Hireling Shepherd

William Holman Hunt. The Hireling Shepherd. 1851. Oil on canvas, 30 1/16 x 43 ⅛ inches. Manchester City Art Galleries. Kindly made available by the gallery (via Art UK under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives licence (CC BY-NC-ND).

Hunt's first Hogarthian subject was The Hireling Shepherd, which several scholars have recently demonstrated to be a work of art with a complex symbolical program that draws upon a number of literary and artristic sources. In a well-known letter to J. E. Pythian, the artist himself explianed that although his first intention was to present a realistic shepherd and shepherdess, he also had 'an occult suggestion in mind oif a simple character'. When he exhibited the painting at the Royal Academy, he included these lines from King Lear as an epigraph:

Sleepeth or waketh thou, jolly shepherd?
Thy sheep be in the corn;
And for one blast of thy minikin mouth,
Thy sheep shall take no harm. [Act III, scene 6]

The letter to Pythian explains that

Shakespeare's song represents a Shepherd who is neglecting his real duty of guarding the sheep: instead of using his voice in truthfully performing his duty, he is using his "minikin mouth" in some idle way. He was a type thus of other muddle headed pastors who instead of performing their services to their flock — which is in constant peril — discuss vain questions of no value to any human soul. My fool has found a death's head moth, and this fills his little mind with forebodings of evil and he takes it to an equally sage counsellor for her opinion. She scorns his anxiety from ignorance rather than profundity, but only the more distracts his faithfulness: while she feeds her lamb with sour apples his sheep have burst bounds and got into the corn. It is not merely that the wheat will be spoilt, but in eating it the sheep are doomed to destruction from becoming what farmers call "blown." [21 January 1897; London (Manchester City Art Gallery MS.)]

Pointing out that Hunt's Shakespearean gloss provides only a partial source for his complex intentions in this picture, John Duncan Macmillan has convincingly argued that the painter drew upon St. John's Gospel and Milton's "Lycidas" as well. According to Macmillan, Hunt took the idea of the hireling shepherd as false pastor from John 10:11-14 and the more detailed working out of his satire on unfaithful ministers from the elegy for Edward King ("Holman Hunt's Hireling Shepherd: Some Reflections on a Victorian Pastoral," Art Bulletin 54 [1972], 190-91.). He also explains the presence of the dallying shepherdess as an allusion to Milton's Amaryllis, who naughtily sports in the shade, and to the engraving of a work by Boucher (Macmillan, 191). Hunt's Amaryllis, which was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1887, might well echo The Hireling Shepherd. In this later painting, of which I have only seen the reproduction which Hunt included in his memoir (facing II.62), sheep again seem to be escaping from their pen, while an abstracted-looking shepherdess plays on her pipes.

Leslie Parris and Conal Shields offer the further suggestion that Hunt drew directly upon Ruskin to create an image of

the breakdown of the established church, perhaps even of religion itself. In Notes on the Construction of Sheepfolds (1851), which Hunt read while working on The Hireling Shepherd, Ruskin emphatically asserted "That the schism between the so-called Evangelical and High Church Parties in Britain, is enough to shake many men's faith in the truth or existence of Religion at all . . . If the Church of England does not forthwith unite with herself the entire Evangelical body, both of England and Scotland, and take her stand with them against the Papacy, her hour has struck." (Leslie Parris, Landscape in Britain, c. 1750-1850 [London, 1973], 128, who credits Conal Shields with suggesting this line of reasoning (138n), does not cite any evidence for the assertion that Hunt knew Ruskin's tract.)

Pius IX's decision to re-establish the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England in 1850 prompted many Protestants to fear for the English Church. Such an emphasis, one may add, provides but a small part of Ruskin's argument in this tract, and Hunt may have been even more influenced by his general moral tone, his imagery of sheep and shepherds, and his assertion that all Christians are priests. John Ruskin argues that "the whole function of Priesthood was, on Christmas morning, at once and for ever gathered into His Person who was born at Bethlehem; and thenceforward, all who are united with Him, and who with Him make sacrifice of themselves . . . become at the instant of their conversion, Priests" (Works, 12.537). Such a belief well agrees with Hunt's own later religious faith, and it also provides another support for the artist's conception of himself as priest (I.xv). Equally important, such a conception of the universal priesthood of believers gives The Hireling Shepherd a wider application, for it makes it apply not only to the clergyman who does not fulfil his duties but to all Christians who are lax in performing theirs.

Drawing upon the work of these scholars, we can observe what an astonishingly complex work The Hireling Shepherd turns out to be. First of all, it is the embodiment of Hunt's program for an imaginative visual realism, for as his friend Stephens pointed out, it was the first picture by a figure-painter to give the true color of sunlight shadows [See note at left]. Secondly, by representing its shepherd and shepherdess as inhabitants of the English countryside, Hunt's painting implicitly criticizes what he termed the "dresden china bergers" of conventional pastoral pictures (Letter to J. E. Pythian, 21 January 1897; Manchester City Art Gallery MS). Thirdly, it provides an emblematic image of all men who shirk their duties and thus fail to prepare for "the night that cometh." Fourthly, this Victorian pastoral, as Macmillan calls it, attacks those negligent clergy who dally with earthly pleasures, permitting their parishioners to perish spiritually; and if one accepts the suggestion that Hunt here drew upon Ruskin, this picture specifically attacks those churchmen who spent so much time and effort on sectarian conflict that they left England vulnerable to Roman Catholicism. Fifthly, it employs the Miltonic (and Ruskinian) identification of artist with priest to satirize painters and poets who neglect their true function with sad effects upon themselves and their audience.

Left: The Light of the World. William Holman Hunt. 1851-53. Oil on canvas over panel. arched top, 49 ⅜ x 23 ½ inches. Keble College, Oxford.Right: TheScapegoat. 1854-1856. Oil on canvas Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight (Liverpool)

Thus, like The Light of the World and The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd contains an implicit statement about the nature of the artist and his responsibility to fight the conventional, the blind, and the wicked.

The specifically Hogarthian elements in this picture are its various emblematic details, some of which Hunt himself explained in his letter to Pythian. Thus, the unprotected sheep who will die from eating grain and the lamb fed sour apples symbolize the effects of such pastoral neglect, while the death's-head moth, which provides a timely symbol of human mortality, offers a further means of judging the severity of such failure to do one's duty. Macmillan suggests that

the details in the picture can be seen to elaborate the theme of temptation and spiritual neglect. The apples in the foreground are too prominent to be meaningless. In the circumstances they cannot help recalling the Temptation and Fall. They are also a symbol of neglect, for green apples are poisonous to lambs. If the apples allude to the Fall, then the lamb is the Lamb of Redemption. It is her own redemption that the girl neglects. The lamb itself is a sickly late-born creature, too small for late summer, and covered with a cloth in spite of the heat . . . The whole field is swampy. Marshy ground is bad for sheep, causing sheep-rot, the "foul contagion" in Lycidas . . . A marsh is a suitably Bunyan-esque image. [191-92]

A Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Priest from the Persecution of the Druids. William Holman Hunt. 1849-50. Oil on canvas, 43 3/4 x 52 l/2 in. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Although one must agree with Macmillan about the marshy ground, his interpretation of the painting in terms of symbols of the Fall and Redemption presents certain difficulties, not the least of which is that, so interpreted, the details do not work as coherently as they generally do in Hunt's work. For example, it is unlikely that a painter who emphasized that symbolic meanings should grow naturally from realistic detail would make a sickly lamb the symbol of Christ. Similarly, although one can work out a scheme by which it makes sense for this daughter of Eve to give an apple to the Lamb of God, this does not function very coherently either. Macmillan assumes that the individual details work all but independently of each other, and this is of course possible. Even in Hunt's early Druids picture however, he had already developed a coherent, integrated symbolism in which each element played an appropriate role in an overall scheme, and it therefore seems unlikely that he would have departed from this method here. One must conclude, then, either that Hunt chose a less integrated form of symbolism than he employed in earlier and later work, or that he made less use of detailed symbolism than Macmillan suggests.

Created 2001

Last modified 25 December 2021