The Landscape Detective: William Holman Hunt in the Suburbs (Part 3)

Part 3: Some Final Thoughts on Holman Hunt and Shoreditch

(Part 1, The Context; Part 2: Facts, Research, and a Mystery Solved)

After I had solved the mystery of William Holman Hunt’s childhood home, I delved further into research about Victorian Shoreditch, and began to wonder what the artist thought about the place where his family lived for at least 15 years.

Given the scarcity of information about Holman Hunt’s childhood, his exact feelings about Shoreditch are likely lost to time, but the very absence of the place from his personal narrative may speak to his later relationship with the area.

NPG 2803; William Holman Hunt by Sir William Blake Richmond

William Blake Richmond, William Holman Hunt. 1900. National Portrait Gallery, London.

When Holman Hunt wrote so vaguely, in 1905, that his family had lived “in the suburbs,” he may have been trying to elevate them from the comfortable but fairly lower-middle-class trappings of warehouse management and a terrace house in the inner reaches of outer London. Such an action would not have been out of character for his self-aggrandizing autobiography. However, I think it is even more likely that he was trying to avoid associating his name with Shoreditch.

I have yet to find much information about how Shoreditch was understood in the 1840s and 1850s (if anyone has resources about that, I would love to read them). However, by the end of the century, the neighborhood had specific, and negative, connotations. The huge Shoreditch Workhouse just down the street from the Hunts’ home was testament to the deprivations of the area, which was known for slum conditions, not for comfortable middle class life.

Charles Booth’s 1888-89 London Poverty Map reveals just why Holman Hunt might not have wanted to be associated with Haggerston and Shoreditch when he was writing, 15 years after the map was made. The neighborhood was by then dominated by the workhouse complex and by not one but two areas of gasworks. The Hunts’ former terraces at Hows (formerly York) Street and Pearson Street were colored light pink – according to the map’s key, “Fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings.” But just across Kingsland Road, north of the Workhouse, there is a slash of the darkest black – “Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal.”


Charles Booth’s London Poverty Map, detail showing he Hunts’ neighborhood at the end of the 1880s. Hows (formerly York) Street and Pearson Street are just above and below the “St. Chad Haggerston” label. Shoreditch workhouse is the large rectangular building and surrounding block above “St Columba Haggerston.” (Source)

Even people living in the blue areas of Booth’s map were constantly one step away from the dreaded workhouse, struggling to survive and feed themselves. Black indicated almost unimaginable poverty and deprivation. Only a few streets appear so dark on the map, and those are in infamous slum areas like Limehouse and the edges of the former Old Nichol area of southern Shoreditch (demolished and rebuilt as Britain’s first public housing development, the Boundary estate, beginning in 1891 – and already envisioned as cleared and rebuilt on the map). And even compared to those areas, this street in Shoreditch stands out on the map as one of the boldest, largest swathes of “lowest class” housing in the entire notorious Victorian East End.

Is it any surprise, then, that Holman Hunt might not have wanted people to associate him with a neighborhood that lay so close to workhouse and slum? His chosen personal narrative was not rags-to-riches, and by 1905 his family had not lived in the area for almost fifty years. (Holman Hunt’s father died in the late 1850s and by the time of the 1861 Census Sarah Hobman Hunt and her eldest daughter, Eliza, were again living in central London, at 14 Grays Inn Terrace. The rest of the children, all in their 20s and 30s by then, had presumably set out on their own lives.)

Holman Hunt was surely aware that if he had written “my family moved to Shoreditch” rather than my “family moved to the suburbs” in his autobiography’s brief overview of his childhood, he would have conjured up a very different set of associations in the minds of his readers. Identifying Shoreditch as his childhood home would have likely required clarifications and digressions from his personal narrative. Therefore, his choice to exclude the information is understandable (though a bit irritating to a modern scholar trying to place his family in London).

What is truly regrettable, however, is the repetition of Holman Hunt’s own vagueness by later writers. This neglect not only leaves the reader in want of facts: it also overlooks potential insights into the complex suburban landscapes of early Victorian London and the nuances of the mixed neighborhoods of the late Victorian city.


For more on Booth’s map and poverty study:

For more on the Shoreditch Workhouse:

For more on life in the slums of Shoreditch and on the Boundary Estate:


The Landscape Detective: William Holman Hunt in the Suburbs (Part 2)

Part 2: Facts, Research, and a Mystery Solved.

(Read Part 1: The Context, here)

As I set off on this bit of site mystery-solving, the evidence I had to work from was:

  • William Holman Hunt was born at Love Lane, Cheapside, London, in 1827. His father, William Hunt, was a warehouse manager, and at the time the family lived above the warehouse, as was often the practice in the period. (William Morris’s family also lived above his father’s office in the City, though they had moved to Walthamstow by the time William was born.)
  • Holman Hunt’s mother was born Sarah Hobman. (The young William was named in deference to her family; however, his middle name was mis-recorded in an official document as “Holman” and he later adopted that name in preference to Hobman, which he apparently disliked.)
  • Sometime around 1831, the family moved to “the suburbs” and no further information is given about their place of residence.
  • Around 1844 or 1845, Holman Hunt painted a full-length portrait of a young man, dressed and equipped as an angler, with a river in the background: Henry Clark on the Banks of the River Lea. In her Holman Hunt catalogue raisonné, Judith Bronkhurst identifies Clark as “a neighbor” but gives no indication where he or the Hunts lived.
  • Given Holman Hunt’s repeated visits to the Lea, the family likely lived somewhere to the north-east of the City, in easy reach of the river.


With this information in hand, I set off for the first resource I could think of: UK Census records, which I accessed through my university’s academic subscription to The family’s common surname and given names caused some complications, but I found them by looking for Sarah Hobman Hunt, who was born in Deptford, Kent in 1798.

Unfortunately, the 1831 census, which would have confirmed or subverted Holman Hunt’s story of moving to the suburbs around age 4, does not record exact family and location information, so I started looking for the family in 1841 – which was when things began to get interesting.


As a modern reader, when I read that someone moved to the suburbs, I imagine certain things. Leafy streets; a mix of residential and commercial buildings with little to no local industry; relatively comfortable homes with solidly middle-class occupants. I do not imagine a crowded neighborhood dominated by a gasworks and a workhouse, and yet that is exactly where the Hunt family lived throughout the 1840s and 1850s. They were not residents of some far-flung upper-middle-class suburb. They lived in Shoreditch.


Page of the 1851 Census, showing William and Sarah Hunt and their daughters Maria and Emily living at 82 York Street, Shoreditch. (Accessed via

The phrase “Victorian Shoreditch” hardly conjures up visions of suburbia, but in the early Victorian period, the area where the Hunts settled was a suburb, albeit it a very mixed-use and mixed-income one.

In 1841 the Hunts lived at Pearson Street (with no house number given). In 1851 they were at 82 York Street (later renamed How’s Street).

(It should be noted that the young William Hunt does not appear on either census; this is unsurprising, because if his autobiography is to be believed on basic facts, he was sent away to school at 8 and was working and probably living in the City in his adolescence. However, his siblings appear, as does his mother’s birthplace, confirming that this is the correct family.)

The two streets, both in the Haggerston West registration district, ran parallel to each other, stretching east several blocks from the thoroughfare of Kingsland Road. The area was flattened in German bombings in WWII, but an investigation of nineteenth-century London maps (accessed via the invaluable MapCo) shows that the roads were composed of terraces of very new homes. Pearson Street and York Street both start appearing on maps in the 1830s and 1840s, but neither showed many buildings in those early maps. Both, however, were fully built up by 1850, indicating a series of terraces were probably constructed there in the 1840s.


The Hunts’ Future Neighborhood in 1837. Cary’s New Plan Of London And Its Vicinity, 1837. 


The Hunts’ Neighborhood in 1850. Cross’s New Plan of London, 1850. 

York Street ran for two blocks, stretching between two local landmarks: to the east, the very recent and oddly out of proportion Gothic spire of John Nash’s St Mary’s Church, built 1827 (the year Holman Hunt was born), and to the west, across Kingsland Road, the Shoreditch Workhouse. Several blocks to the north was Regent’s Canal. Just to the south of Pearson Street was the Ironmonger’s Almshouse, now the Geffrye Museum.

Just behind the Almshouses ran Maria Street (now Geffrye Street and the East London Line of the London Overground). Seeking to confirm both the Hunts’ residence and Judith Bronkhurst’s assertion that Henry Clark was the Hunts’ neighbor, I also searched for anyone by that name in the area, and found a 35-year-old man named Henry Clark living on Maria Street in 1851 – four years before the young Holman Hunt would paint him along the Lea.

The Lea is approximately three miles away from the Hunt and Clark homes. The nearest portion of the river now runs through the 2012 Olympic Park in Stratford. Maps show that in the 1850s, that area was still primarily fields and marshes, with some light industry (breweries and brickworks) and increasing development along roads and rail lines.

So I had my answer. The Hunts lived in Shoreditch, on York and Pearson Streets. They were not so near the Lea as the Morrises, but they were close enough that the young Holman Hunt could venture there to paint. They also did not occupy the same kind of home or have same social standing as the Morrises, who had become quite wealthy on the back of good investments.

However, both families were part of a larger trend of residential exodus from the City in the nineteenth century – a trend which had begun as early as the Great Fire of 1666 but which only accelerated as transportation improved after the Industrial Revolution. By the 1890s, the historic center of London had under 40,000 residents (a loss of at least 1/3 of its population since the 1850s). There were so few residents, in fact, that they were not considered statistically significant – the entire City was left off Charles Booth’s London Poverty maps of the 1890s (more on that map in Part 3). The trend continued even as London expanded: in 1921, the City’s population was around 14,000, and today it is under 8,000.

(Coming up in Part 3: Some Final Thoughts on Holman Hunt and Shoreditch.)

The Landscape Detective: William Holman Hunt in the Suburbs (Part 1)

Part 1: The Context

(The first in a series.)

This mystery began with a simple question: Where did the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt spend the years of his childhood and adolescence?

I had my reasons for asking. My exploration of Pre-Raphaelite images of London, the Thames, and its tributaries had revealed that Holman Hunt painted at least two early works along the River Lea – a very early portrait, Henry Clark on the Banks of the River Lea (c. 1844-45, private collection), and one of his first Pre-Raphaelite works, A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids (1849-50, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), which took its marshy setting from the Lea’s extensive marshes.


William Holman Hunt, A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Druids, 1849-1850. Oil on canvas. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. (Image: Wikimedia)


These Lea connections piqued my interest, because that east London Thames tributary was also William Morris’s childhood river – he grew up in the Walthamstow area, within a mile of the river and its marshes. A bit of further reading also revealed that Hunt’s parents, like Morris’s, began their married life living in the City and later moved their young families “to the suburbs.” So, I began to wonder: Did Morris and Holman Hunt experience similar landscapes and social milieus growing up? And if so, how did their reactions to shared childhood experiences differ?


But then I hit a dead end. I assumed that the passing reference to the Hunt family moving “to the suburbs” was a symptom of the book I was reading, which was focused on Hunt’s paintings, rather than his life story. But no matter where I looked, it was the same. “The suburbs” was as exact as it got. Multiple sources gave the exact address in Cheapside where Holman Hunt was born, but no author would even commit to which suburbs the family moved to.

I eventually tracked this inexactness back to William Holman Hunt himself. Not every work on Holman Hunt addresses his childhood, but I have found that when they do so, they unfailingly repeat his own narration of his childhood almost verbatim, from his birth to the move to the suburbs to various atmospheric details like the trauma of losing his first childhood paintbrush.

This childhood narrative is sourced from a few pages in Holman Hunt’s 1905 autobiography and history of the movement Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. However, that book is widely acknowledged as a quintessential unreliable source. The entire work was centered on Holman Hunt’s desire to present himself as the founder, leading light, and sole pure practitioner of Pre-Raphaelitism as he defined it. He was obviously more interested in his later reputation than in the actual facts of his early life, and later authors seem to have uncritically repeated his own stories and omissions without doing their own research.

(Of course, Holman Hunt is not my primary subject, and if I have overlooked a more thorough biography, I would love to know about it – please do get in touch if you know of one.)


To put my frustration with vagueness of “to the suburbs” in context, let’s say I was to tell you that someone was born in London, but then immigrated “to the Southern Hemisphere,” and left it at that. You would likely ask where in the Southern Hemisphere, and why. Did they learn Spanish in Argentina or study macaws in Brazil? Did they set out to get rich in the diamond mines in South Africa, or were they transported to Australia for stealing bread?

The early Victorian London suburbs may not have been so vast or varied as the entire Southern Hemisphere, but jumping from a specific address to the general suburbs is still a large leap in orders of geographical magnitude.

During William Holman Hunt’s childhood, London’s suburbs were growing steadily outward in all directions as the city’s population boomed and public transport options increased. Areas like Chelsea and Shoreditch were still suburbs at the time, though could hardly be considered so today; areas like Hampstead, Finchley, and Morris’s own Walthamstow were still fairly separate semi-rural villages, but they too were beginning to see the effects of London’s expansion. And, as is true today, the many suburbs had various reputations and landscape types.

Some suburbs were wealthier than others, or considered more desirable. Some areas were beginning to be built up with the terraces of small brick houses that characterize so much Victorian residential development, but others were largely the domain of mini-estates, like the large homes with large gardens where Morris grew up. The outer suburbs were more likely than not to be interspersed with market gardens and fields where dairy cows grazed, and even with extensive common lands like the Lea marshes, Morris’s beloved Epping Forest, and Hampstead Heath. In the inner suburbs, however, residential areas were more likely to vie for space with traditional outer-city trades like tanning and rope-making and with new structures demanded by the changes of the industrial revolution, like gasworks and sewage pumping stations. If there was any open land at all, it was more likely to be a planned park than a bit of countryside.


From all this, it’s hopefully clear that just identifying a broad concept and broader area like “the suburbs” does not give enough information, especially given the questions I wanted to ask about the Lea and the general Victorian residential exodus from the City.

And so, my landscape detective side swung into action, and I set out to find out the specifics for myself.

(Coming up in Part 2: Facts, Research, and a Mystery Solved.)

The Landscape Detective

I am a bit obsessed with place and location. That should be no surprise – interest in place is an essential trait in a landscape scholar, after all.

What you might not know about me, however, is I’m also a bit obsessed with mysteries. Give me a little time off and access to one streaming service or another, and I’m most likely to turn on something involving a police inspector or a lady detective solving a complicated crime (Inspector Lewis is my all-time favorite, and Miss Fisher is my new obsession).

It might seem like these two interests don’t have much in common. I could argue the opposite –many British mystery shows, in particular, focus so much on their settings that the sites are almost characters in their own right. (So much so that, as I wrote this post, I realized that subject deserves a post of its own – keep an eye out for that in the near future.)

But the connection also comes in the idea of researcher-as-detective. If there’s one thing that’s likely to send me off on an intensive research diversion, it’s an encounter with an inexact or possibly inaccurate location. Questions about site become mysteries to me, and I can’t stop until I’ve solved them. I become a regular Miss Marple of location and landscape.

I like to think some of my site-and-landscape mysteries have led to interesting new insights into familiar artists and works. They have also led me down interesting paths, and exposed me to new resources – from British walkers’ forums to websites about the history of London Underground stops. Additionally, they raise interesting questions about how, and why, some scholars come to overlook landscape and site specificity.

Therefore, with this post I’d like to announce a new series of blog posts: “The Landscape Detective”. These posts will explore some of the location mysteries I’ve encountered in my research. I hope that these posts will be interesting to those of you who aren’t quite so obsessed with landscape and site. I also hope they will provide information about lesser-known research resources and raise new questions about the importance of site specificity and landscape research to the study of art history.

The first post in this series, to come later this week, will explore the location of William Holman Hunt’s childhood home – a mystery that occupied me for several days last week.


(Map credit: Detail of Charles Booth’s 1898-99 London Poverty Map, accessed at

Rio and London: National Spectacles, Complicated Landscapes

I am a huge Olympics fan. This is no secret to any of my friends and family, who hear about my excitement for about six months leading up to each Olympic season, and then constantly throughout the games. Until relatively recently, however, I was not particularly interested in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. That has changed, and my interest in national identity and the human landscape is a big part of the reason why.

The London 2012 Opening Ceremony, titled “Isles of Wonder,” had the British landscape at its heart. Its opening sequence began with a video of a timelapse journey down the Thames, then depicted the early nineteenth-century transition from a largely rural landscape and economy to one dominated by industry. I often use this sequence, and particularly the video of the Thames, to introduce some of the concepts of my own research to friends and colleagues.

And so, I sat down to watch the Rio Opening Ceremonies this year with a question in mind – would the Brazilian landscape be represented in the ceremony?

My question was soon answered as light projections, which were at the center of this year’s ceremony, spread a topography across the stadium floor.

Lars Baron Getty Images

Rio 2016: Intertwined green light and elastic bands representing the complexity of the Amazonian jungle. Getty/Lars Baron

In the cases of both the London and Rio ceremonies, the paths of the nations’ histories were inscribed on landscapes created in the stadiums themselves. This is hardly surprising to me, as a student of the history of the human landscape. The Opening Ceremonies are, above all, spectacles of national identity, and national identity is often deeply tied up in concepts of, and depictions of, emblematic national landscapes.

In London, these landscapes were the transitional southern England of the Thames – from historic and rural to modern and urban; the rural western England of Glastonbury Tor; and the broader industrial landscape of smoke, fire, and mass migration which touched every corner of the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century.


London 2012: The rural landscape of the “Green and Pleasant Land” sequence. Nick Webb.

In Rio, these landscapes were the jungle, the farmland, and the favelas of the modern city. (The ceremony’s geographical and landscape references may have been more specific, but I was not attuned to them as I was for the London ceremony. If anyone has a move nuanced reading of the projected topographies, I would be very interested to learn more.)

2016 Rio Olympics - Opening ceremony

Rio 2016: Built structures and projected map representing the Brazilian favela landscape. Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch.

Atop the projections of these spaces, the ceremony’s performers charted a brief history of Brazil’s peoples, from its pre-colonial indigenous population, through conquest and slavery, and then onwards to the crowded and culturally mixed urban spaces of modern Brazil.


Rio 2016: European explorers cut a swathe across the jungle. Getty/Tim De Waele.

Even these brief descriptions should, I hope, highlight a particular feature of both the London and Rio ceremonies: they were honest about the forces of change and the costs of what might have been termed progress when those changes were taking place. The “Pandemonium” section of the London ceremony was sublime, in the Romantic sense of the word; the grand spectacle of its almost 1,000 drummers and the rise of the smokestacks and steam engines had a touch of terror to it. Rio’s ceremony, meanwhile, made open reference to Brazil’s historical reliance on slave labor and the suffering of its enslaved peoples.


London 2012: Smokestacks and steam engines rise from and overtake the rural landscape. Barney Moss.


Rio 2016: Enslaved people’s forced labor transforms the greenery of the jungle to the striated patchwork of farmland. Getty/Tim De Waele.

Neither ceremony was unproblematic in its depiction of its nation’s peoples and their relationship with the landscape. The London ceremony emphasized a particular type of historic English pastoral that excludes the rest of the nation and also ignores the poverty and disenfranchisement that was often inherent in that rural idyll. Rio’s ceremony, meanwhile, acknowledged the presence of Brazil’s indigenous population, but they disappeared with the arrival of the performers representing the Portuguese conquerors. The modern presence of, and plight of, those indigenous people was not acknowledged, even as the ceremony moved on to address issues of climate change and its human impacts.

Despite these problems, however, the London and Rio Opening Ceremonies took an unusually broad view of their national landscapes. We inhabit a world where supposedly uncomplicated and unchanging landscapes are still often used for simplistic, jingoistic messaging. Therefore, to my eyes, a shared emphasis on changeable human landscapes (and the complications and problems of those landscapes) made the London and Rio ceremonies stand out as refreshing new types of national spectacle.

Pokémon and the Picturesque

This blog was created primarily for my upcoming UK research trip, to record my experiences of and reflections on William Morris’s Thames-side landscapes. However, I also intended to write posts about my studies in general – landscape history, the Pre-Raphaelites, and anything else that seems related. This post definitely fits under “anything else.”

Because what I really want to write about today is Pokémon Go.


If you’re not aware of the new viral phenomenon that is Pokémon Go, I am not really the right person to fill you in about it – there’s a decent overview here, and it’s all over the news. But, basically, it’s like this: Pokémon Go is an augmented reality video game meant to be played on one’s smart phone. Gameplay centers on catching and training the creatures of the game’s title and battling other trainers. It’s currently only available in some markets, and was released in the US on Thursday.

I’ve never been much of a Pokémon player. I was the right age to be swept up in the first Pokémon craze in the late 90s, but it largely passed me by. Last week, though, I started to see people posting about Go, and soon enough I had it on my own phone, drawn in by amused curiosity, but also by the way the game interacts with physical space.


Pokémon Go’s gameplay is based on real-world movement through the player’s environment. In order to participate, you have to physically move around (in your neighborhood, a park, interior spaces like stores, anywhere really) in order to encounter Pokémon, collect supplies at Pokéstops, hatch Pokémon eggs, and compete with other players at Gyms. The sites for Pokéstops and gyms are fixed landmarks, but Pokémon can appear anywhere. (The landmarks are sites of interest, based on the database for another game, Ingress, with which I was not familiar.)


My phone’s screen when I opened Pokémon Go at Longwood Gardens this weekend – a basic map, and Pokéstops marked with blue cube beacons. I noticed a lot of other people playing while I was there.

After spending the weekend poking around with the game itself, watching posts roll in about it on social media, and seeking out a little of the related news coverage, I came to a conclusion: The game has immediately generated a new way of processing and interacting with the landscape, and a new population united by doing so.

(As a future museum professional, I also noted that the game provides a new opportunity for cultural institutions to reach out to the public via social media, something I may explore in another post.)

From previous experience, I expect that within a week we will see thinkpieces arguing that although Pokémon Go gets people outside, moving around, and interacting with the landscape, they’re somehow doing it “the wrong way,” in the same way that people like to argue that museum visitors using interpretive apps or taking selfies are experiencing art “the wrong way.” For the record, I agree with neither view.

In thinking about all of this last night, it struck me that Pokémon Go has a somewhat unexpected early nineteenth-century antecedent: the Claude glass and the Picturesque craze.

Claude glasses are small tinted mirrors associated with the British taste for the Picturesque in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They were intended for travel and for sketching, essential practices for any connoisseur of the Picturesque. The ideal Picturesque landscape, as the name implies, looked like a picture, preferably one by an artist like Claude Lorraine, for whom the glass is named.


Claude glass, c. 1775-1780. Victoria and Albert Museum.

To use the glass, the tourist (sometimes termed the “Picturesque hunter”) would turn their back on their chosen landscape and look at it through the reflection on the glass, which thereby transformed the dimensional landscape into a small, flat, framed image, as well as giving it an appropriately Claudian tint. Sometimes they just looked, but they also often sketched, recording an idealized picture of the Picturesque landscape.


A Claude glass in use, showing the Wye valley, central to the Picturesque craze. Source

Picturesque-hunters used the filters of the Claude glass and the sketchbook to blur the lines between the art they valued and the landscapes they explored. Pokémon Go players, meanwhile, look through their phone screens to see the creatures they seek superimposed on their surroundings, with music and sound effects further blurring the lines between game and life.


Pokémon Go – the augmented reality insertion of Pokémon. Source

Claude glass users and Picturesque hunters came under similar criticisms, and were subject to similar jokes, as selfie-takers and Pokémon hunters today. They were failing to engage with the landscape, instead viewing it through their own preconceptions, their mirrors, their screens. And according to humorists, they were subject to similar mishaps.


I have encountered, and laughed hard at, several stories about people wandering into bodies of water while playing Pokémon Go. The most famous of Picturesque-hunters, the fictional Doctor Syntax, does the same while searching for an ideal sketching perspective in William Combe’s 1812 satirical poem The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque.


Doctor Syntax takes a tumble. Aquatint by Thomas Rowlandson, 1817. British Library.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.