This incisive and beautifully worked watercolour was made by William Henry Hunt in around 1830. It belongs to a small group of sensitive studies Hunt made of black sitters, particularly children. Executed rapidly in watercolour, this study seems likely to have been made from life and points to Hunt’s extraordinary virtuosity as a watercolourist.
Hunt was born in London, the son of a tin-plate worker and japanner. J. L. Roget recorded the observation of Hunt’s uncle: ‘nervy, little Billy Hunt… was always a poor cripple, and as he was fit for nothing, they made an artist of him.’ At the age of sixteen he was apprenticed to the landscape painter John Varley for seven years, moving to live with Varley at 18 Broad Street, Golden Square, London. There he made close friends with both John Linnell and William Mulready. Hunt worked at the ‘Monro Academy’, at 8 Adelphi Terrace, London, the house of Dr Thomas Monro, an enthusiastic patron of landscape watercolourists. Through Monro, Hunt was introduced to the 5th Earl of Essex and 6th Duke of Devonshire, working extensively at Cassiobury, Chatsworth, Hardwick Hall, Devonshire House and Chiswick House.
At the beginning of the 1820s Hunt’s work moved away from topographical scenes to ones of human interest, including rural or domestic characters, as well as still lives and figure studies. Throughout the decade he spent the winter months at Hastings in Sussex, where he made many drawings of boats, the seashore, and fishermen. Three brothers he met in Hastings, who became known as ‘Hunt’s boys’, posed as models for many of his drawings.
Hunt made several studies of black sitters, including a beautifully observed drawing of a young girl in pencil on buff paper now in the Courtauld Institute, London, a boy posing as a boxer in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (formerly with Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd), and a watercolour of young boy with a slate at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Hunt’s more finished studies of black children frequently appealed to the sentimentalised nineteenth-century view of childhood, albeit, a view overlaid with racial prejudice. By contrast, this naturalistic study of a young boy is more ambiguous. British artists were increasingly interested in Black subjects during the 1830s, slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833 and the abolition movement gripped fashionable London.
Hunt’s carefully observed watercolour has a candour and immediacy which suggests it is a study taken from life. Hunt’s technique owes much to his carefully executed still lives, particularly the use of dots of watercolour to build up the exquisitely modelled face. This may point to an aspect of Hunt’s art that has not received sufficient attention. Hunt himself almost certainly suffered from some form of physical deformity, according to his early biographer, F. G. Stephens, Hunt was: ‘was a little less than… five foot. He was broad as well as round shouldered and his head was large beyond proportion to the rest of his figure which the torso was that of a larger man. His large and long frock coats and loose trousers although favourable to him on other accounts, did not add to his outward graces.’ Stephens adds that Hunt’s personal disabilities: ‘frequently made him reserved and not very easily accessible to strangers.’ This reserve developed into a pathological dislike of his appearance, the painter G. P. Boyce noted in his diary that: ‘W. H. Hunt had a morbid conviction of his own ugliness and desired that all record of him to the present in the way of portraits or letters should be destroyed.’ There is evidence that Hunt’s physical deformity made him a marginalised figure in nineteenth-century London and someone who had an inherent sympathy for other marginalised characters.
According to several early biographers Hunt was familiar and friendly with members of Victorian London’s black community. In her memoirs Ann Mary Wood offers an account of Hunt’s character and habits:
‘a Quilp like dwarf but…[he] possessed the tenderest heart and the most sympathetic and delicate nerves. Like Paul Dombey he was addicted to low company, and street conjurors, acrobats and nigger minstrels were always welcome at the tea table of his humble lodging, and a certain ‘Bones’ in the latter troop was his especial friend.’
Bones was a generic character from minstrel shows, a reference to the instrument he would have played: bone castanets. But this reference suggests that Hunt was intimately acquainted with black performers. This is an area that deserves further investigation, given the small, but powerful group of studies Hunt made of black sitters. This immensely appealing work, preserved in excellent condition points a lost world of black culture in Victorian London.
- Jan Marsh, Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800-1900, exh. cat., Manchester (Manchester City Art Gallery), 2005, pp.58-59.
- F. G. Stephens, ‘William Henry Hunt, water-colour painter’, Fraser's Magazine, no.72, 1865, pp.525–36
- Quoted in: John Witt, William Henry Hunt: Life and Work a Catalogue, London, 1982, p.48.