The Awakening Conscience

This is the last piece of critical studies writing we were asked to do on my foundation course, on the topic of a piece of art. It was specified that it must relate to your specialism, mine being photography, but I really love the Pre-Raphaelites and paintings in general so I just went with it, as you’ll read in the text it does actually relate to themes and ideals I try to incorporate into my photography so yeah, cool, enjoy.

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“Examine the whole range of the walls of the Academy… there will not be found one [painting] powerful as this to meet full in the front the moral evil of the age in which it is painted, to waken into mercy the cruel thoughtlessness of youth and subdue the severities of judgement into the sanctity of compassion.” – John Ruskin

William Holman Hunt, one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, painted ‘The Awakening Conscience’ in 1853/4. The brotherhood, although only having lasted five years, painted some of the most significant works of the Victorian era, inspiring countless other artists and movements with their ‘truth to life’ aesthetics and ideals, and poetic and biblical inspirations.

The quote above is an extract from a letter to the editor of The Times from John Ruskin, a prominent art critic, philanthropist and writer among other things, and champion of the Pre-Raphaelites. He often found himself defending the work of the brotherhood, as it was not often well received upon exhibition at the time. This particular letter was in defence of the painting in question, which was, rather shockingly, met with such confusion (some apparently thought the man and woman to be brother and sister.) Despite the masses of symbolism and religious connotations, (which Hunt especially was always keen to incorporate into his works, inspired by the works of various Flemish and Italian artists whom he admired), the public and indeed many critics were seemingly unable to discern the aims of the painting. The cat chasing the bird, the lack of wedding ring, the furniture with its “fatal newness”1 and the sheet music for Thomas Moore’s ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’ at the piano, which contains such lyrics as “I feel like one, Who treads alone,
Some banquet-hall deserted, Whose lights are fled, Whose garlands dead, 
And all but he departed!”, supporting the depiction of the woman, her conscience awakened at the sight of the greenery outside, reminiscent of happier more innocent times. Even the frame, designed by Hunt himself, is bursting with hints to the painting’s, unique to the time, tackling of the issue of prostitution.

One of the things that interests me most about this painting is the links to Hunt’s own life, the model for the girl was in fact his own girlfriend, Annie Miller, an uneducated barmaid with apparently questionable morals, whom he took upon himself to ‘rescue’ and ‘reform’, with the intention of making her the ‘model wife’.

The Awakening Conscience was exhibited alongside another of Hunt’s paintings, The Light of the World, a brilliantly coloured depiction of Jesus at night, knocking on a shabby wooden door. The two paintings were intended to compliment one another, the latter Hunt is quoted as saying represents “the obstinately shut mind”, the former can be read as the mind being opened, the ‘light of the world’ having entered.

With regards to the painting’s relation to my own work, despite the obvious materialistic dissimilarities of this being a painting and my specialism being photography, I do often find myself inspired by not just Pre-Raphaelite ideals but also the strong symbolism and religious connotations particular to The awakening Conscience and ones by such artists as Van Eyck who played a part in the inspiration the this and many other of Hunt’s paintings. For now it’s all just something I find fascinating, such artists and paintings being one of my favourite aspects of art and history, but one day I hope to convey similar sorts of subjects and imagery via photography.

1 “That furniture, so carefully painted, even to the last vein of the rosewood – is there nothing to be learned from that terribl lustre of it, from its fatal newness; nothing there that has the old thoughts if home upon it, or that is ever to become a part of home?” -Another extract from Ruskin’s letter to The Times

holman-hunt-awakening-conscience-1853-54-tate

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