Pre-Raphaelites in The City: A Pre-Raphaelite Dream Factory

Dinah Roe

A Pre-Raphaelite Dream Factory Holman Hunt's Urban Childhood

The Victorian era is remembered for its soul-deadening factories, where men, women and children worked long, gruelling hours in hazardous conditions for little pay. But for one Pre-Raphaelite Brother, a Cheapside factory proved an unlikely inspiration; when future painter William Holman Hunt was growing up, a cotton winding factory was his playground. His father was the manager of a warehouse in Dyer’s Court, Aldermanbury, on whose upper floors female ‘winders’ operated noisy hand machines which wound cotton and thread into balls and on reels.

As a little boy, Hunt made a game out of zig-zagging around the machines quickly enough to dodge kisses from the laughing young winders. The velvet-winding room housed a favourite playmate, the Dickensian Henry Pinchers, ‘whose wit sparkled and danced and thundered’, and who regularly claimed that Robin Badfellow snuck into the room at night to undo all of his day’s work.

Hunt’s memoir Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood tells us that he produced his first pictures amid the clatter and chaos of the factory; his father gave him paper and pencils to keep him busy and out of the way. One day, while he drawing a print of Britannia seated with a lion at her feet (pilfered from the packing and ticketing room), a buyer touring the factory with Hunt’s father stopped to admire the picture. During the day, Hunt accompanied porters on their deliveries around the capital, and it was in this way that he learned ‘to know the great city of London, and to love it’. Along with the streets, public buildings, churches, civic halls and courts, he admired the rooks who cawed from the tall elms, ‘the sign of the City’s retention of rural memories.’ 

The end of the workday impressed him most, when the factory shut down for the evening. Accompanying his father on one last check of the building before closing, he was awed by the silence and darkness of each newly-deserted floor. Whenever his father’s bulls-eye lantern ‘shot a stream of glaring light’, it was like ‘a searching eye from another world’. 

Another advantage of city life was the proximity of artists. In 1834, Hunt’s father took him to an artist’s studio to purchase a painting. The painter was working on a picture of the Houses of Parliament in flames, and Hunt begged to be left behind to watch the artist at work. He was allowed to stay, but only if he promised to look on from the stairs, and not get underfoot. As an older man, Hunt drew a picture of this formative episode, which shows him leaning wistfully against the staircase window, his right hand propping up his chin. The little boy stood there until dark, enraptured.

Hunt writes of his deep appreciation for his urban childhood:

I have known many rejoice that they were born in the green country, away from the haunts of men; I see reason to acknowledge many compensating enjoyments for any losses I may have suffered in my childish lot as a citizen.


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Pre-Raphaelites in the City

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This blog explores the thriving Victorian cities which inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, and were shaped by them in turn. While the Pre-Raphaelites produced poetry and art praising the natural world, most were born and raised in urban environments, and their work retained a cosmopolitan sensibility. Although this blog will sometimes take excursions into the countryside, its focus will remain on city life. If you want more information on images or sources, please get in touch.