‘The Birthday’ by William Holman Hunt



I have to be honest, I have never been a huge fan of William Holman Hunt’s work. I admire his technical ability and marvel at his use of colours, but for me there is something missing. A couple of months ago in a seminar discussion of Hunt’s work one of my fellow students remarked that Hunt’s work lacked interiority. With this short statement she succinctly summed up how I feel about Hunt’s work, It lacks soul. That said, there are a couple of exceptions, for example the portrait of his sister -in- law, Edith Waugh entitled ‘The Birthday’, painted to mark the advent of her 21st birthday. I love this painting with its rich dark colours which seem inappropriate given the title but appropriate in the context of the family’s recent loss.

Painted in 1868, The Birthday is both physically and metaphorically laden. Edith stands with her face averted from the direct gaze of the artist and viewer. She is heaped with luxurious (presumably) gifts; coral beads, amber beads, a highly decorated fan, gold, a sumptuous cloak, and quite significantly the cameo that had belonged to her sister Fanny, who died giving birth in 1866. Edith has a contemplative expression and is dressed in black clothes, denoting that she was still in mourning. The gifts in this context seem hollow trinkets and a day which should be joyous is not. The addition of the colourful and expensive gifts imbues the image a very strange and eerie quality. Edith’s expression and stance seem detached, her expensive baubles held in an indifferent display of them. I find it interesting that the new gifts are held and ‘presented’ but the coral necklace -coral being associated with protection- and the cameo are both worn. The cameo at her breast serving as both a sharp reminder of her loss and arguably significant of other hopes. In both ‘My Grandmothers and I’ and ‘My Grandfather, his wives and loves’ the author Diana Holman Hunt states that her Grandmother Edith had on a number of occasions openly said that she had always been in love with Hunt. For me, this painting is suffused with sadness, hope and expectation.

I love the detailed rendering of the beads, cloak and flowers compared to the brevity of the door and curtain behind her. I think it very poignant that the care given to the beauteous objects she holds has also been given to the rendering of her face. Edith is luminous and otherworldly. Her sad soulful eyes give the impression that, if she looked directly at the viewer she could consume their soul. But the question remains is her beauty another bauble to be presented and displayed as a possession?

In 1873 flouting convention and the law Holman Hunt married Edith much to the upset of the Waugh family.

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