Illustrated companion

The painting depicts a kept mistress and her lover in a villa in St John's Wood. This district of London was favoured by wealthy Victorians for keeping their mistresses since it was convenient to the family residences of Belgravia but separated from them by Hyde Park. Holman Hunt, with typical Pre-Raphaelite thoroughness, hired a room at Woodbine Villa, 7 Alpha Place, St John's Wood, which, according to the painter's daughter, actually was a 'maison de convenance' where illicit lovers could meet. The young woman's status as a kept woman is indicated by the fact that she has rings on every finger of her left hand except the wedding finger. She is also in what would have been recognised at the time as a state of undress. She has been sitting on her lover's knee singing a song but is in the act of jumping up, staring out of the window at the bright sunlit scene which the spectator sees reflected in the mirror on the wall behind.

The song she has been singing is 'Oft in the Stilly Night' which tells of a young woman thinking back to her innocent childhood. This has reminded the woman of her own lost innocence and as the title of the painting indicates, she has undergone a crisis of conscience which, since the light symbolises Christ, amounts to a conversion. Hunt in fact stated that the painting was a secular counterpart to his celebrated picture of Christ as 'The Light of the World'. Hunt clearly sees the woman as a victim of the man, their relationship symbolised by the cat playing with the bird under the table. She may well be discarded by him, like the soiled glove in the foreground, in which case her fate would probably be to fall into common prostitution. The callous disregard of the man for his mistress's feelings, or his obtuse lack of awareness of them, is pointed up by Hunt in the Bible quotation on the frame 'As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, so is he that singeth songs to an heavy heart.' The frame was designed by Hunt, the marigolds are emblems of sorrow, the bells of warning, while the star at the top represents spiritual revelation.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.84