Pre-Raphaelites in The City: Which Highgate Grave Was Once Owned by Holman Hunt?

Dinah Roe

Which Highgate Grave Was Once Owned by Holman Hunt?

During my recent talk on the Rossettis at Highgate Cemetery Chapel, Andrew Yeo (Cemetery guide,  volunteer and IT expert) rescued me from certain technical failure. He also shared with me a Pre-Raphaelite connection to Highgate Cemetery which I’d like to pass on to you. The Blount monument, located on the way up to the Egyptian Avenue, was once owned by original Pre-Raphaelite Brother William Holman Hunt.

The grave, a multi-occupancy brick lined family vault, was purchased by John Blount Price, a Justice of the Peace for Islington, Westminster and Middlesex. Price acquired the grave on 3 Dec 1844 after the death of his two year-old daughter Sarah. From 1844 – 1948, 11 burials in total took place here. The word ‘Entrance’ was inscribed on the front to help the stonemasons with repeated openings and closures. Holman Hunt, a good friend, acted as Price’s executor on his death, and in that capacity is listed as the grave owner in the Cemetery’s records.

Legend has it that their friendship began in 1847 when Hunt spotted his beautifully conditioned bloodhounds in the street in and tracked them to Price’s house. A stickler for detail, Hunt borrowed Price’s dogs to make studies for his new painting.

Inspired by John Keats’s poem ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’, the painting would be his first submission to the Royal Academy. The poem is about young lovers Porphyro and Madeline who elope during a feast-night when everyone in Madeline’s father’s castle is the worse for wear. This is alluded to in Hunt’s cumbersome original title, The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro During the Drunkenness Attending the Revelry.

The painting depicts the moment of suspense when the family bloodhound rises threateningly, but then recognises Madeleine and retreats. Hunt highlighed the importance of this interaction by quoting Keats’s lines in the catalogue which accompanied the painting when it was shown at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1848:

The wakeful blood hound rose, and shook his hide,
But his sagacious eye an inmate owns.

It was this painting that nerved Dante Gabriel Rossetti to approach Holman Hunt, loudly declaring his picture ‘the best in the collection’. The two men bonded over their shared love of the underappreciated and nearly forgotten John Keats, whose newly-published Life and Letters they took with them on holiday to Belgium and France.

Though Hunt’s claim that ‘It was thus The Eve of St. Agnes which first brought the three future Pre-Raphaelite brethren into intimate relations’ is over-stated and designed to emphasise his own role, there is no doubt that this is one of Pre-Raphaelitism’s key works.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti modelled for Rienzi in Hunt’s next painting, Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of His Young Brother, Slain in a Skirmish Between the Colonna and the Orsini Factions. JB Price’s pets came in handy once again; the horses in the background are from his stable.

Many thanks to Andrew Yeo for pointing out this Highgate connection and generously sharing his research.

 

Responses

  1. Hi there,
    Any chance of your talk at Highgate ever turning up on youtube? Why not here on your blog, too? At least the text of the talk, who knows?
    By the way, since you mentioned Christina’s Polidori aunts in your talk (so I had read here), do you know what ever happened to the pendant, the Soldan’s gift to her from the days of service as nurse in the war in Crimea? I mean, was it Eliza or Charlotte? Never mind, I’ll check it out later. About the pendant, it used to hang in Christ’s Church, Woburn Square. I know the church has long disappeared, along with Burne-Jones’s reredos which were dedicated as a memorial to CGR. Does it mean that everything else that was connected to the Rossetti family has vanished too? Shame! A friend of mine was in London last month, and she sent me a few photos of CGR’s home at 30 Torrington Square. Why is there no Christina Rossetti museum at that address? Never mind. I’m just wondering aloud ...........

    Marcos de Paula responded at 05:51am on 07/08/2012
  2. I loved the painting which was really enriched by the backstory provided by you and Mr. Yeo.

    KR responded at 09:09pm on 07/09/2012
  3. Hello Marcos! You’ve asked some good questions, some of which I’ve been pondering myself. I’ll do my best to answer them here:
    - The Scutari medal belonged to Eliza Polidori for her service as a Nightingale Nurse. I have tried, unsuccessfully so far, to trace it.
    - Happier news on the Burne-Jones memorial to Christina, which is now on permanent loan to All Saints, Margaret St. This beautiful gothic revival church is a very special place, worth a visit in itself.
    - For current information on Torrington Square, read Diane D’Amico’s fascinating article: “The House of Christina Rossetti: Domestic and Poetic Spaces” (JPRS 19: 31-54)
    - I will certainly consider posting talks on youtube in future - thanks for the suggestion!

     

    Dinah responded at 11:53am on 07/12/2012

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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.