William Holman Hunt

Cornfield at Ewell


William Holman Hunt 1827–1910
Oil paint on millboard
Support: 202 × 318 mm
frame: 380 × 495 × 40 mm
Presented anonymously 1988

Display caption

An inscription on the label on the back of this sketch suggests that it was made on a farm owned by William Holman Hunt’s uncle in Ewell, Surrey. It also implies that it was probably made outdoors on the spot. Painting directly from nature was central to the Pre-Raphaelite mission, and here Holman Hunt has captured the feeling of a seized moment on a hot day in late summer. He has filled the shadows with colour and has carefully cropped the image to balance the dry yellow land with a bright blue sky.

Gallery label, November 2016

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Technique and condition

The support is a piece of artists' millboard, its front primed with two coats of a smooth, white preparation, the back with one thin brown one. There are sketchy chalk marks on the back and assorted patches of oil paint: yellow ochre colour, deep brown, earth red and some matt pinky brown. The board was once bigger; the top edge, unlike the other three, is crudely cut and this was done after the white priming had been applied, though before the painting was begun.

Microscopic examination of the image reveals that Hunt laid in the areas of landscape and sky with thin washes of pale straw yellow, pale green and pale bluish grey oil paint. The blue used in the sky is cobalt. Then, taking thicker, more opaque and densely coloured mixtures and a stiff brush, he worked up the landscape area, applying his paint in thin dabs and scumbles, and scratching into the foreground greens with the end of the brush handle to indicate stubble. The sky came next and although the main pigment is still cobalt blue, this time the mixture was much brighter and warmer. In the final stages he used a finer soft brush for the strokes indicating corn, for the delineation of the stooks and for the deepening of the foreground shadows. The position of the man's back was altered at a late stage, and two of the stooks - one in front of the man, the other the largest on the left horizon - were also a late addition.

When the painting was acquired by the Tate Gallery, it had a discoloured coating of varnish, below which was a substantial layer of dirt, indicating that the varnish was almost certainly not original. The discoloured varnish and surface dirt were removed after acquisition and repairs were made to the two lower corners, which were dented and broken. A few very minor paint losses were retouched and a thin, matt varnish was applied.

Rica Jones

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