In the catalogue to the 1852 Royal Academy exhibition, Hunt included an excerpt from Edgar’s song taken from William Shakespeare’s King Lear (act 3, scene 6):
“Sleepest or wakest thou, jolly shepherd?
They sheep be in the corn:
And, for one blast of thy manikin mouth,
Thy sheep shall take no harm.”
The title is inspired by a parable in the Gospel of St John (Chapter 10) in which Jesus says:
“I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hireling – that is one who is not a shepherd and who does not own the sheep – leaves the sheep and flees when he sees the wolf coming, and the wolf pounces down on the sheep and scatters them. The reason why the hireling flees is that he is a hireling, and does not care for the sheep.”
Hunt described The Hireling Shepherd in an 1897 letter:
”Shakespeare’s song represents a Shepherd who is neglecting his real duty of guarding the sheep: instead of using his voice in truthfully performing is duty, he is using his ‘minnikin mouth’ in some idle way. He was a type thus of other muddle headed pastors who instead of performing their services to their flock – which is in constant period – discuss vain questions of no value to any human soul. My fool has found a death’s head moth, and this fills his mind with forebodings of evil and he takes it to an equally sage counselor for her opinion. She scorns his anxiety from ignorance rather than profundity, but only the more distracts his faithfulness: while she feeds her lamb with sour apples his sheep have burst bounds and got into the corn. It is not merely that the wheat will be spoilt, but on eating it the heep are doomed to destruction from becoming what farmers call ‘blown.’”
Cited in J.D. Macmillan, “Holman Hunt’s Hireling Shepherd: Some Reflections on a Victorian Pastoral,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 54, no. 2 (June 1972): 188.
An anonymous reviewer of the Royal Academy exhibition of 1852 offered his opinion of Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd :
“Like [Jonathan] Swift, [Hunt] revels in the repulsive. These rustics are of the coarsest breed, -- ill favoured, ill fed, ill washed. Not to dwell on cutaneous and other minutiae, -- they are literal transcripts of stout, sunburnt, out-of-door labourers. Their faces, bursting with a plethora of health, and a trifle too flushed and rubicund, suggest their over-attention to the beer or cyder (sic) keg on the boor’s back….Downright literal truth is followed out in every accessory; each sedge, moss, and weed – each sheep – each tree, pollard or pruned – each crop, beans or corn – is faithfully imitated. Summer heat pervades the atmosphere, -- the grain is ripe, -- the swifts skim about, -- and the purple clouds cast purple shadows.”
Anonymous, “Fine Arts: Royal Academy,” Athenaeum (22 May 1852): 581-2; Cited in Albert Boime, Art in an Age of Civil Struggle 1848-1871 (Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 294.
Nicolas Mason describes the historical context for working-class drunkenness and how it was perceived by the government primarily as an economic problem:
“Perhaps the most interesting trend in the 1834 testimonies, however, is the number of witnesses who suggested that the Beer Act [of 1830] had not only created beer houses, but had also precipitated the conversion of traditional pubs into ‘gin palaces.’ Witness after witness detailed a pattern in which competition from beer houses drove publicans to remodel their taverns or inns into extravagant gin palaces. The glamour of these new establishments, according to most accounts, lured in curious laborers, which led to another wave of gin-drinking. In the end, then, rather than turning workers away from gin, the Beer Act had only increased the amount of spirits being consumed by the working class….the gin palace offered workers an escape from reality, complete with hired musicians, comfortable surroundings, and strong drink. Observing the rapid proliferation of gin palaces following the Beer Act, in 1835 [Charles] Dickens wrote ‘Gin Shops,’ an essay he eventually included in Sketches by Boz….
Concluding that the Beer Act was at least partially responsible for the rise of the gin palace and a number of social ills, the Select Committee on Drunkenness issued a report in 1834 calling for a major crackdown on beer houses. This report demonstrates the extent to which the new beer law was already being recognized as a turning point in the behavior of English laborers….In the Committee’s assessment, the crisis of working-class drunkenness had reached such a point that it now constituted a distinct threat to the nation’s economic well-being. Across the country, one work day in six was reportedly being lost to drunkenness, and, all told, the Committee concluded that ‘the retardation of improvement caused by the excessive use of Intoxicating Drinks, may be fairly estimated at little short of fifty millions sterling per annum.’”
Nicolas Mason, “’The Sovereign People Are in a Beastly State’: The Beer Act of 1830 and Victorian Discourse on Working-Class Drunkenness,” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 29, no. 1 (2001): 117-18.
Judith Bronkhurst explains the painting’s contemporary religious context:
“The artist would almost certainly have read Yeast: A Problem by the summer of 1851. This novel by the Christian Socialist Charles Kingsley is concerned with sectarian [religious] issues, in particular the lure of Rome [Catholicism], and with an attack on establishment clergy for their disregard of contemporary social problems. It also stressed that poverty, immorality and disease stalked mid-nineteenth-century rural England. Shortly after his arrival at Kingston Hunt read [John] Ruskin’s recently published pamphlet, Notes on the Construction of Sheepfolds. This castigated the divisions between Tractarians and Evangelicals [rival Anglican groups] for deflecting the clergy from their real task of combating Romanism [Catholicism]: in 1850-51, following Pius X’s decision to restore a Catholic hierarchy to England and the appointment of Wiseman as Cardinal, 1,400 Protestants converted to Rome. Ruskin’s pamphlet provided Hunt with the imagery of straying sheep, but the artist’s 1897 explanation of the symbolism of The Hireling Shepherd [cited above] is closer to Kingsley’s viewpoint.”
Judith Bronkhurst, William Holman Hunt. A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1 (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 148.
Similar Subjects by Other Artists
Simon Hollosy, Corn Husking, 1885 (Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest)