Just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem lies a house built in the mid-1870s by a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
William Holman Hunt, a devout Christian, who along with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Millais changed the face of 19th century art, first set eyes on Jerusalem in 1854. He returned three more times, spending nearly seven years in the city, during which time he worked on paintings, including The Scapegoat and The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple.
His time in Jerusalem and the efforts to preserve Hunt’s house — later home to the poetess Rachel and most recently to the late veteran Middle East reporter Eric Silver — was the subject of a talk this week by academic Jill, Duchess of Hamilton. Some of his paintings executed while he was in Jerusalem are now on display at a major Tate retrospective of Pre-Raphaelite artists.
As his letters make clear, Hunt was enthralled by the city, not least because being in Jerusalem — a walled city with gates locked from dusk till dawn — made Biblical events “seem so real as to appear like an event of the day”.
“It was really quite remarkable for him to walk back in time,” said Lady Hamilton. “In Pre-Raphaelite painting there was this intense detail, they would spend ages painting just one square inch. In the history of Christian religious paintings, they were all done in Europe, so it was quite original for him to think he could do better art if he was in the place.” The Middle East offered authentic scenery —the Dead Sea in the background of The Scapegoat was painted after he visited it — and the chance to find Semitic models to represent Biblical characters.
But he encountered some difficulty, as he sought seven rabbis to pose for The Finding of the Saviour. “Jews didn’t want to be a graven image,” said Lady Hamilton. In fact, James Finn, the British consul of the time, noted that the Jews were “very sensitive on matters of religion”.
When Hunt returned for the third time in 1876 and built his house, one of the first outside the Old City, it was an escape from London, where he had caused a scandal by marrying his late wife’s sister. The couple had their first daughter, Gladys, in Jerusalem.
“It was really quite a wild place when he was there,” said Lady Hamilton. “They left because it was quite a difficult life. Slavery was not yet abolished and it was a pretty strange society. He had to send for his canvases from England and when they didn’t arrive for his painting of The Triumph of Innocents, he went to the market and he bought linen, but it was a disaster. He also had a big problem getting paint.”
Hunt, she said, was very sad to leave. His final visit was for three months in 1892, but it was not the end of his association with the Holy Land.
Four years later, in a lengthy letter reprinted in the Jewish Chronicle, he proposed “the replacing of the sons of Abraham in the Patriarchs’ chosen home” and even offered to contribute financially “a small portion (small, though it would be large for my means)”.
Writing around the time that Theodor Herzl offered his Proposal of a modern solution for the Jewish Question, the painter explained that the resettlement of the Jews in Palestine “would be in accordance with the promises made by the ancient prophets”.
He made his suggestion in the context of the struggle between the Great Powers, arguing that “all Arabs would rejoice at escape from the iniquitous rule of the Turk” and added that he was “convinced of the earnestness of the longing which the poor oppressed Israelite feels for the re-establishment of his nation in the land of his fathers”.
He also advised the “Jews of refined class in England” who did not believe “their poor brethren” — presumably immigrant Jews from the Pale — could be trusted with self-rule, that the responsibility “would be opportunity of removing their present incapacity”.
In its editorial of February 21 1896, the JC noted that while Herzl’s solution was “a scheme of despair, wrung from him as the only possible antidote to antisemitism”, Hunt, “on the contrary, has the Holy Land alone in his mind’s eye.” Praising his idea even though it “may prove as impossible as it seems”, the JC described Hunt’s proposal as “a rebuke to Jewish scepticism and supineness”.