Holman Hunt Manuscripts

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 133 HOL
  • Dates of Creation
  • Name of Creator
  • Language of Material
      All items are written in English  unless otherwise stated.
  • Physical Description
      10 series.
  • Location
      John Rylands Library, Deansgate.

Scope and Content

The papers of William Holman Hunt, comprising English MSS 1210-1216, 1239, 1268 and 1275, include diaries recording his visits to Egypt and Palestine and over three hundred letters. They are of great value to art historians, as they contain comments on the progress of works such as The Hireling Shepherd, The Light of the World, The Awakening Conscience, The Scapegoat, The Shadow of Death, The Triumph of the Innocents, and May Morning on Magdalen Tower. The letters also contain references to important contemporaries such as Augustus Egg, Michael Frederick Halliday, Sir John Everett Millais, Coventry Patmore, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Alfred Lord Tennyson. There are 49 letters to his close friend Edward Lear, 35 to Thomas Combe, director of the Clarendon Press, and a further 24 to the painter Frederic James Shields.

English MSS 1210-1216 comprise: an account of Holman Hunt's visit to the Middle East in 1854 (Eng MS 1210); his private diary during the trip to Middle East, 12 February-16 December 1855 (Eng MS 1211); a diary compiled during Holman Hunt's second visit to Palestine and his return through Europe, 1 January-5 July 1872 (Eng MS 1212); letters to Thomas Combe, 1853-1876 (Eng MS 1213); letters to Edward Lear, 1852-1887 (Eng MS 1214); letters to his mother, his second wife, Edith, his son, Hilary, and sister, Elizabeth, 1854, 1873-1899 (Eng MS 1215); and miscellaneous letters both sent and received by Holman Hunt, 1843-1911 (Eng MS 1216).

English MS 1239 comprises letters from William Holman Hunt to the artist Frederic Shields, 1880-1897.

English MS 1268 consists of miscellaneous letters written by William Holman Hunt, with the exception of /24-26 and /44 which were written by his second wife Edith Holman Hunt. The letters deal mainly with Holman Hunt's paintings but some also include mention of painting and restoration techniques, his views on art and religion and also the education of his son Hilary.

English MS 1275 comprises letters to William Holman Hunt from Michael Frederick Halliday, painter and associate of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, c.1849-c.1867.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Pre-Raphaelite painter, was a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and one of the most significant artists of the Victorian age. He was born at Cheapside, London in 1827, the son of a warehouseman. His original employment was as an assistant to a surveyor, and later as an assistant to the London agent of Richard Cobden. Finding these employments uncongenial, Hunt studied art privately, before going to the Royal Academy as a student in 1844. Here he met John Everett Millais, already known as a precocious talent. Hunt began to exhibit at the Academy and his Flight of Madeline and Porphyrus aroused the interest of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who had been working under the artist Ford Madox Brown. In 1848, Hunt, Millais and Rossetti established the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (the title was not formally adopted until a year later). Hunt has been considered to be the moving spirit in this movement, which was later joined by the artists Thomas Woolner, James Collinson, W.M. Rossetti and F.G. Stephens. In 1849 Hunt painted his first 'Pre-Raphaelite' painting, Rienzi, and in 1850 produced a journal for the movement called The Germ.

Hunt's work came to public attention when he exhibited Christians escaping from Druid Persecution in 1850, which proved controversial. The early 1850s were difficult for Hunt as he met with great hostility from sections of the artistic establishment; he considered giving up art for farming, and was forced to work by restoring and copying old masters. However his Valentine rescuing Sylvia from Proteus found a champion in John Ruskin, who remained a life-long friend, and in 1852 Hunt exhibited The Hireling Shepherd, which won widespread acclaim. Two important paintings of 1854, The Awakened Conscience and The Light of the World demonstrated the strong spiritual principles which were a feature of Hunt's work. In the same year Hunt fulfilled a long-held ambition to travel to the Holy Land in order to study and sketch sacred subjects in their actual surroundings. He began work on The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, which was completed six years later, and The Scapegoat, one of his best-known paintings. In 1856 he provided six designs for an illustrated edition of Tennyson's poems, one of which, The Lady of Shalott, he painted in oil many years later. In 1866 Hunt began a new journey to the Near East, but was forced to stop at Florence because of a cholera outbreak. Hunt's wife, whom he married in 1865, died at Florence, but he stayed on in Italy, painting and visiting major artistic centres. He finally reached Palestine in 1869, where he took a house in Jerusalem and began work on The Shadow of the Cross. He later returned to Jerusalem in 1875, staying for two and a half years to work on Nazareth, overlooking Esdraelon and The Triumph of the Innocents, which he completed in 1885. He made a final trip to Palestine in 1892.

Hunt had talents in a number of areas: he was a skilled furniture maker, whose work influenced William Morris, as well as a talented model-maker and an accomplished writer. He contributed several articles on the Pre-Raphaelites to the periodical press and to Chambers's Encyclopaedia. In 1905 he published a two volume work Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a history of his own life and of his associates. Hunt was unsuccessful in an application to join the Royal Academy as an associate in 1856, and he never lost his antipathy to that institution. In response, he set up the Hogarth Club for artists denied official recognition. In 1905 Hunt was admitted to the Order of Merit. He was twice married and had three children. He died at his home in Kensington in 1910.

Hunt was considered to be the only member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who remained true to its principles of artistic sincerity and simplicity. Hunt's paintings were distinguished by their precise detail, a strong use of colour, striking imagery, and a clear didactic purpose. The moral earnestness of his work proved highly popular with Victorian audiences.

Source: Judith Bronkhurst, 'Hunt, William Holman (1827-1910)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. By permission of Oxford University Press -'http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/34058.

Access Information

The collection is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

English MSS 1210-1216 were purchased by the John Rylands Library at auction at Sotheby's on 17 June 1958, having been consigned by Mrs David Cuthbery, only grandchild of Holman Hunt.

English MS 1239 was acquired from the London booksellers Maggs Bros on 31 July 1959.

English MS 1268, items /1-17 were purchased by the John Rylands Library from Maggs Bros on 5 February 1960; /18-34 were all purchased between 1961 and 1963 from Ifan Kyrle Fletcher; /35-41 were purchased as lot 482 at the Sotheby's sale on 26 May 1964; and /42-44 were purchased from Henry Bristow of Ringwood in 1977 as lot 64, for which the catalogue describing these letters is available with the archive.

English MS 1275 was purchased at auction at Sotheby's on 15 December 1970.


Description compiled by Jo Klett, project archivist, with reference to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article on William Holman Hunt.

Other Finding Aids

Catalogued in the Hand-List of the Collection of English Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, 1952-1970 (English MSS 1210-1216, 1239, 1268, 1275). A detailed handlist of English MS 1268 is also available.

Alternative Form Available

Published microfilm: John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and Arts and Crafts Movement: the Ruskin, Holman Hunt, Fairfax Murray, Spielmann and Related Collections from the John Rylands University Library, Manchester (Woodbridge: Research Publications, 1990).

Separated Material

Correspondence and papers of William Holman Hunt may also be found in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, (reference: NUC MS 81-60) and the Tate Gallery Archive, London. Oxford University, Bodleian Library, Special Collections and Western Manuscripts, hold letters from William Holman Hunt to A.W. Acland, Thomas Combe and his wife, Coventry Patmore and F.G. Stephens (references: NRA 22893 Acland, MS Eng lett c 296, MS Eng lett d 40 and MSS Don e 66-68).

Related Material

Related material concerning William Holman Hunt and other Pre-Raphaelite artists may be found in the John Ruskin Papers (GB 133 RUS), the Fairfax Murray Papers (GB 133 Eng MSS 1278-1283) and the Spielmann Collection (GB 133 Eng MSS 1288-1303), held at The John Rylands Library.