Holman Hunt

If there were a heaven it'd be a bit like standing in the Manchester [City] Art Gallery surrounded by almost everything Holman Hunt ever painted! I've waited years to see an exhibition devoted to my favourite painter - I've been to all the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood round-ups over the years and shows featuring Millais, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Alma-Tadema, Lord Leighton, all the Victorians and Edwardians. I travelled up to Manchester especially for this and I wasn't disappointed. Holman Hunt was the most consistent of the Pre-Raphs - he didn't go downhill in later life like Millais and was infinitely more commited than Rossetti, even tho I love them both. He was probably the least scandallous too, tho he did marry his sister-in-law! His paintings may not be as pretty as Rossetti's and their moral and religious themes may put you off, but in my opinion he represents the highest ever achievement in painting - nobody even comes close, before or after (well OK, maybe Vermeer, Ingres, Dali and Glenn Brown). Holman Hunt wasn't a photo-realist - if you look up close at one of his big works, you can see his hand in the brushstrokes and even pencil under the thin layers of paint, but what is astonishing is the bright saturated colours he used. A square inch of painted textile or wood shaving is a psychedelic whirl of intense luscious pigment. He makes the Impressionists look drab. He does however suffer from the same thing that made prog rock unfashionable in pop music - too much going on! And I'm not sure I like his use of soft-focus sometimes, as in 'The awakening conscience' and the horrible 'Triumph of the Innocents' with its babies in bubbles. Gerhard Richter, the American Pop artists and Hyper-realists do it better. To see his true genius, look at the landscape backgrounds of the big 'uns or smaller informal works, like 'Fairlight Downs - Sunlight on the sea' 1852-8 (in the collection of Lord Lloyd Webber) a shimmering sea traversed by a steamship (putting it in HH's present), with the remarkable device of a stick thrown to a dog shown in mid-air! This was painted near Hastings about the same time as 'Our English Coasts' - the one one with sheep on the Downs straying onto the cliffs with the stunning back-lighting. His cropping of the sheep in this one anticipating the snapshot-inspired compositions of Degas. It was great to see all three versions of 'The Light of the World' - we even had the actual lantern HH had made, different piercings representing different faiths. Many of the other big 'uns I'd seen before. Like the prog rockers, many of HH's paintings had been on world tours, and he made a fortune from prints. A rather unimpressive monochrome photogravure (tho HH is said to have touched up 300 of them in black chalk by hand!) by Goupil and Co of 'The triumph of the innocents' was on show in an impressive frame, made by C R Ashbee and the Guild of Handicrafts for C R Horsfall's Ancoats gallery. According to the caption, commentator Alan Crawford (who?) said: 'It is hard to imagine an object more strongly associated with the vanished ideal of social reform through art than this, with its reproduction from Holman Hunt, its quotation from Ruskin [beautifully calligraphed on vellum from The art of England, Chapter 1], made in London's East End by reformed craftsmen, to bring the light of culture to the poor of Manchester.' Hmmm, ever so slightly patronising? The exhibition was free and also includes two spoofs by Steve Bell! My only gripe is the 25 quid publication described as a catalogue. It was produced by the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, where this show first appeared. Despite being full of interesting articles and colour pictures (which could have been a tad bigger!) it doesn't list the exhibits, and it includes pictures not in the exhibition, as I found out when I examined mine in the cafe. I didn't realise for example that there are (at least) two versions of 'The shadow of the cross'. The Manchester one was on show, but there is also a smaller one in nearby Leeds! (And a third I've since learnt is owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber.) There are also (at least) two Ladies of Shalott. What I need from a catalogue is a trainspotter's guide to where all his works can be seen. It was great however to see the self-portrait from the Uffizi and John Ballantyne's portrait of HH in his studio looking like a Victorian Vivian Stanshall in his oriental robe, hat and big ginger beard! Moving Manchester's Holman Hunts next door freed up some wallspace in the main gallery. I'm not good as spot the difference but it looks like most of the gaps have been filled with Millais's dull later landscapes. Manchester Art Gallery (they seem to have dropped City from the name) is a treasure at any time. The Valettes alone are worth a trip to the land of L S Lowry, Joy Division and The Smiths - the foggy streets of this grim Northern city (like on the day I visited) were always waiting for his style of urban Impressionism. And there's an accompanying exhibition of works on paper by the PRB, Burne-Jones and the underrated Ford Madox Brown, he of 'Work' in the main building. The exhibition closes on 11 January. The nearest Holman Hunt to Brighton BTW is the dishy 'Bianca' at Worthing Art Gallery, currently on loan to the above exhibition.