Wednesday - 22 October 2014

Victorian jewellery from the family of William Holman Hunt excels at Knightsbridge sale

28 November 2013Written by Roland Arkell

When, in 1854, William Holman Hunt decided to leave England to further his religious painting in Syria, John Everett Millais was distraught at the prospect of losing the only friend he entirely trusted.

In the throes of confused love for John Ruskin's wife, Effie, Millais wrote: "In truth I don't think I should have the strength to say goodbye - scarcely a night passes but what I cry like an infant over the thought that I may not see you again. I wish I had something to remember you by, and I desire that you should go to Hunt and Roskell and get yourself a signet ring which you must always wear... have your initials engraved thereon..."

The Millais ring, that Holman Hunt ordered and wore until his death in 1910, was among 11 lots of jewellery from the Holman Hunt family sold at Bonhams Knightsbridge on October 9.

The simple circular sardonyx it houses is engraved with the initials WHH  combined with an M.

Inverted, the monogram turns into the letters PB for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood the two men had founded in 1848.

Known from a number of publications, including the 1989 book Artists' Jewellery: Pre-Raphaelite to Arts & Crafts by Charlotte Gere and Geoffrey Munn, this is an incredibly evocative piece and one that no one could seriously have hoped to buy close to its estimate of £1000-1500. Spirited competition saw it sell for 30 times the low estimate.

Cupid Cameo

An oval shell cameo carved with Cupid and framed within a textured rope-twist gold border had been a gift from Holman Hunt to his first wife Fanny Waugh (it was probably purchased from Guiliano).

It features twice in the artist's work: in a portrait of Fanny painted shortly after she died in childbirth in 1866 that is now in the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, and again in the 1868 picture The Birthday that depicts her younger sister Edith.

It was during the sittings for this painting that Edith revealed her love for Hunt - a scandalous match that saw the pair shunned by friends and family when they married in Switzerland in 1875 (a union prohibited under British law).

In Diana Holman Hunt's 1960 memoir titled My Grandmothers and I, she recalls Edith (a widow of two decades) telling her as a child: "This cameo brooch was my sister's. Holman gave it to her on her their marriage and when she died it came to me."

The inscription to the reverse reads Fanny and Holman to Edith I.M. 20 Dec 1866. Again estimated at £1000-1500, this time the hammer price was £22,000.

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