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Course: Europe 1800 - 1900 > Unit 4

Lesson 2: The Pre-Raphaelites and mid-Victorian art

Hunt, Our English Coasts ("Strayed Sheep")

William Holman Hunt, Our English Coasts (Strayed Sheep), 1852, oil on canvas, 43.2 x 58.4 cm (London, Tate Britain)

A Daring Composition

View from cliffs, Covehurst Bay
William Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts (Strayed Sheep) is a remarkably original work of art for 1852. Painted largely out of doors at the "Lover’s Seat" (a scenic outlook) above Covehurst Bay near Hastings on the south coast of England, the scene captures a tranquil spot inhabited only by a flock of sheep. The rather daring composition and the attention to natural detail make this painting unique.
Hunt captures the beauty of an English summer day. The brightness of the sunlight is interrupted only by the shadows of the clouds they move across the landscape. The sea glitters in the distance on the far left. The cliffs are pushed up to the top of the picture frame, leaving little room for the sky. Most daring, however, is the massing of the sheep on the edge of the cliff on the right side of the painting, creating an asymmetry to the composition.
William Holman Hunt, detail Our English Coasts (Strayed Sheep), 1852, oil on canvas, 43.2 x 58.4 cm (London, Tate Britain)
Although there are no people in the landscape, the sheep take on very human characteristics, for example the two sheep at the very edge of the canvas, one of whom lovingly rests his head on the back of the his companion. In the corner just underneath, a black sheep stares malevolently out at the viewer.

Pre-Raphaelite Truth to Nature

True to the ideals of Pre-Raphaelitism, Hunt painted every flower, bramble and blade of grass with extreme attention to detail. The texture gives the impression that you could reach out feel the uneven clumps of wool on the sheep, and Hunt even pays attention to the red marking, used to differentiate ownership, on each member of the flock. Hunt, who had introduced the Pre-Raphaelites to the ideas of John Ruskin, was perhaps the most faithful follower of Ruskin’s advice to “go to Nature in all singleness of heart.”
Political and Moral Content
Also following in the tradition of Ruskin is the fact that the painting carries a moral content. The title Our English Coasts related to the fact that at the time of the unguarded state of the many miles of English coastline was a serious topic of discussion at the time. The European revolutions of 1848 had made Britons nervous, and it was as yet unclear what the relationship was to be with France’s new ruler Napoleon III.
William Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd, 1851, oil on canvas, 76.4 × 109.5 cm (Manchester, Manchester Art Gallery)
William Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd, 1851, oil on canvas, 76.4 × 109.5 cm (Manchester, Manchester Art Gallery)
The selection of a location near Hastings, the landing site of the Norman Invasion of 1066, possibly relates to the last successful invasion of the island in British history. The painting’s subtitle, Strayed Sheep, relates to the more Biblical message of the painting. There is no shepherd tending the flock, some of which are perched perilously close to the edge of the cliff. In this the message relates to the moral of Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd, in which a beautiful woman distracts the shepherd while the flock behind him gets into all kinds of trouble. Interestingly, when Hunt exhibited the painting in France in 1855, the Our English Coasts part of the title was dropped.

Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelites

Hunt was born in London in 1827 and became a student at the Royal Academy School in 1844, where he met Millais. He also became a close friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti when the two bonded over a mutual regard for the work of the poet Keats. He was an important force in the early years of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the subjects and moral content of his paintings frequently reflect his own deeply religious nature.

The English Countryside

The realism of Our English Coasts (Strayed Sheep) transports the viewer to the spot. One can feel the breeze off the English Channel, and the heat of the summer sun. The picturesque blend of sheep and landscape typically found in the English countryside are here seamlessly intertwined with the moral message. Hunt has in no way created a replica of an earlier painting (which was the original commission), but a wholly original work of art.
Essay by Dr. Rebecca Jeffrey Easby

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  • male robot johnny style avatar for user chris
    Why made William so interested to paint a random ordinary scene of a sheep flock. This intimidating image of the sheep extremely influenced myself to ask this question. Please reply with a detailed answer.
    (4 votes)
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    • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
      Well as the article outlines in some regard, this is in no way a "random...scene of a sheep flock...", Hunt had clearcut views on "morality" and more importantly he wanted to use this flock of sheep to represent the beauty, but yet the vulnerability of the English coastline. This painting was pained En Plein Air, or out of doors, along the southern English coast (the coast that is nearest to France and given the political instability in France at the time post 1848 there was a lot of uncertainty with regards to the relationship between France and England. This beauty of this painting is clear and vivid given the color and the fine textures of the sheep, but the choice to leave them near a cliff and to show no evidence of a nearby shepherd to take care of them points to their vulnerability.

      I hope that helps in some way!
      (3 votes)