The Hope

Henry Bowler, Can These Dry Bones Live? 1854-5

‘The Hope’ was very important to Victorians, it was the hope that there is life after death and eventually a resurrection. It is unclear why they thought this way but it may be the large number of infant deaths and simply a naive hope that the religious stories about an afterlife and a heaven were true. These stories were becoming increasingly difficult to believe in the 19th century with the discoveries being made about the age of the Earth popularised by Lyell and the origin of species published by Darwin in 1859.

Alex Vidler, in ‘The Church in the Age of Revolution’ said the 19th century was ‘more an age of religious questioning then one of religious faith’. In practise individual Victorians had very idiosyncratic views. For example, His first major work, Sartor Resartus (1832) was intended to be a new kind of book: simultaneously factual and fictional, serious and satirical, speculative and historical. It ironically commented on its own formal structure, while forcing the reader to confront the problem of where ‘truth’ is to be found. The narrator finds contempt for all things in human society and life. He contemplates the “Everlasting No” of refusal, comes to the “Centre of Indifference,” and eventually embraces the “Everlasting Yea.” This voyage from denial to disengagement to volition would later be described as part of the existentialist awakening. (Wikipedia entry for Thomas Carlyle)

In Carlyle’s ‘Pilgrim’s progress’ search for the meaning of life he finally finds the ‘Everlasting “Yes”‘. living in and for the moment. Like many people in the 19th century Carlyle took on religion and tries to work it out from first principles. The religious world can be summarised as:


Anglicanism Non-conformist
1829 Catholic Relief Act, allowed
Catholic MPs
Oxford Movement Broad Church Evangelicals Methodists
1869 Irish Disestablishment Act Tractarianism Muscular Christianity Soul, vision
Cardinal Newman Pussy Christian Socialism Interior experience


Brought back the theatre of religion and communion,
stained glass windows, it appealed to artists.
Found Christianity in the everyday. Appealed to
Victorian work ethic. Even the humble can be ‘Great Men’.


Influences: Lyell (age of the Earth), Darwin (1859), Biblical Archaeology, Renen (1860) and Strauss (1847, translated by George Eliot) wrote biographies of Christ.

Many Victorians went through periods of belief and periods of atheism, such as Ruskin in the 1850s and Holman Hunt in the 1860s. Hunt at one stage claimed all the PRB were atheists in the 1850s and the ‘List of Immortals’ suggested a secular belief in mortality (although Christ was listed as the only Immortal with four stars). However, Hunt later said he did believe in an afterlife when the list was drawn up.

Another approach to the afterlife was spiritualism which was popular with both Holman Hunt, Dante Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal for a while. It was thought that certain people called ‘mediums’ could communicate with people who had died. They did not believe in heaven and hell but in a series of ‘spheres’ spirits progressed through.

There was also a belief in Natural Theology (examples are in Carlyle and Kingsley, for example, the Water Babies search for everlasting life).

‘recognition of the divineness of Nature; sincere communion of man with the mysterious invisible Powers visibly seen at work in the world round him.’ On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History by Thomas Carlyle (although he was talking about Paganism).

It was an attempt to negotiate a personal belief system that was compatible between scientific finding and some form of religious belief particularly in an afterlife. Ruskin, for example, saw God as an artist and the world his artistic production so exact reproduction of the world he saw as a form of religious statement.

‘In all epochs of the world’s history, we shall find the Great Man to have been the indispensable savior of his epoch;–the lightning, without which the fuel never would have burnt. The History of the World, I said already, was the Biography of Great Men.’ On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History by Thomas Carlyle (May 5, 1840, Lecture I, The Hero as Divinity. Odin. Paganism: Scandinavian Mythology).

Brown John Wycliffe Reading His Translation of the_Bible_to_John_of_Gaunt_1847-61
Ford Madox Brown, John Wycliffe Reading His Translation of the Bible to John of Gaunt, 1847-61

Brown Jesus Washing Peters Feet 1852-56
Ford Madox Brown, Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet, 1852-56, retouched up to 1892.
Tate Gallery.Jesus was originally stripped to the waist as it makes clear in the Bible but Brown added clothes for proprietary. Why did he paint this image? Perhaps it was related to Christain Socialism and Chartism and the belief that the meek can become ‘Great Men’ (or ‘inherit the Earth’). Brown was painting these images before the other Pre-Raphaelites.

Hunt The Light of the World 1851-3
William Holman Hunt, The Light of the World, 1851-3

Hunt shows a completely different approach with Christ shown not as humble but as a king. Hunt wrote a poem called the King about Christ. This was intended as a pendant to Awakening Conscience.The Working Men’s College was founded in 1854 to provide a liberal arts education for the Victorian skilled artisan class and was associated with the Co-operative Movement. It was among the first adult education institutes in the country. Key early supporters were F. D. Maurice (the first principal), John Stuart Mill, Tom Hughes (the author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays), Charles Kingsley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Ruskin. Ford Madox Brown and Rossetti taught at the College.

Brown The Prisoner of Chillon 1856
Ford Madox Brown, The Prisoner of Chillon: Study of a Corpse, 1856′

Often as I have seen horrors’, Brown wrote in his diary, ‘I really did not remember how hideous the shell of a poor creature may remain when the substance contained is fled. Yet we both declared it to be lovely and a splendid corpse.’

Brown Elijah and the Widows Son c1864
Ford Madox Brown, Elijah and the Widow’s Son, c1864

Brown A Study of Arthur Madox Brown 1856
Ford Madox Brown, A Study of Arthur Madox Brown, 1856.

Brown A Study of Arthur Madox Brown aged_9_months_1856

Ford Madox Brown, A Study of Arthur Madox Brown, aged 9 months, 1856.

The study was used in ‘Work’ but Arthur became ill the day he started painting him and he died of a brain infection. Brown still included him but changed the red ribbons to black to signify he was motherless.Children were often associated with death such as Autumn Leaves and Child of the Regiment.

Brown Convalescent Portrait of Emma Madox Brown 1872
Ford Madox Brown, Convalescent – Portrait of Emma Madox Brown, 1872, pastel drawing.

He thought she was dying when he drew this but she recovered. This was the year that Rossetti had his own nervous breakdown.

Hunt Shadow of Death 1870-3
William Holman Hunt, Shadow of Death, 1869-73
It took him four years to paint and he was painting it every day, all day long except for a picture of his dead wife, her sister (he later married) and his self-portrait.After a failed engagement to Annie Miller (partly because she had sex with Dante Rossetti when he left her behind in England on his visit to the Middle East) he married Fanny Waugh who died in childbirth within a year of their marriage in 1866. He was haunted by the look of her corpse and found it impossible to think of her in any other way than looking down on him from heaven. He later married her sister Edith Waugh even though it was illegal in England at the time and this led to a break up with her family and Thomas Woolner who had married the third sister Alice Waugh.
This painting focuses on resurrection and he wrote a lot about St. Paul in his diary as he was thinking how lucky he was to have seen Jesus resurrected with his own eyes. He was also preoccupied with Lazarus, the only person to have been resurrected in the Bible (other than Jesus). For example, Hunt argues the story must be true (even though it is only in St. John’s Gospel) because the writing is so vivid no one could have made it up. He is clearly trying to convince himself.Hunt also thought about the future and how science might explain resurrection. He thought the body might evaporate and then condense somewhere else as water turns to invisible water vapour and then back into rain. He also thought people on other planets might have photographed past events on Earth and might one day show us photographs of the resurrection.The most surprising aspect of the painting is Mary shown with her back to us. Even today this would be regarded by some people as shocking. She is looking in a chest at the presents from the Three Wise Men and is holding a crown signifying she thought Jesus would become a real king. But she is looking at the shadow on the wall the prefigures the crucifixion and has a premonition of Jesus’ death but not his resurrection. She therefore for Hunt represents stupidity and crassness. We can see the resurrection but she cannot see it as her back is turned.

Hunt The Triumph of the Innocents 1883-4
William Holman Hunt, The Triumph of the Innocents, 1883-4

This is all about religion, death and the family. We see the children massacred by Herod brought back to life. One is examining the knife wound which has left a cut in his garment but no wound. The woman is Mary modelled by his wife’s sister Edith. Hunt had seen many pictures of the Massacre of the Innocents in Florence. This shows the domestic drama, and the fact that it is domestic does not mean it is trivial, on the contrary it means it is the most important.

See Wheeler, ‘Heaven, Hell and the Victorians.’, Amazon

(These are notes of a course given at Birkbeck College by Carol Jacobi in 2006/2007)

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