The Pre-Raphaelites

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in September 1848. There were seven founder members - William Holman Hunt, aged 21; Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 20; John Everett Millais, 19; F.G. Stephens - an aspiring artist who afterwards turned to writing; Thomas Woolner the sculptor; James Collinson the painter; and the Rossettis' younger brother, William. Holman Hunt and Millais both had strong connections with Ewell and the Hogsmill River, which they would use for some of their best-known pictures.

John Everett MillaisWilliam Holman Hunt
John Everett Millais (left) and William Holman Hunt (right).

Holman Hunt wrote of his visits to Ewell with great fondness. He had a wide knowledge of nature and the birds and flowers around the local countryside, as is shown in great detail in both his and Millais' painting along the river Hogsmill. One of Hunt's pictures, painted in 1851, shows scenes around a pool or pond very much like his drawings of the Hogsmill. This was called The Haunted Manor, and may have been painted at Ewell, though others have suggested Wimbledon Park. The building at top right does look very much like Fitznells.

William Holman Hunt was connected to Ewell though his aunt and uncle. His mother's brother, William Hobman, farmed at Rectory Farm in Church Street, a seventeenth-century building clad in white weather-boarding demolished in 1905. William Hobman and his wife were the rich relations of the Hunts; they had no children and the Hunts had intended to christen their boy William Hobman Hunt. Unfortunately the clerk spelt the name wrong on the baptismal certificate, and when the artist found that he was officially Holman Hunt he was happy to adopt this new version.

Ewell Church by Holman Hunt
The Old Church, Ewell by William Holman Hunt 1847.

In an early visit to his relations in 1847, Holman Hunt painted the old church, of which only the tower now stands. The vicar, Sir George Glyn, offered to buy the picture if it was done well. The figures were added later. The architectural details are accurately recorded, and Hunt may have known that the building was threatened - it was to be demolished a year later. He did allow himself a little artistic licence with his signature, which can be found on the third gravestone from the right in the foreground. After its purchase by Sir George Glyn, the painting went missing but many years later was found in an old building in time to be shown at the Tate Gallery in their Pre-Raphaelite exhibition of 1984.

Cornfield at Ewell by Hunt
Cornfield at Ewell by William Holman Hunt.

Holman Hunt did a number of drawings of Rectory Farm, including a view of the kitchen with his aunt at work over the stove and the chickens hunting over the floor for food. His picture of A Cornfield at Ewell was painted in 1849, 'at his uncle's farm' according to the label. In A Day in the Country he shows a couple who have just got off the coach to visit an old lady. The building in the background is Rectory Farm. Perhaps the people are Hunt and his wife visiting his aunt.

A Day in the Country by Hunt
A Day in the Country by William Holman Hunt.

John Everett Millais had Ewell friends in the Lemprieres, who like the Millais family, had come to England from Jersey. As a boy, Millais stayed with Captain Lempriere and his large family in Cheam Road. The Manor House, which stood where Staneway turns out of Cheam Road, was one of the largest houses in Ewell. Millais made a record of this family life in two drawings. One is a rough sketch of the family watching Harriet cutting a twelfth night cake; Mary has her pull-along horse on the bare floorboards while the family dog sits waiting for a titbit. The other is a more worked-up version; it shows the family in a more formal way and was possibly done as a gift for them.

The Lemprière Family  1847 by Millais
The Lemprière Family 1847 by Millais

In 1846, while staying with this family, Millais was invited to a dance held by the Gadesdens at Ewell Castle. Gadesden, who came from Scotland, had invited a fellow Scot called Gray to come and bring his family. In this way Millais met Euphemia (Effie) Gray, the girl whom he was eventually to marry - after an interlude in which she met and married John Ruskin, then left him and in May 1847 returned, older and wiser, to Ewell Castle. A year after the annulment of her marriage in 1854 she was able to marry Millais.

At the end of June 1851, Hunt and Millais came down to Ewell to find backgrounds for two new paintings which they had in mind - Ophelia for Millais, and The Hireling Shepherd for Hunt. The two young men set out down the river Hogsmill to find suitable sites for their paintings. Hunt chose the meadows looking north towards the fields of Ewell Court Farm, while Millais continued downriver for two miles towards the slopes beneath Old Malden church.

The Hireling Shepherd by Hunt
The Hireling Shepherd
By William Holman Hunt
Image Source Manchester Art Gallery (CC Licence)

Both Millais and Hunt painted well into November, and had to build a kind of sentry-boxes out of hurdles padded with straw in order to keep warm. Millais and Hunt had arranged to meet at a stile each evening after work. They stayed on to chat to local girls, one of whom, Emma Watkins, agreed to act as model for the young woman in The Hireling Shepherd. Emma obtained her mother's permission to stay in London while she was painted by Hunt, but after trying life as an artist's model, Emma returned to Ewell and married her sailor boyfriend.

All the plants and flowers of the Hogsmill became charged with symbolic significance for Millais' painting. The willow, the nettle growing amongst its branches and the daisies near Ophelia's right hand, symbolise forsaken love, pain and innocence. The pansies Millais shows floating on the dress in the centre comes from an earlier scene shortly before her death. The forget-me-nots at the mid-right and lower left edges of the composition carry their meaning in their name. Even the robin in the upper left corner may refer to one of the snatches of songs Ophelia sings. But perhaps most chilling of all: immediately above the forget-me-nots at the right edge, there is a configuration of light and shade like a skull, representing Ophelia's death.

Ophelia by Millais
By John Everett Millais
Image Source Tate Britain (CC Licence)

The figure of Ophelia (modelled by Lizzie Siddal) was added later; she had to pose floating in a bath, kept warm by candles, and caught a nasty cold. In the autumn Millais began painting the wall around the orchard of Worcester Park Farm, which was to form part of the background for A Huguenot On St. Bartholomew's Day. From October to December, keeping warm in an improvised hut, Millais worked outdoors in the garden. The model for the Huguenot's head was Arthur Lempriere of Pit House, who had volunteered for the demanding job of standing still all day holding the famous beauty Anne Ryan in his arms.

A Huguenot, On St. Bartholomew's Day by Millais
A Huguenot, On St. Bartholomew's Day by Millais

The painting's full title gives away the meaning of the piece: A Huguenot, On St. Bartholomew's Day, Refusing To Shield himself From Danger By Wearing The Roman Catholic Badge. You can see the Catholic girl trying to bind a white cloth around his arm, while the Huguenot insists that he would rather die than deny his faith. Flowers are used indicate the feelings of both characters. Ivy can stand for 'friendship in adversity,' Canterbury Bell for 'constancy' and 'faith' and though apparently included before the subject was chosen, the nasturtiums could at least fit the theme, signifying 'patriotism' and here perhaps the Huguenot's loyalty to his religion.

Hunt was now busy working on The Light Of The World. Following the course of the Hogsmill, he had found an abandoned hut once used by workers at the Worcester Park gunpowder mills. 'On the riverside was a door locked up and overgrown with tendrils of ivy, its step choked with weeds'. Hunt visited the hut at night-time to capture the effects of moonlight - and was suspected by the village policeman of being a ghost.

Holman Hunt - Light of the World
Holman Hunt - Light of the World

The Light Of The World, like The Hireling Shepherd, is full of religious imagery. Hunt originally did not want any explanation to be given and wanted instead for the picture to be looked at as a work of art, but later glossed over the symbolism as follows: 'physical light represented spiritual light - a lantern, the conservator of truth; rust, indicated the corrosion of the living facilities: weeds, the idle affection: a neglected orchard, the uncared for riches of God's garden: a bat (at the top of the door) which loveth darkness and ignorance; a blossoming thorn, the glorification from suffering - a crown, kingly power etc...'

James Collinson was a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and he got engaged to Christina Rossetti. He is best known for multiple versions of a picture known as For Sale, The Empty Purse or At The Bazaar. Another of his pictures, called Off To The Derby (also The New Bonnet) may date from the 1860s when he moved into Epsom. The Pre-Raphaelites sometimes came out from London for a day at the races - Millais was there in 1853 and left a sketch of a woman crying in a carriage.

In 1858, after breaking off his engagement to Christina Rossetti over religious differences, Collinson married Eliza Wheeler. Among those present were a couple who were friends of Eliza's and lived at Epsom. Collinson already knew the town, and the year before he had exhibited a painting called The Mineral Spring which seems to have been a view of the Old Wells on Epsom Common. Now the Collinsons rented Woodcote Villas at the southern end of Woodcote Road. They lived in modest circumstances, with only one servant (Jane Hayward, from Ewell). Eliza had a baby boy, Robert, who was baptised at St. Josephs on July 1859 - only the second baptism to take place at the church. By 1864 Collinson was looking for a new house. His last painting done at Epsom was A Sparrow's Nest, sent to the Royal Academy in 1864. After that, he and his family moved to Holloway.

This article is based on an account by Jeremy Harte, Curator of Bourne Hall Museum

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