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Current time:0:00Total duration:5:34

The Pre-Raphaelites and mid-Victorian art

Video transcript

that sheep in the foreground looks so happy and so adorable and you can see the light right around his ears and you can almost see his nose twitching William Holman hunt painted him so realistically he seems alive we're in Tate Britain and we're looking at Hunt's our English coasts otherwise known as strayed sheep and it's one of these spectacular pre-raphaelite paintings the pre-raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in 1848 so this is only four years later and we see that minut attention to detail that's so characteristic of the pre-raphaelites that Ruskin II an idea of truth to nature really painting what you see and Ruskin loved this painting in a critique he spoke about the way that this was the first time in paintings history that the son's life had been captured in an authentic way and when our historians has said that this painting is about light but it's also about a lot of other things too it's such a curious as a radical composition so 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 right we don't see a shepherd anywhere but only on the right side and they seem to be moving up and down in this wonderful undulating landscape they seem very innocent and very playfully injurious yeah that of wandering around one seems to be lost in some vegetation in the foreground and others are lying on the ground enjoying the late afternoon sunshine so we know that hunt painted this on plein air that is that he painted it outside and this is early for plein air painting 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 no this particular spot was considered really picturesque and it was a tourist location it was a place that people visited regularly and that artists painted too but I think in 1852 when this painting was made it had been different kind of significance in 1852 we know that there was particular concern for the safety of England from foreign invasion the safety of the coasts from foreign invasion well England has a historical preoccupation with invasion I mean this is an island nation where the shores had been safe a very long time but very much tidy and 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 in much more recent memory for the Victorians was Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington's defeat of Napoleon and in fact the Duke of Wellington it was actively at this moment talking about the vulnerability of the English coasts so now there is a there is a new Napoleonic threat now Napoleon the third had seized power only the year before in France and the English were very skittish about this 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 well we can see just to the left of course the English Channel itself and just across the way almost visible is France and so there is the sense that that in a sense of those sheep is also got the vulnerability of the populace of England 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 change the name from our English coasts to strayed sheep a little more innocuous from the French perspective right not a kind of nationalistic our English prose but a more generic idea of strayed sheep which of course has its own meanings as well so 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 they're straying from their path and also Hunt may have been referring to the way that there were internal conflicts in the Church of England that meant that perhaps the Church of England wasn't taking care of its flock particularly well at that time either I think fur hunt it was important that there were multiple possibilities and it says give this painting a kind of death and a kind of power that goes well beyond this simple landscape 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 well you know 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 there weren't that many sunny days to go outside and paint that's right but I think that reminds us of what it meant the kind of commitment to what he was actually seeing and that's so different than academic practice where there were sort of formulas for representing things instead of taking things directly observed from nature well this was meant to be real and honest and to strip away all of that academic tradition it's incredibly tactile there's the fur the sunlight the vegetation even the smell of being near the beach for all its moralizing it's a really sensual image