of a secession of some of their members, admitted oil pictures to swell their exhibitions. He also exhibited six works at the British Institution and one at Suffolk Street before 1829. In 1824 Hunt was elected an associate exhibitor of the Water-colour Society, and from this time he devoted himself almost exclusively to painting in water-colour. In 1826 he was elected a full member.
His rapid promotion in the society proves that he had now made his mark. The first drawing which is said to have shown his peculiar gifts in patient and faithful rendering of subtle gradations of light and colour was of a greengrocer's stall lit by a paper lantern. Still life, flowers, fruit, vegetables, game, and poultry soon began to predominate in his drawings over figures and landscapes. Between 1824 and 1831 he exhibited 153 drawings, of which eight were candlelight scenes, and sixty were figures of fisherfolk at Hastings. Some of his best landscapes were also painted at Hastings, which he visited regularly for thirty years, taking up his residence in a small house in the old town overlooking the beach. In 1842 his London address changed from Marchmont Street to 55 Burton Crescent, and in 1845 to 62 Stanhope Street, Hampstead Road, where he died, but from 1851 he had a country residence also, Parkgate, Bromley, near Basingstoke, Hampshire, where he spent many months each year in later life.
During Hunt's most productive period (1831-51) he exhibited on an average twenty-five pictures a year. After 1851 the average dropped to eleven, but he then commanded higher prices. In 1858 he wrote: `I have now thirty-five guineas for the same size that I used to have twenty-five, perhaps somewhat more finished.'
Hunt was a man of little culture or intellectual power outside his art. He was debarred by his infirmity from active exercise, and in later years his health prevented him from drawing in the open air. Many, if not most, of his landscapes were drawn from windows. To these causes is to be ascribed not only the limited range of his subjects, but also the perfection to which he attained in rendering them. No one, perhaps, has ever realised so fully the beauty of common objects seen in sunlight at a short distance, but no one has ever employed so many years in pursuit of this almost solitary aim. His subjects were not great. The interiors were nearly always rustic, barns, cottages, smithies, and the like, the figures (except the fishermen) rustic also, with now and then a negro or negress `Massa Sambo,' `Jim Crow,' or `Miss Jemima.' He had a strong vein of humour, and many of his best-known drawings (made popular by chromo-lithographs) were from a boy-model (John Swain, 1826-1883) whom he found at Hastings and brought up to London with him. This boy was the original of nearly all the drawings of the type of `Too Hot,' `The Card-players,' `The Young Shaver,' 'The Flyfisher ' (a boy catching a bluebottle), and the pair of drawings of a boy with a huge pie, exhibited under the titles of `The Commencement' and `The Conclusion,' but better known as `The Attack' and `The Defeat,' by which names the reproductions were called. `Who,' wrote Thackeray, `does not recollect "Before and After the Mutton Pie," the two pictures of that wondrous boy? `To Mr. Ruskin and others some of these humorous drawings appeared vulgar, but Thackeray represented the opinion of many good judges when he called them `grand, good-humoured pictures,' and declared that `Hogarth never painted anything better than these figures taken singly.'
Sometimes Hunt would paint his rustics in all seriousness, revealing the native sweetness of a young peasant, as in 'The Shy Sitter,' or the patriarchal grandeur of an old man, as in `The Blessing;' but he failed when he attempted to seize the subtler graces of a beautiful gentlewoman. He acknowledged this deficiency. In his later years, when the demand for his pictures of fruit and flowers was so great that he had no time to devote to figures, he undertook a series of studies of small objects for Mr. Ruskin, to be presented to country schools of art as models. Of these he executed a few of great beauty, including 'Study in Gold' (a smoked pilchard) and 'Study in Rose-Grey' (a mushroom)(1860); but Mr. Ruskin kindly released the old artist from the completion of an engagement which had too much the nature of a task to be performed with perfect pleasure.
Hunt was very industrious, rising early, painting till one, when he had his dinner, and resuming work till dusk. He took about a fortnight or eighteen days over his little drawings, and the number of his works exhibited in Pall Mall was about eight hundred. He never ceased to study, and even as late as 1862 wrote that he had learned much from the drawings of Birket Foster and other exhibitors in Pall Mall. To the end of his life he enjoyed an occasional visit to the theatre, and was fond of fireworks. He married and had one daughter, but in the last years of his life his house was kept by his sister-in-law, Miss Holloway. In 1855 eleven of his water-colours attracted much attention at the Paris universal exhibition, and the year after he was elected a member of the Royal Academy at Amsterdam. He was deeply affected in 1863 by the death of his old friend Mulready, and he was in a very weak state when he attended at the Water-colour Society to examine the drawings sent in by candidates for election as associates. He died of paralysis on 10 Feb. 1864, and was buried at Highgate cemetery. Till the end of his life the demand for his drawings steadily increased, although the prices he obtained for them were very small compared with their present value. Even before he died one of his drawings, `Too Hot' (a boy eating porridge), sold for three hundred guineas, and the same drawing, or a replica of it, and another, called `The Eavesdropper,' sold for 750 guineas apiece at Mr. Quilter's sale in 1875. Some of his flower and fruit pieces, for example `Roses in a Jar' (11½ inches by 9) at the sale of the Wade collection in 1872, have fetched five hundred guineas. In spite of the small prices paid him for his drawings, Hunt left 20,000l. at his death.
Hunt's drawings illustrate the whole history of English painting in water-colour. He began with the early 'tinted drawing,' outlined with the pen, the shadows laid in with neutral tints, and the colour reserved mainly for the high lights, and used sparingly. Subsequently he employed pure transparent colour for the whole drawing, gradually admitting body colour in union with transparent until in his latest fruit and flower pieces there is little else than body colour. He described his method in later years as `pure colour over pure colour,' and he obtained the most brilliant effects of which his materials were capable by touches of pure colour on pure colour over opaque white.Though he knew every variety and resource of handling, his peculiar tendency was to pure colour rather than mixed tints, and to hatch and stipple rather than wash. This led in his later drawings to what is described by Mr. Ruskin as `a broken execution by detached and sharply defined touches.' Hunt had a few pupils, and once sent a young artist the sound advice `never to copy any one's manner,' and `to bear in mind that there is something more to accomplish than he will ever do;' but although he was such a master of his art he was unable to explain his methods to others. Hunt drew at least two portraits of himself, one of which belongs to Mr. Sutton Palmer, the water-colour painter, and the other to Mr. Osler, and a bust of him by Alexander Munro is on the staircase of the Royal Society of Painters in Water-colours. There are a few drawings by Hunt at the British and South Kensington Museums. Some fine collections of his drawings were made by Mr. Wade (Hunt's doctor), Mr. Ruskin, and others, but probably the best are now those of Mr. James Orrock and Mr. Louis Huth.[Roget's Hist. of the Old Water Colour Society; Redgrave's Dict. 1878; Redgraves' Century of Painters, 1890; Bryan's Dict. (Graves and Armstrong); Graves's Dict.; Encyclopædia Britannica; Athenæum, 20 Feb. 1864; Fraser's Mag. November 1865; Ruskin's Notes on Samuel Prout and William Hunt; W. E. Church's W. M. Thackeray as an Artist and Art Critic; The Reader, 27 Feb. 1864; Royal Academy Catalogues.]