[Eve of Saint Agnes] The Flight of Madeleine and Porphyro during the Drunkenness attending the Revelry

William Holman Hunt. [Eve of Saint Agnes] The Flight of Madeleine and Porphyro during the Drunkenness attending the Revelry. Oil on canvas. 1848. 75 x 113 cm. Collection: Guildhall Gallery, London. Reproduced courtesy of the City of London Corporation.This image is available to be shared and re-used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial licence (CC BY-NC). Click on image to enlarge it.

The principal version of The Flight of Madeleine and Porphyro, which was the first subject from the poetry of John Keats that Hunt painted, was commenced on February 6, 1848. It had to be completed by April in time for the sending-in-day for the Royal Academy. Hunt, in Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, recorded: “I had been talking to Millais of Keats and one day took occasion to show him my design for 'The Eve of St. Agnes', representing the escape of Porphyro and Madeleine from the castle; he confirmed me in the intention of painting this subject” (79). When Hunt started on The Eve of St. Agnes he was also working on Christ and the Two Marys and Millais asked him if he was giving up the latter painting. Hunt replied: “Not, I hope, finally, but you see I am obliged to paint portraits to get money. I shall spend less on 'The Eve of St. Agnes'; I can do much of it by lamplight, and I think it is more likely to sell. We are now in the middle of February, I began it on the 6th, and I could not hope to do both. I must finish 'The Resurrection Meeting' another year” (81).

Mary Bennett has noted that the interior architectural setting and artificial lighting gave him the opportunity to try out his developing theories of going closer to nature in every detail and trying out unusual light effects…It was painted largely by candlelight and was the artist’s first completed attempt at painting without ‘dead colouring’, or underpainting, and with clear form and colour”(65). In the composition Hunt experimented with vigorous movement and problems of recession and foreshortening.

Two studies for the painting. Left: Oil study of dog. Right: Study for The Eve of St. Agnes, 1848. Graphite on paper, 5 7/16 X 7 ¾ inches (13.8 X 19.7 cm). Private collection.

As the painting progressed Hunt noted, “Still I was pinched both for want of time and money. Some days in each week I had to sacrifice to paint a portrait” (98). As the date for sending in works to the Royal Academy came alarmingly near Hunt was unable to finish it without working far into, and even all through, the last nights. His picture was finally forwarded in late April, literally at the eleventh hour of the night. It was accepted by the Academy Hanging Committee but was skied, hung somewhat high up in the Architectural Room, but in a good light. Hunt recalled, “Rossetti came up to me, repeating with emphasis his praise, and loudly declaring that my picture of 'The Eve of St. Agnes' was the best in the exhibition”(105). It was Rossetti's sincere admiration for Hunt's painting, as well as their common enthusiasm for Keats, that brought the two into intimate relations and would subsequently lead to the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Hunt’s Second Version of The Eve of St. Agnes

Right: [Eve of Saint Agnes] The Flight of Madeleine and Porphyro during the Drunkenness attending the Revelry. Oil on canvas. 1856-1857. Oil on panel, 91 5/16 x 14 inches (25.2 x 35.6 cm). Collection of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, accession no. WAG1635

The first and the larger version is now in the collection of the Guildhall Art Gallery, Corporation of London. A second, smaller painting is in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Various minor details have been altered or elaborated from the larger version. The latter had been described by Hunt as an “original sketch”, taken up and finished in the 1850s. Although it is dated 1847-57 Bronkhurst feels this refers to “the date of conception of the subject rather than the commencement of the execution” (182). Bronkhurst also quite rightly points out that Hunt’s own account of the genesis of the version he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1848 would have left no time to prepare a preliminary sketch. The painting is also executed on a white ground, which Hunt adopted only after the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In addition the colour of this painting is generally much brighter than the original version, reflective of Hunt's more vivid palette following his journey to Palestine and the Near East. The colouring therefore suggests this version is likely to be virtually all from the 1857 period (Bennett, 65). The fact that this second version was painted in better lighting conditions might also have affected its increased brightness of colour. There is supporting evidence as well to confirm that the second version was carried out after Hunt’s return from the Holy Land in February 1856. At that time he worked on some small replicas of his earlier paintings in order to provide him with money to live on. In a letter of August 11, 1857 from Hunt to John Lucas Tupper he writes: “I had to leave off my picture [The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple] and take up some task to procure me me [sic] ready money. Since then have been working like a slave at a sketch of the light of the World, and another of the old Eve of St. Agnes. I have nearly got them finished and shall hope to sell them altho’ yet have no knowledge of the chance. With the money they bring I shall have to support myself and establishment until I have finished the Temple picture, or, should it be insufficient I must again raise the wind similarly.” (Coombs, letter 22, 50-51).

When Hunt lent this second version for the Exhibition of British Art that toured America in 1857-58, its organizer W. M. Rossetti described the painting as a “Duplicate just finished, with some new background figures &c; of course, better than the original” (Bronkhurst, 183). Hunt himself, in a letter of 1858 to its first owner John Miller of Liverpool, confirmed this writing: “Indeed it is an original picture, rather than a sketch of the work I did ten years ago, for nothing but the main design is derived from that, and this is much added to – and I have carried it out with so much desire to do better justice to it than circumstances and my feeble powers would allow in the first instance that I can say that the result should be satisfactory” (Bronkhurst, 183).

Links to Keats’ Poem and Details


Bennett, Mary. Artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Circle. The First Generation. London: Lund Humphries, 1988.

Bronkhurst, Judith. William Holman Hunt. A Catalogue Raisonné Paintings. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006, cat. 56, 126-128, cat. 90, 182-83.

Coombs, James H. et al, Eds. A Pre-Raphaelite Friendship. The Correspondence of William Holman Hunt and John Lucas Tupper. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1986.

Hunt, William Holman. Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Vol. I. London: Macmillan and Co. Limited, 1905.

Created 30 January 2022