William Henry Hunt: Country People
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A show of the nineteenth-century watercolourist's scenes of life in rural England.
Live to work or work to live, that’s the choice we all face, right? But maybe things aren’t that simple. Victorian painter William Henry Hunt’s watercolour portraits of nineteenth-century folk show a world where living and working were basically the same thing.
England was changing back then, staring down the massive soot-covered barrel of impending and unstoppable industrialisation. Hunt doesn’t deal with that here; what he was looking for instead was the simple face of rural reality. The result is a world of labour and its fruits, captured in a grimy kaleidoscope of browns and blacks. It’s the dirty muddy truth of scraping by. Hunt’s hand is precise, his works all neat compositions of line and washed-out colour. They’re not the most hypnotising or brilliant of works, but they tell an absorbing little story.
There are no names here, just job titles and places of work. These people are inseparable from their environments. Hunt isn’t painting portraits of people, he’s exposing their lives: the miller is defined by the mill, the maltster by his grains, the poacher by the catch, the farmer by his barn. These people are their work, they have the same earthy colours as the ground and the walls. There’s almost no difference between the gardener and his pineapples: they are one symbiotic whole, one does not and can not exist without the other.
Maybe that’s why we’ve all become so grey and pallid these days – maybe we’re inseparable from our work with computers, defined by the glare of the screens. If Hunt painted us now, you’d guess he’d have a pretty dour palette..