Hunt (1790-1864) is one of those rare painters more esteemed in his lifetime than subsequently. That does not mean he was rich, but he certainly sold a lot of paintings. Overall, he was considered inferior only to Turner as a watercolourist. That said, the drawings on show at the Courtauld are not what paid the bills and kept him in relative comfort to the end of his days. Known as ‘Bird’s Nest’ Hunt, he was famous for his intricate paintings of flowers and fruit. His handling of bloom on fruit was his signature technique (colour stippled over opaque white). Like Turner, he was actually a thoroughly urban Londoner, born near Covent Garden. In his early years he painted scenery in Drury Lane, and you can’t get much more London than that.
He was typically Victorian in appearance, that is to say, unusual. His growth was recognisably stunted from an early age and he may never have topped five feet. His head was large for his body, his shoulders disproportionately bulky. He could not walk far and painted sitting down. He is said to have taken as long as a fortnight to finish a watercolour, a combination of detail and disability.
His nature paintings are not what is on show here, though. This exhibition focuses on Hunt’s single figure studies of rural life, the men and women who work with and try to control nature. It consists of twenty watercolours and drawings. Some of the drawings are worked up into fine watercolours; others are clearly preparatory drawings with washes of colour added as notes for future reference.
I doubt very much that Hunt ever intended the latter for show. Certainly for me they are the weakest things on show.
The images of women – of which there are only two or three – are feeble and contrived. Hunt married and had a daughter, but when creating these images he overlooked any claims women might have to character or even individuality. The men are very different – distinctly characterful and carefully posed. Thus the broom-maker positively bristles with energy. I particularly enjoyed the paired images of poacher and gamekeeper. There was also a little sketch of the gamekeeper’s gun and the way it is typically held which showed the lengths Hunt went to in his quest for rural reality.
Some of the drawings are clearly unfinished. I feel the commentators who describe them as expressionist are deluding themselves. Some are frankly dreadful – probably only kept by the artist because he forgot where he threw them. The maltster, for example, is either a giant or possesses a very indistinct dwarf cat.
In the finished pieces Hunt is very good at simulating texture and scraping-out, often for textural effect. There are several salt glaze pots where the scraped-out highlights are especially evocative. The Courtauld tries to make the case that Hunt anticipates the pre-Raphaelites. Had they used watercolour that might have been true. It might also be more relevant to his flowers and berries or his seascapes, albeit they were painted while the pre-Raphaelites were at the height and their powers and notoriety. I can’t help thinking the thesis relies more on the similarity of names – two William H Hunts, albeit no relation to one another.
I would like to have learnt a little more about the man himself. He sounds fascinating. In the 1850s his work was selling in Paris for more than that of Delacroix, yet he delighted in the company of tramps and street entertainers.
Funnily enough, as I was heading back to Euston I spotted Hunt’s blue plaque on Marchmont Street – next door to the flat where Kenneth Williams used to live.