The Hireling Shepherd William Holman Hunt Buy Art Prints Now
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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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The Hireling Shepherd was painted during 1851 as an oil on canvas. Both William Holman Hunt and fellow artist, John Everett Millais, travelled to Ewell in Surrey where they searched together for locations for painting.

They spent time along the River Hogswell and while Millais found his site for Orphelia, Hunt chose the meadows near the fields of Ewell Court Farm to paint The Hireling Shepherd.

Painting outdoors proved problematic with flies and weather conditions forcing them to work in shelters. According to many sources they spent 11 hours each day for around five months working on their art.

A local girl, Emma Watkins, modelled for Hunt and travelled to London to enable him to complete the painting but sadly her dreams of becoming a model did not materialise and she returned home afterwards.

Hunt's finished piece was exhibited along with a quote from Shakespeare's King Lear (Act 3, Scene 6) about a shepherd who neglects his duties. The critics at that time felt that the depiction of the country peasants with "ruddy" and "flushed" faces was vulgar and Hunt hinted that there was a hidden meaning in the picture.

The scene depicts a meadow full of sheep in Spring. A hireling shepherd with his keg of ale or cider is showing a young woman a death's head hawkmoth in his hand. In doing so, he is reaching around her, encircling her body as she leans against him. She lounges, her toes near the water, with a lamb upon her lap.

Her expression is difficult to read, yet the vivid colours of the red skirt and cloth, the apples nearby and her flushed face hint at biblical references to the temptation of Adam in the abundant garden of Eden.

Experts have also suggested that Hunt was inspired by the parable of The Good Shepherd in the Book of John, Chapter 10. In contrast to the Good shepherd, this is a hireling shepherd who is neglecting the sheep, the viewer can see that one of them has wandered across the ditch and is heading towards the wheat.

Some of the other sheep do not look healthy, one lies on its back and many have suggested that the apples are sour and should not be fed to the lamb and sheep. Like the hireling shepherd who has forgotten his flock Hunt was suggesting that the clergy were also forgetting their flocks and not providing any moral guidance to them.

This fascinating painting now hangs in the Manchester Art Gallery, United Kingdom.