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.