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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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William Holman Hunt was a highly skilled draughtsman and his drawings provided a solid base from which all his other work could thrive. The majority of the sketches that remain from his career were study pieces for larger artworks.

It was the artist's wife who is believed to have collected up most of his drawings and put them together into documented books. This has helped to preserve all that remained. Sketches traditionally will be passed around within a studio to help students learn specific techniques. They also may not have been taken care of in the same way as an oil painting, because of how this art form was traditionally seen as purely a supporting element to other mediums. That has changed somewhat in the modern era, where exhibitions devoted entirely to this art form are now fairly common.

Of all the remaining drawings from his career, we can categorise them into finished drawings which have sufficient detail to be considered artworks in their own right, plus preparatory sketches as mentioned and finally some caricatures and humorous drawings. Within his more complex pieces you will find medieval subjects, plus landscapes and portraits. Many of these rival another artist's drawings which are considered of great quality, namely John William Waterhouse. Some of his portraits of young models are captivating and beautiful. That famous artist sat on the fringes of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, having arrived into the art world some years after the likes of Holman Hunt and Burne-Jones.

The Brotherhood was famous for its versatility across different mediums and so it would have been adnormal for any artist to have restricted their work to a single medium. Besides the drawings of Waterhouse and Holman Hunt, there were also stained glass window designs from Edward Burne-Jones and also tapestry work from the likes of himself and William Morris. Sketches formed the backbone across all of these disciplines. The themes found across the board also had similarities, with many using the literature of the UK or ancient Greece or Rome as inspiration, with several themes such as The Lady of Shalott and Ophelia appearing in several different artist's work.

Holman Hunt made use of small sketchbooks himself when travelling and would produce portraits and landscape sketches of new people and locations. He was intrigued by foreign cultures and before the era of mass media, much more would have surprised him than would now be the case. JMW Turner famously did similar during his time in Venice, where it was not logistically possible to carry all of the tools required for oil painting with you whereever you went. Study drawings could be used as a basis for later paintings when the artist had returned to his studio. They were almost like taking photographs today, and using them to create art. Over time many of these drawings would be separated into individual sleeves, before later the artist's wife would take the time to collect them up and group them together again.

Holman Hunt's travels took in Cairo and Jaffa before he settled for an extended period in Jerusalem. He then moved on to Nazareth, Damascus and Beirut before returning to England after three years abroad. These famous locations provided inspiration for his work during those years, but also left an imprint on him that impacted all future work even after he had returned home. In fact, he would later go back to Jerusalem around 15 years later to continue to draw from this fountain of inspiration and exotic culture. European artists are famous for making use of art from all around the world, going back many centuries. Sometimes this will be from imported items as part of colonial rule, whilst on other occasions it would be from proactive artists, such as Holman Hunt here, choosing to travel abroad and experience new cultures and artistic ideas.

One of the most famous William Holman Hunt that has been uncovered contains a series of study sketches for his later masterpiece, The Scapegoat. The ArtFund helped to acquire this piece in the 1980s in collaboration with several other national art institutions to ensure that it remains in the UK. The artist worked on both sides of this pencil on paper artwork, capturing a goat who he had personally transported from Jerusalem to the shores of the Dead Sea in Palestine. This approach to foreign influences proved popular with art buyers, who started to pay particularly large amounts for his paintings from this point onwards.

Such artworks can help us to really understand an artist's methods of working. In this case, the final painting made several tweaks to the compositions that we found in his drawing studies. He adjusted the pose of the goat slightly, and also decided to swap it out for a brown goat. Perhaps issues or preferences changed as he started to implement various oil colours. Its head also is angled differently, but the fundamentals of the study remained there in his finished painting. There are likely to have been many more study drawings for this important artwork, though most would have been lost in the years that have passed since. The artist would often also add notes alongside his drawings, such as dates or thoughts about how his composition could be adjusted.