Personal tragedy tinges this portrait. Fanny Waugh Hunt, wife of artist William Holman Hunt, died before her husband had completed her portrait. The painting was begun in Florence, Italy, during late summer of 1866, where Fanny posed for Hunt behind a chair that concealed her pregnancy. Their son was born in October; Fanny died two months later of complications from the delivery.
After returning to London, the grieving Hunt continued the portrait with the aid of his memory and a photograph. Insistent on accurate backgrounds and props, he retrieved from Florence Fanny’s paisley shawl, purple dress, and cameo brooch. The rich interior features many objects of upper-class “artistic” taste: the Chinese porcelain vase and gold mirror frame, Venetian glass bowl and chandelier, Persian pottery dish, and elegantly framed watercolors. Many of these objects are seen through the multiple, receding mirror reflections, which seem to evoke both eternity and the dimming of memory with time.
We also know from letters that Hunt wrote to W. J. Bunney, his studio assistant in Florence, that he reconstructed this memorial image of his wife with the same care and precision that he devoted to his major religious paintings. He took great care, for instance, to secure Fanny's own peacock shawl, the painting of which one contemporary reviewer took to be the "greatest tour de force of the exhibition" when it was shown at the 1869 Royal Academy. Robert St. John Tyrwhitt, a Ruskinian disciple, remarked that "Mr. Holman Hunt's portrait has a noble and intellectual face, and the painting of the peacock scarf is perhaps the greatest tour de force of the exhibition. We rather sigh over the intensity and gloomy laboriousness of his works — the results are great but he paints like a soul in pain" (Contemporary Review, 11 (1869): 363). On October 13, 1867, Hunt wrote to Bunney: "I have a particular reason for taxing your attention again so soon. I have begun the portrait of my wife, and I am at a stand-still for want of the shawl in which she stood for the photograph. This it seems must be in the box in the studio." [I would like to thank Miss Mary Bennett, Keeper of Foreign Paintings at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, for helping me secure both a photocopy of this manuscript, which is in a private collection, and the permission to publish a portion of it.] Given Hunt's proclivity for elaborate pictorial symbolism and intricate associations, one assumes that the other objects in the portrait of his first wife probably also have personal significance.
Hunt married twice. After a failed engagement to his model Annie Miller, he married Fanny Waugh, who later modelled for the figure of Isabella. When she died in childbirth in Italy, he sculpted her tomb at Fiesole, having it brought down to the English Cemetery in Florence, beside the tomb of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. He had a close connection with St. Mark's Church in Florence, and paid for the communion chalice inscribed in memory of his wife. His second wife, Edith, was Fanny's sister. At the time it was illegal in Great Britain to marry one's deceased wife's sister, so Hunt traveled abroad to marry her. This led to a grave conflict with other family members, notably his former Pre-Raphaelite colleague Thomas Woolner, who had once been in love with Fanny and had married Alice, the third sister of Fanny and Edith.