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Light and Shade

William Henry Hunt (1790-1864)


Signed and dated 1836 three times

Watercolour with gum arabic

13 x 8 ¾ inches

'The Long Nineteenth Century: Treasures and Pleasures', Chris Beetles Gallery, London, March-April 2014, no 17;
'Drawn To the 19th Century', Chris Beetles Gallery, London, February 2016;
'Chris Beetles Summer Show 2018', Chris Beetles Gallery, London, no 52;
'Chris Beetles Summer Show 2023', Chris Beetles Gallery, London, June-September 2023

In this composition, William Henry Hunt combined two of his specialities – naturalistic, non-caricatured images of black children and figures by candlelight – to present a tour de force of his distinct approach to watercolour.

This is one of two almost identical works, painted in or around 1836, the other being in an American private collection. Of the two versions, the present one is perhaps more highly coloured and slightly more dynamic, the boy leaning further back and so casting less of a shadow across the door while revealing a strip of dado on the wall. That it alone is signed may suggest that it is also the primary version.

However, it is a little easier to attempt a reconstruction of at least part of the history of the American version. A portion of its former backboard contains the title Light and Shade, and it appeared as such when it was lent by Lt Gen Fielden to an exhibition held at Blackburn Art Gallery in 1907. For this reason, Light and Shade has also been chosen as the title of the present version.

Of the watercolours by Hunt that represent black boys, at least three seem to have used the same model, and one is particularly close in both features and clothing. Showing the boy holding a letter in front of a candle, that picture, known as Jim Crow, was purchased by Lady Rolle at the 1837 Spring Exhibition of the Society of Painters in Water Colours, and remained with her descendants until it was sold in auction in 1980.

Many thanks to Craig Englund for help in compiling this note.

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