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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, 432 x 584 mm (Tate Britain, London). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy music) Female: That sheep in the foreground looks so happy and so adorable. You can see the light right around his ears. You can almost see his nose twitching. William Holman Hunt painted him so realistically he seems alive. Male: We're in Tate Britain and we're looking at Hunt's Our English Coasts, otherwise known as Strayed Sheep. It's one of the spectacular pre-Raphaelite paintings. Female: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in 1848, so this is only four years later, and we see that minute attention to detail that's so characteristic of the Pre-Raphaelites; that Ruskinian idea of truth to nature, really painting what you see. Male: Ruskin loved this painting. In a critique, he spoke about the way that this was the first time in painting's history that the sun's light had been captured in an authentic way. Female: One art historian has said that this painting is about light, but it's also about a lot of other things, too. Male: It has such a curious, such a radical composition. You've got the southern English coast where the cliffs dive down to the English Channel, and you've got this flock of untended sheep, or seemingly untended sheep. Female: Right. We don't see a shepherd anywhere. Male: But only on the right side. They seem to be moving up and down in this wonderful undulating landscape. Female: They seem very innocent and very playful. Male: And curious. Female: A hint of wondering around. One seems to be lost in some vegetation in the foreground, and others are lying on the ground enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. We know that Hunt painted this on plein air, that is, that he painted it outside. Male: This is early for plein air painting. Female: Plein air painting was made possible because artists were able, for the first time, to get oil paint in tubes that made it possible to go outside with your paint and your supplies and paint outside. Male: This particular spot was considered really picturesque. It was a tourist location. It was a place that people visited regularly. Female: And that artists painted, too. Male: I think in 1852 when this painting was made, it had a different kind of significance. Female: In 1852, we know that there was particular concern for the safety of Enlgland from foreign invasion, the safety of the coasts, from foreign invasion. Male: England has a historical preoccupation with invasion. This is an island nation where the shores had been safe a very long time, but very much tied in, woven into the consciousness of every British citizen is the critical historical moment when the Normans from France invaded England in 1066 and actually landed in Hastings, which is very close to where this painting was made. Female: In much more recent memory, for the Victorians, was Napoleon, and the Duke of Wellington's defeat of Napoleon. Male: In fact, the Duke of Wellington was actively, at this moment, talking about the vulnerability of the English coasts. So now there is a new Napoleonic threat. Now, Napoleon III had seized power only the year before, in France, and the English were very skittish about this. Female: The British were not sure what Anglo-French relations were going to be with this new Napoleon in power, so this was definitely a moment where there was fear for the safety of England. Male: We can see just to the left, of course, the English Channel itself, and just across the way, almost visible, is France. So there is this sense that that innocence of those sheep is also about the vulnerability of the populace of England. Female: No one's protecting them. No one's tending them. What's especially fascinating is that when this painting was exhibited three years later in France at the Universal Exposition in Paris, Hunt changed the name from Our English Coasts to Strayed Sheep. Male: A little more innocuous from the French perspective, right? Female: Right. Not a kind of nationalistic Our English Coast but a more generic idea of strayed sheep, which of course has its own meanings as well. Male: Strayed Sheep has a Christian reference, the idea of the flock, the idea of the followers of Christ, but maybe not following all that strictly. Female: They're straying from their path. Also, Hunt may have been referring to the way that there were internal conflicts in the Church of England and that meant that perhaps the Church of England wasn't taking care of its flock particularly well at that time either. Male: I think for Hunt it was important that there were multiple possibilities, and in a sense give this painting a kind of depth and a kind of power that goes well beyond the simple landscape. Female: We see that Pre-Raphaelite interest in truth to nature especially in the flowers on the left, where Hunt seems to have painted every single leaf and blade of grass and each petal on every flower. Male: He complained that the weather that summer was just rotten and, in fact, didn't finish this painting until November because there were so many storms. Female: There weren't that many sunny days to go outside and paint. Male: That's right. But I think that reminds us of what it meant, the kind of commitment to what he was actually seeing. Female: And that's so different than academic practice where there were formulas for representing things instead of taking things directly observed from nature. Male: This was meant to be real and honest and to strip away all of that academic tradition. Female: It's incredibly tactile. There's the fir, the sunlight, the vegetation, even the smell of being near the beach. For all its moralizing, it's a really sensual image. (jazzy music)