“Of his life little is known. He died unmarried, in Stanhope Street” So writes a recent historian of the Early Water-Colour Painters! It seems a pity that of one of the great men of that school so little should be known that the little this authority has to tell us is incorrect. Hunt was a married man all the years that I knew him, and left a wife and a daughter to survive him.
It is true that there is little to record of him that would make a biography. Apart from his artistic powers and fame, the testimony to which is before the world, he was not a striking man or a brilliant member of society. No one at first sight — unless his head was seen first — would have suspected him to be a great man. He had a splendid cranium, otherwise he was diminutive and deformed, and with no pretension to polish. Thus he was little known outside the circle of those who, first becoming interested in his works, sought out the man and became interested in him.
What is generally known of his early days is that he was one of the knot of young men whom Dr. Munro took under his wing and employed, it is said, for half a crown a day and their supper. Out of this school came many great names. It gave them good practice, and plenty of it.
But this is to be a reminiscence, and not a biography — for which, indeed, I have no material. My acquaintance with him dated from the summer of 1838. I was sketching one morning on the Pier Rocks at Hastings, when a gentleman accosted me, and after a little conversation asked me to dine with him. Out of this introduction grew by degrees a close and enduring friendship, and the first immediate fruit of it was my meeting with William Hunt, who was a frequent visitor at that house. Mr. Maw, the senior partner in the firm of J. and S. Maw, of Aldersgate Street, the surgical instrument manufacturers—since known all the world over as S. Maw and Son—after giving the start to their successful career, loving art better than business, had early retired on a moderate competency. He was himself an amateur of no mean ability, a sound and judicious critic. Long before Ruskin had told the world the merits of Turner, he had possessed himself of a choice collection of his works, chiefly in water-colour, including many of the originals of the “England and Wales” series, and others of his best periods. Besides these Mr. Maw’s house contained examples of the best artists of the age, many of them painted to his commission or under his eye. Few men of his day so thoroughly understood the high qualities of the works they possessed ; and it was no small advantage to a youth of nineteen to have free access to his gallery and the benefit of his criticism. It was at Mr. Maw’s house, if not on my first visit it must have been immediately after, that I met Hunt. Hastings was one of his favourite places. It was suited to his special humour. He would sometimes lodge close to the fish-Market, where the peculiar character of the people was always a study for him. The fishing colony of Hastings is a race in many ways separate from the rest of the world, having, its own habits and ties, and a dialect of its own much mixed up with the French. No more picturesque garb than its inhabitants wear can be found in this island, unless indeed the Highlands might compete for the palm. With old Hastings, then, Hunt had great sympathy, and from among these people he often took his models. One family supplied him for many years. He took the eldest of the lads into his service as his page and his model till he outgrew the office and was fit for other employment. Then the next brother came in for his place; and he in his turn made room for the younger of the three. If I remember right, Johnny, the second of the Swains, was with him when I first knew him, and afterwards was succeeded by his brother Bill. It was amusing sometimes, when a visitor called, to be received by a “buttons” in anything but the approved livery—Johnny, dressed up in some strange style, coming straight from the studio to answer the door. But all this was in keeping with the man, whose life was one of consistent simplicity, and with one aim only. These were arch-lads, clever in their native way, and excellently suited to his purpose, willing to be all things to him, and who did their best to act their parts. His pictures taken from these models tell not only his skill in portraying rude character, but theirs in the help they gave him. It was not easy to keep his model always up to the mark. If he wanted to paint him crying, he was not satisfied with a pretence; he had to scold him, and pinch him, and use all the means he could devise to make the expression genuine. Then, again, for hours he wanted him to laugh. That he could well do. His fund of humour was at no loss for means of keeping him amused. But even this would fail, and he had to scold him into laughing till he cried. Then there was “The Attack”—of a pie—and “The Defeat,” or “A Marine Effect “— of sea-sickness; in all which he needed to have the expression sustained for every touch of his pencil. He painted nothing but as he saw it, trusted nothing to his knowledge or his memory; would not add the smallest thing to what he saw before him. It was because he saw so much more than others saw, that his work transcended theirs. If he saw what struck him as a subject in the corner of a room, he would ask that it might be left untouched till he had finished the drawing of it. No profane touch of the housemaid’s duster must be permitted and this sometimes for weeks together. Or if he saw a dish at dessert or a pheasant or a fish newly-arrived, worth painting, it was bodily removed to his room, to immortalised on his paper, till it could be kept no longer. If he composed a picture, which he rarely did — such as a trooper sitting in a chair — he would not do a stroke till his subject was complete, the chair covered with brown paper to match the colour of oak, and the background as he required it to be; so much with him depended on the relation of all the parts to each other. Or if he painted a bank of primroses, or anything in his background, it must be there before his eyes, the piece of the bed dug out and brought to him in a barrow just as it stood. It was thus he obtained the wonderful truth and naturalness that so singularly marked his work. But more than that; he went on till he obtained it. He looked till he saw not only the surface, but the light and all its glories thereon ; not only the substance, but the life that lay beneath, or the poetry that gave life to things inanimate. One of his works, which never could be forgotten by those who saw it in the Gallery, though all else may have faded from their recollection, was “A Bit of Mont Blanc”— a piece of granite brought thence by Mr. Ruskin and painted for him. This he invested with such an interest, not by its staring reality, but by the wonderful beauty he there discerned and revealed. It was a lesson for all to learn, not only of what Nature is if we have eyes to see it, but of how art is dependent on the treatment rather than on the subject of the picture.
Sometimes at Hastings he was Mr. Maw’s visitor. Once I spent the month of January there at the same time, and we painted in the same room. Mr. Maw, whose taste and genius had a large range, had built at West Hill House an apartment which he had furnished entirely with antique oak, at a time when the rage for it had not yet filled the market with modern imitations. Where he had not sufficient old panelling for the walls, he had supplied it with his own carving. The ceiling was elaborate, from his designs. It was a treasure-house of the picturesque and the beautiful in wood and porcelain. In this room we painted together. Hunt’s was a piece of intense colour and harmony. But the ceiling bothered him, and he handed his picture over to Mr. Maw, asking him to work it out. When Mr. Maw objected that he should spoil his work, he said, “Do so, by all means ; that is what I want.” Our friend took it in hand and elaborated various parts, which Hunt soon brought round to his own feeling. Sometimes when I said I had spoiled my work, he laughed at me, saying ” it was impossible to spoil a water-colour drawing, it could always be made right again.” And so it could — at least under his hands.
He had no recipe for painting but to do what he saw. He knew, he said, nothing about art. He began by putting on the paper what first struck him as necessary, generally with broad brushmarks, which by degrees he broke down with smaller till his utmost refinement was gained. He never used washes. Once I asked him if a wash would improve something of mine. He said he did not know how to put it on, or what it would do. He went on and on with his work, seeing more as he went and doing more as he saw it, till he reached the goal. As an example of his perception of colour, I remember his bringing a drawing of a kingfisher, just finished, which startled us all by the brilliancy of its emerald green. When asked what new colour he had been using, he said, “Put on your spectacles.” On applying a lens we saw that he had obtained the colour by picking out points with a knife and letting in vermilion–a practice which may be often detected in his work, And to his realising the value of complementary colour his pictures largely owe their power.
Hunt was a born painter, a real genius. In this he shone as a bright star. But he was not otherwise brilliant. His deformed figure must have kept him from society, had his tastes been that way—which they were not. Nor did his education fit him for it. Those, however, who could appreciate the man found him genial and pleasant in company. He was habitually good-humoured. I do not remember ever seeing him lose his temper. He would “confisticate” anything that worried him, but beyond that temperate degree of malediction I never knew his thermometer to rise. What might have been in the worries of life in London I cannot answer for. I can only give my reminiscence. Beyond calling on him sometimes at his house, I knew but little of him there. He passed away some thirty years ago, leaving his name and his works behind him. And though these are of no value to him now, they are much to us for the lessons they teach of the treasures of beauty the Creator has stored up for us in His works all around us, if we will but look for them and enjoy them and be thankful for them.