The Great Pyramid

PRE-RAPHAELITE (founded 1848) Biography

The Great Pyramid (Egypt, 1854)

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Watercolour on paper
Signed with monogram and dated 1854 lower right


17.00cm high
25.00cm wide
(6.69 inches high)
(9.84 inches wide)
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Sir John Pender, MP, Manchester; sold 10th February 1873 for £75, to:
Thos. Agnew & Sons; sold 12th February for £130, to:
William Brockbank, Didsbury, Manchester; sold by his executors at:
Christie's London, 27th February 1897, lot 24; sold for £63, to:
Thos. Agnew & Sons; sold by 1906, to:
E. B. Brockbank
Christie's, 11th June 1968, lot 155; sold for £3,360, to:
Leggatt Brothers; sold to:
Hon. Bobby Wills, Farmington Lodge, Gloucester; to 2005


William Holman Hunt, mss letter to John Ernest Phythian (1), Manchester, in a secretary's hand, 14th December 1906 (Manchester City Libraries)
Allen Staley, The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape, 1973, page 70
Judith Bronkhurst, William Holman Hunt, A Catalogue Raisonné, Volume II, number D78, illustrated page 50, Yale University Press New Haven and London, 2006
Nicholas Tromans, The Lure of the East British Orientalist Paintings, Tate Publishing, London 2008, illustrated page 123

Exhibition History

Manchester, The Collected Works of W. Holman Hunt, 1906, number 60
Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, The Art of William Holman Hunt, 1907, number 19
Glasgow, Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum, Pictures and Drawings by William Holman Hunt OM DCL, 1907, number 25
Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, William Holman Hunt, 1969, number 134
London, Royal Academy, Impressionism, 1974, number 16
The Lure of the East British Orientalist Painting, touring exhibition - Yale 7 Feb-28 April 2008; then to Tate Britain 2 June-25 August 2008; Pera Museum, Istanbul October 2008 – January 2009 and Sharjah Museum, UAE February-April 2009

Description / Expertise

Holman Hunt’s watercolour shows the Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza viewed from the east. In front of the main structure are seen the two less distinct smaller shapes of the so-called Queen’s Pyramids. The other Giza Pyramids, those of Chepren and Mycerinus as well as the Sphinx, are out of view to the composition’s left side.

Hunt left London in January 1854 for Palestine. His artist friend Thomas Seddon had departed a month or so earlier with the plan that they should meet in Cairo before travelling on to the Holy Land. They camped at Giza as Seddon explained to his fiancée Emmeline in a letter of 11 February: We intend, in seven or eight days, to take a tent and two camels with their drivers, and a servant to cook, and camp out by the Pyramids … By this plan we shall economise our hotel bill.(2) Hunt later spent some weeks working in Cairo, but returned to Giza in April. Of the images of Egypt that Hunt made in the course of these two desert sojourns in the early part of 1854, the best known is that entitled The Sphinx, Giza, looking toward the Pyramids of Saqqara (Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Port Sunlight). On his return, in 1857, Hunt made an etching showing the encampment at Giza that he had shared with Seddon in 1854.

The difference of approach to the desert landscape and ancient monuments taken by Holman Hunt and Seddon is interesting. Seddon’s views are more topographically informative and more pictorially conventional. By contrast, Hunt looked for vantage points that allowed him to simplify and dramatise the extraordinary scenery.

The landscape, the like of which he had never seen before, seems to have made a most curious impression upon him. In a letter to John Everett Millais of 16 March 1854, Hunt wrote somewhat disparagingly of it as a subject for art. Of the wider landscape, however, Hunt said that the desert is beautiful.(3) He saw the landscape in aesthetic terms of shape and colour. He deliberately set out to avoid topographical landscapes and created each of his views in relation to the atmosphere of the place. Thus the beauty and originality of the present watercolour, and of the other desert watercolours that Hunt made in 1854, belies his apparent lack of enthusiasm for what he saw there.

The Great Pyramid, 1854 has been in two distinguished collections: those of Sir John Pender and William Brockbank. The latter was on the council of the Royal Manchester Institution from 1874-1880, becoming Vice-President in 1881. He had also commissioned Ford Madox Brown to paint Cromwell on his Farm (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), which was exhibited at the Manchester Academy of Art in 1874.

(1) John Ernest Phythian wrote The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, George Newnes Ltd, London 1905, and Fifty Years of Modern Painting, Corot to Sargent, Richards, London 1908, in which chapters 2 and 4 are completely devoted to The Pre-Raphaelites.
(2) John Pollard Seddon, Memoir and Letters of the late Thomas Seddon, Artist. By his Brother, London 1858, page 43
(3) William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, two volumes, 1905, I, page 380