Last Wednesday (22 February) in 1997 the existence of Dolly the cloned sheep was announced to the public, so I’ve chosen a work depicting some of our woolly friends in their natural habitat.

William Holman Hunt, 'Our English Coasts, 1852 ('Strayed Sheep')' 1852

William Holman Hunt
Our English Coasts, 1852 ('Strayed Sheep') 1852
Oil on canvas
support: 432 x 584 mm frame: 785 x 940 x 85 mm
Presented by the Art Fund 1946

View the main page for this artwork

Of course, there is the famous Damien Hirst formaldehyde-pickled sheep Away From The Flock but as we will be seeing a lot of Hirst works when his exhibition comes to Tate Modern in April thought I’d delve further back into the Tate Collection for another look at sheep.

There are quite a few works to choose from, including a whole series of sketches from Henry Moore, works from Turner, Thomas Gainsborough and Millais. The sheep seems to be a popular figure in lots of nineteenth century British works, as a feature in the English countryside, and in more recent works the sheep is often used in a humorous way, either as a cloud-shaped cartoon (like Nicholas Monro) or with a forlorn expression in the cold weather or Peter Brook’s wrong side of the fence!

William Holman Hunt painted this particular country scene in 1852, in an era when the influential writer and critic John Ruskin advised young English artists to

‘go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning, and remember her instructions; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing; believing all things to be right and good, and rejoicing always in the truth.’

With that in mind, Holman Hunt went to the Lover’s seat, a well-known beauty spot perched on the cliffs overlooking Covehurst Bay, near Hastings, and painted this in great detail. However, the cliffs, sheep and objects in the foreground were painted from different viewpoints, and the butterflies on the left were painted indoors from a live specimen, so it’s not completely in line with Ruskin’s idea of truth!