Fairlight Downs, Sunlight on the Sea

PRE-RAPHAELITE (founded 1848) Biography

Fairlight Downs, Sunlight on the Sea (England, 1852 - 1858)

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Oil on mahogany panel
Inscribed bottom left: WHH/Fairlight, Inscribed on verso by the artist: Sunlight on the Sea/Fairlight Downs /W.Holman Hunt/1 Tor Villa/Campden Hill/W


28.80cm high
31.00cm wide
(11.34 inches high)
(12.20 inches wide)
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Bt. Augustus Henry Novelli, November, 1858, £120
By descent to Phillip Charles Novelli, March 1887
Sale Christie's, 19 June 1897 (69), Bt. Colnaghi, £73 10s
On commission for Max Waechter; his birthday gift to his wife Armatrude, 20 May 1915; bequeathed to:
Ursula Bell, February 1982; given to:
Private collection.


Athenaeum, 30 October 1858, p.558
Critic, XVII, 30 October 1858, p.736
W.M.Rossetti, The Spectator, 6 November 1858, p.1171
Illustrated London News, XXXIII, 27 November 1858, p.508
Art Journal, 1 December1858, p.355
F.G.Stephens, Dublin University Magazine, LIII, February, 1859, pp.153-4
F.G.Stephens, William Holman Hunt and his Works: A Memoir of the Artist's Life, with Descriptions of his Pictures (London, 1860) pp.53-5
P.G.Hamerton, A Painter's Camp in the Highlands, and Thoughts about Art (London and Cambridge, 1862), II, pp.209-11
W.M.Rossetti, Fine Art, Chiefly Contemporary: Notices Reprinted, with Revisions (London and Cambridge, 1867), pp.244-5
W.Holman Hunt, 'The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: A Fight for Art';
Contemporary Review, XLIX, June 1886, p.822
W.Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (London, 1905), I, p.336
J.C.Troxell, ed., Three Rossettis: Unpublished Letters to and from Dante Gabriel, Christina, William (Cambridge, Mass., 1937), p.36
A.Staley, The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape(Oxford, 1973), p.73; The Pre-Raphaelites exhibition catalogue (London, 1894), pp. 112, 113
Judith Bronkhurst, William Holman Hunt, A Catalogue Raisonné, Volume I, number 78, illustrated page 159, Yale University Press New Haven and London, 2006

Exhibition History

Sixth Annual Winter Exhibition of Cabinet Pictures, Sketches, and Water-Colour, Drawings, French Gallery, 120 Pall Mall, London, 1858 (No.71)
The Pictures of Mr. Holman Hunt, Fine Art Society, London, 1886 (No.23)
The Pre-Raphaelites, Tate Gallery, 1984 (No.5, illustrated in colour, p.113)

Description / Expertise

William Holman Hunt went down to Fairlight, near Hastings, in mid-August 1852 to paint Our English Coasts, 1852 (Tate Gallery) for Charles Theobald Maud. He wrote to Dante Gabriel Rossetti on 22 November: ‘I hope to return on Thursday morning, there is only one more morning’s work to be done to the sheep picture. The other I must spend on a small sketch I began some time ago for the torturer above mentioned: if the weather does not permit this I shall return at once – tomorrow perhaps’. (J.C.Troxell, ed., Three Rossettis: Unpublished Letters to and from Dante Gabriel, Christina, William (Cambridge, Mass., 1937), p.36) The ‘torturer’ was Hunt’s dentist, and on 30 April 1853 the artist wrote to Thomas Combe, his patron and business adviser: ‘I have been engaged steadily at the sketches, one for McCracken – and the other for the dentist; the last however I have worked out so much, as to make me reluctant to give it up as an acknowledgement of his savage services’. (MS. Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS.Eng.lett.c.296 fol.13. The other sketch was The Haunted Manor (Tate Gallery; exh. The Pre-Raphaelites 1984, No.19) Hunt obviously had difficulty in finishing Fairlight Downs, and it is just possible that he worked on the sheep in July 1853 while he was in Ewell painting the oil sketch of The Hireling Shepherd (Makins Collection).

The picture was set aside until after the artist’s return from his first visit to the Near East: Hunt’s letter of 19 February 1856 to John Everett Millais mentions paying Robinson, his dentist, in kind, but ‘without being quite prepared with the finished sketch he bargained for’. (MS. John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, Eng.MS1216/14.) Hunt may have taken the picture with him to Fairlight in July 1856, but as he was there to recuperate from a bout of ‘Syrian fever’ (See Hunt’s letter of 18 July 1856 to W.M.Rossetti, which states that he has been at Fairlight since 15 July and will return to London on 21 July. ‘Syrian fever’ is almost certainly malaria. MS. University of British Columbia, Special Collections Division, Angeli-Dennis Papers) it seems that he was unable to bring the work to completion. Hunt probably cancelled the deal with Robinson at this time, feeling that the amount of time he was expending on Fairlight Downs rendered the painting too valuable to be given in exchange for dental treatment, however extensive.

There is no evidence to suggest a further visit to Fairlight between 1856 and 23 February 1858, when William Michael Rossetti asked Hunt to lend something to the American Exhibition of British Art at the Boston Athenaeum, in place of the small Light of the World (Manchester City Art Gallery), and suggested ‘that oil landscape with the glittering sea at Hastings (I believe it is in a finished state)’. (MS Iowa University Library, MSL R8298h4.) Hunt wrote back the next day: ‘The little picture of the seat at Hastings is not finished – and Burnett who has bought might object to letting it go’ –(MS University of British Columbia, Special Collections Division, Angeli-Dennis Papers) The mention of a new patron accounts for Hunt having taken up Fairlight Downs again., and W.M. Rossetti’s letter implies that Hunt had once more been working on it in the studio. The sale to the Tynemouth collector Jacob Burnett seems, however, to have fallen through, and this enabled Hunt to wait until the autumn before returning to the scene of the painting. He wrote to Edward Lear, who had been his companion on the first visit to Fairlight, on 23 September 1858: ‘I had been longer at the first task than I had intended by two days or so’. (MS. John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, Eng. MS. 1214/25.) The ‘first task’ was to complete Fairlight Downs; the second, to commence The School-girl’s Hymn (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford); both works have similar viewpoints high up on the South Downs overlooking the English Channel.

Fairlight Downs was shown in October 1858 in the Sixth Annual Winter Exhibition of Cabinet Pictures, Sketches and Water-Colour Drawings, organised by Ernest Gambart. The painting was extensively reviewed but the critics were deeply divided in their assessment of its merit. The reviewers in the Illustrated London News of 27 November and the Art Journal of 1 December criticised the work for a lack of verisimilitude. The latter could not accept the harsh contrast between the shaded land and the sunlit sea, which was defended by F.G Stephens in his notice in the Dublin University Magazine of February 1859: ‘Nearer at hand the downs themselves looked darker to the eye, because that was impressed with the full light upon the sea itself’. (‘The Art-Year’, Dublin University Magazine, CCCXIV, p.153. The review is unsigned but Stephen’s authorship is established by its being reprinted in his 1860 pamphlet on Holman Hunt.) The ultra-violet rays at the seaside are of course much more intense than inland, and an engraving of this part of coast, published in 1833 in John Parry’s An Historical and Descriptive Account of the Coast of Sussex, ((London and Brighton, 1833) facing p.271. Parry describes the view from the windmill at Fairlight as ‘at least one of the most commanding and lovely he has ever witnessed’ (p.270). Not surprisingly, it attracted other artists other than Holman Hunt, e.g. J.Thorpe who exhibited Hastings, from Fairlight Down at the 1849 R.A. (No.175)) proves that Hunt was faithfully depicting a recognised light effect. The most interesting contemporary review of the picture was to appear in 1862, in P.G Hamerton’s A Painter’s Camp in the Highlands, and Thoughts about Art:

‘The sunlight itself in its broad white glare on the water under the sun, and its gradual scattering into glitter to the right hand and to the left; in its long line in the distance, divided by shadows of the clouds; in its restless flashing on the crests of the little waves far away, is as true and truer than the photograph but here all comparison ends, because there is no longer in the photograph anything to be compared with the picture. Where the photograph is simply dark brown, the picture is full of the most marvellously delicate gradations, and the sweetest play of hue. Where the glitter is not, we have still the sunlit beauty of the fair sea, which is indeed better and more precious even than the glitter itself, just as the fairness of a beautiful woman is better than the glitter of her diamonds. And there is a hot haze in the blinding distance miles away, and there is a sultriness in the accumulated clouds which shall light up that sea at night with another and more terrible splendour. And then there is the green of the rich land, and the purple of the fallow, and nearer is a mingled glow of scarlet flowers and green leaves, and staring sheep, and a dog, and the sheperd’s staff. And all these other facts Hunt could get into his picture because painting is a great intellectual art; an art of compensation, and compromise, and contrast; an art capable of moderation, and subject to mastery.’
((London and Cambridge, 1862), II, p.211 Hamerton is comparing Fairlight Downs with a marine photograph by Gustave le Gray. One of these photographs, dating from 1860 and depicting a cloudy sky and sunlit sea, is reproduced in Aaron Scharf, Art and Photography (London, 1968), p.103, Plate 91).

William Michaael Rossetti, in his review of Fairlight Downs in The Spectator of 6 November 1858, stressed that the picture should be viewed as ‘a small fragment of English nature’. (‘Fine Arts. Winter Exhibition of Cabinet Pictures, & c.’, The Spectator, 6 November 1858, p. 1171. The review is unsigned but W.M Rossetti’s authorship is established by its being reprinted in Fine Art, 1867.) Hunt has suggested this by the inclusion of a stick frozen in mid-flight in the left foreground: It has been thrown by an unseen presence for the Newfoundland dog on the right of the picture to catch. This device, startlingly original for the time, was included partly as a reference for the benefit of the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Edward Lear, with whom Hunt shared lodgings at Clive Vale Farm in 1852, was frightened of the dog owned by the Martineaus of nearby Fairlight Lodge (parents of the artist Robert Braithwaite Martineau, Hunt’s pupil, and Hunt’s hosts on his subsequent visits to Fairlight in 1856 and 1858): ‘When they went on excursions it used to bound about them, jumping up to induce them to throw a stick or stone for it to scamper after. To Lear, a man of nearly six feet, with shoulders in width equal to those of Odysseus, the freaks of this dog were truly exasperating.’

(W. Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (London, 1905), I, p.330. Hunt was no doubt aware that many viewers confronted by the juxtaposition of stick, dog, and sheep would, like Hamerton, have jumped to the conclusion that the stick was a shepherd’s crook and the dog a sheepdog. This interpretation is attractive, in that it links Fairlight Downs with The Hireling Shepherd of 1851-2. (Manchester City Art Gallery), for it would be irresponsible of a shepherd to lark around with his dog while neglecting his flock. The theme of straying sheep is of course that of Our English Coasts 1852, and the two Fairlight paintings are also related in terms of their original gilt frames: the Tate picture has an outer rail consisting of a frieze of oak leaves, Fairlight Downs a frieze of oak leaves intertwined with acorns. A shepherd’s crook is, however, hooked at the end ‘for catching the hinder leg of a sheep’ (OED), unlike the stick in Hunt’s picture. W.M Rossetti, who as one of the artist’s closest friends was possibly aware of his intentions, interpreted the episode as that of ‘a black spaniel… scampering after the walking-stick which his unseen master has thrown forward to be caught’ (op.cit., p. 1171) – no doubt he knew of Lear’s reaction to Caesar, the Martineaus’ dog.)

The incident introduces a narrative element into the pure landscape: the disproportionate scale of the walking-stick not only emphasises the fleeting nature of the moment depicted, but also draws the viewer’s attention to the human presence just beyond the picture space. A slight feeling of tension is engendered as the spectator is reminded that such an apparently tranquil pastoral scene cannot exclude humanity for long.

The sale of the painting took place privately, and on 10 November 1858 Hunt instructed Gambart: ‘Will you please to mark my little picture of “Sunlight on the Sea” as sold’. (MS. Princeton University Library. Hunt’s bank account was credited with £120 on 24 November 1858, presumably the amount he received for Fairlight Downs.) Although there is no conclusive evidence to the identity of the purchaser at this time, everything points towards the wealthy commission agent A.H Novelli who, in 1886, was to lend Fairlight Downs to Hunt’s first one-man show. Novelli was a great friend of Hunt’s patron Thomas Fairbairn and had entertained Thomas Woolner, the Pre-Raphaelite Sculptor, at his Aberystwyth home in the autumn of 1858. (Amy Woolner, Thomas Woolner, R.A., Sculptor and Poet: His Life in Letters (London 1917), pp.148, 152-3.) It is extremely likely that Woolner, who was indebted to Hunt for introducing him to Fairbairn and thus indirectly for the commissions which followed, would have taken the opportunity of praising Hunt’s works to his host, who would have been familiar with the two pictures by Hunt in Fairburn’s collection. (Valentine rescuing Sylvia from Proteus (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery) and The Awakening Conscience (Tate Gallery), both of which include meticulously painted landscape elements.) Reviews such as that in the Athenaeum of 30 October 1858, which described Fairlight Downs as ‘perhaps exquisite a gem of landscape as ever was painted’, (‘Fine Arts. The Winter Exhibition in Pall Mall’, Athenaeum, 30 October 1858, p.558.) no doubt further encouraged Novelli to pay particular attention to the work when he visited the French Gallery exhibition. The patron would not have needed to approach Gambart in order to purchase the painting, and a transaction which cut out the middleman would have pleased buyer and seller.