Painted in the 1840s, Primroses and Bird’s Nest is an exquisite example of the meticulously detailed still-life arrangements of natural forms which Hunt developed and refined from the 1830s on. These were regarded as virtually Hunt’s own invention, and their success earned him the nickname ‘Bird’s Nest’ Hunt.
Hunt’s early landscape work in oil was grounded in his extensive experience of outdoor sketching; he was a student of the watercolourist John Varley (1778–1842), whose dictum ‘Go to Nature for everything’, was adopted by Hunt as his own. Hunt himself stated the belief that in nature ‘you will find drawing, expression, colour, and light and shade, all of the most perfect kind’ (quoted in Jones, p.47). From the mid-1820s Hunt abandoned oils for watercolour; he was elected a member of the Old Water-Colour Society in 1826. The physical deformity he had suffered since childhood made open-air and landscape painting increasingly difficult, and from this date he worked mostly on his intensely observed studio arrangements of fruit, flowers and birds’ nests set on mossy, ivy-clad banks, which have been described as ‘miniature landscapes’. These were highly successful, appealing to the taste of Victorian middle-class businessmen and collectors. Samuel Palmer remarked in 1872, some years after Hunt’s death: ‘The only quite certain way of making money by watercolours is, I fancy, to do such figures, fruit and flowers as William Hunt did and to do them as well. This again wants a whole life.’(A.H. Palmer, Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer, p.336, quoted in Witt, p.27.) Another example of Hunt’s still-life work of this period, Fruit (N01972), is in Tate’s collection.
The startlingly brilliant, naturalistic colour and illusionistic precision of Primroses and Bird’s Nest resulted largely from Hunt’s innovative technical virtuosity, in particular his exploration of the possibilities of water-based media. From the 1830s Hunt started using a hardened ground of opaque bodycolour, or gouache, in Chinese white, probably, as Hardie has noted (p.108) with the addition of gum, on which he painstakingly stippled transparent layers of pure pigment in an optical mixture to achieve brilliant and highly realistic local colour. A contemporary watercolourist, James Orrock (1829–1913) observed Hunt’s technique:
He would, for instance, roughly pencil out a group of plums or grapes and thickly coat each one with chinese-white which he would leave to harden. On this brilliant china-like ground he would put his colours [ie. pure watercolour], not in washes, but solid and sure so as not to disturb the ground which he had prepared. By this process the utmost value for obtaining strength and brilliancy was secured for the colours were made to ‘bear out’ and almost rival Nature herself.
(Quoted in Hardie, p.108.)
Although J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851), William Mulready (1786–1863) and others were already using oils in a similar way, Hunt was the first to use the technique in watercolour, and he was much imitated.
Hunt’s still life painting was highly regarded by John Ruskin (1819–1900), a personal friend and pupil, who viewed Hunt’s innovative use of colour and his absorption with truthful naturalistic detail as ‘proto-Pre-Raphaelite’. He wrote of Hunt in 1846: ‘There are few men, for instance, more limited in subject than Hunt, and yet I do not think there is another man in the Old Water-Colour Society with so keen an eye for truth or with power so universal.’(John Ruskin, Modern Painters, vol.III, Works, pp.615–6).
Ruskin referred closely to Hunt’s use of colour in his Elements of Drawing (1857), and advocated aspiring painters to ‘study the works of William Hunt’ (quoted in Witt, Letter III: On Colour, p.66). Hunt’s influence was far-reaching: it is likely that Ruskin’s references to Hunt’s stippling technique were used indirectly to support the Pointillist colour theories of Jean Seurat (1851–91) and Paul Signac (1863–1935).
Martin Hardie, Water-Colour Painting in Britain, vol.III, The Victorian Period, London 1968, pp.104–9.
John Witt, William Henry Hunt 1790–1864, London 1982.
Tom Jones, William Henry Hunt 1790–1864, exhibition catalogue, Wolverhampton Art Gallery, 1981.