Home from the Sea by Arthur Hughes

Home from the Sea by Arthur Hughes (1862)

For my work of art today, I am crossing the Channel from France and featuring an English Victorian artist who was associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  His name is Arthur Hughes and he was born in London in 1832, the son of Edward and Amy Hughes.  When he was six years of age he attended the Archbishop Tenison’s Grammar School and it was here that he showed the first signs of his artistic talent.  In 1846, aged fourteen he enrolled in the School of Design at Somerset House where he studied under Alfred Stevens.  From there he enrolled in the Antique Schools at the Royal Academy and whilst a student there won a silver medal for a “Drawing from an Antique” competition.  In 1850 he exhibited his first work entitled Musidora, at the Royal Academy.  It was also in this year that he first encountered Alexander Munro, Ford Madox Brown and Dante Rossetti, all artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  Hughes was soon converted to Pre-Raphaelitism adopting many of their ideas in his own work.  Hughes was also greatly influenced by the works of John Everett Millais although he never met him until two years later, in 1852, when they were both exhibiting paintings at the Academy with the same title, Ophelia !  The year 1850 was to prove a very significant year for Arthur Hughes for another reason – he met and fell in love with a woman, Tryphena Foord and eventually in 1855 they married.  It was a very long courtship period of over five years between their first meeting to their nuptials.  During this time Hughes completed many paintings which were both romantic but wistful, both sad but tender and the tone of these works could well have been as a result of his long wait to get married.  Tryphena was the model for many of his  paintings.  The couple had a long and happy life together and went on to have six children, two of whom are present in today’s featured work.  Many of his pictures were of ordinary scenes of life. They were painted with great delicacy and feeling and were often in greens and mauves.

In 1857 he joined in on a joint commission with Edward Burne-Jones, Rossetti, William Morris and others to paint murals on the walls of the Oxford Union Debating Hall which is now the Library.  It was this commission that influenced much of Hughes’ later works and can be seen by the way he softened his colours and added a mystical overtone similar to that seen in the works of Dante Rossetti.   Many of his subsequent works featured Arthurian legends and religious themes.  Besides his time spent on his paintings he also worked on book illustrations for many writers and poets including Keats, Tennyson, Christina Rossetti and Thomas Hughes whose  famous book was Tom Brown’s School Days.  Arthur Hughes was one of the leading illustrators of his time.  He also worked as an art examiner in London and later taught art at the Working Men’s College

He died in London in December 1915, almost a recluse.  During his lifetime he produced over seven hundred paintings and drawings and almost eight hundred book illustrations.  Friends of his would tell you that his main attributes were his modesty and self-effacement.  Like all of us, he had many disappointing times during his life.  He suffered a number of ill-merited rejections at the Royal Academy and despite all his artistic accomplishments, he was disappointed to never having been elected an Associate of the Royal Academy.  He is now regarded as being the best of the younger Pre-Raphaelite followers.

Study for A Mother's Grave by Arthur Hughes

My featured painting today is a very poignant one and is entitled Home from the Sea which he finally completed in 1862 and exhibited at the Academy the following year.  He actually started it six years earlier and the original title of the painting when first exhibited in 1857 was  A Mother’s Grave.   It is known, because of the existence of a study for the original work,  that in the original painting there was just the figure of the boy kneeling over his mother’s grave.   However, there was much criticism over the way Hughes had painted the boy and so he re-worked the painting, adding the figure of the girl.

The painting is set in the graveyard of the Old Chingford Church, Essex.  In the background we see the white walls of the church reflecting the brightness of the sun.  It is not however the church that our eyes immediately focus on but the figures in the foreground which are in shadow.  Before us we have a young sailor boy who has just returned home from a voyage at sea only to find out that his mother has died whilst he was away.  His hat and belongings, wrapped in a knapsack lie abandoned on the ground.  Kneeling besides him we see a girl, possibly his sister, also mourning the death of their mother.

The depiction of the girl was posed for by his daughter Tryphena.   She wears a  black funerary outfit.  Her facial expression is one of pain over her loss.  She kneels on the ground with her hands folded in front of her.  Her eyes are downcast and in some ways her mourning is both constrained  and controlled, possibly because she did not want to further add to the sadness of the boy who has prostrated himself on the ground.

We cannot see the facial expression of the young sailor boy who is still in his uniform. However, we see his hands are clasped in prayer as he prays for the soul of his mother.  This is not just a story of a boy’s loss of a parent but there are things in the painting which symbolise the transience of life and all things ephemeral, like the dog roses and the dandelion seeds as well as the spiders web which is wet with dew, and which can be seen in the tree branches above the girl’s head.  The sense of loss is also highlighted again by Hughes for if we look towards the church in the background we see a ewe searching desperately for her lamb which is hidden from her view by a tombstone.

The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1863 with the present title of Home from the Sea.  One cannot but be moved by this churchyard scene full of pathos as we empathize with the children’s suffering at their loss.

The painting itself, as well as the preliminary study, can be found at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.