‘Holman Hunt painted thoughtfully all that he could find in the face before him, and so it remains instinct with all the unconscious sweetness and vague fancies of pure childhood.’
Spectator, 19 May 1877, p.631
A little Italian peasant girl with big brown eyes and her hair drawn back in an informal plait, is standing in a Tuscan landscape of rolling hills clad in morning mist, punctuated by red-roofed buildings, cypresses and olive trees. On her shoulder is perched a pet collared dove (streptopelia decaoto) to whom she is singing and she is plaiting straw into a long ribbon. This delightful picture was painted in Fiesole in the winter of 1869 and captures the crisp light of the central Italian plains with a little chill in the air that has ruffled the feather of the bird and flushed the cheeks of the girl.
William Holman Hunt arrived in Florence in June 1868 with a sad purpose – to design and supervise the building of the memorial to his late wife Fanny (née Waugh) who had died in December 1866 in Florence, following the birth of their son Cyril. The tomb was erected in the Protestant Cemetery near the Porta Pinti in Florence, but Hunt preferred to stay in the quieter refuge of Fiesole in the hills above the city. ...[where] glorious sunlight appears to have an almost religious symbolism, suggesting hope and rebirth. At Fiesole, Hunt also found models among the farming community who reminded him of the figures in his beloved Renaissance paintings. Two of these models were the daughters of the gardener at the Villa Medici, one of whom posed for Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw.... ‘As my health required me to live out of the city, I went up to Fiesole, where I painted a damsel as a Tuscan straw-plaiter of the type of gentle features peculiar to the cities of the Appenines (sic), such as Perugino loved to picture' (Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 2 volumes, 1st edition, 1905, vol. II, p.256).
... He remained in Italy for the rest of his life, becoming a successful painter and art dealer.
Three pencil sketches (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) relating to An Italian Child suggest that the subject of Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw was not from the artist’s imagination, but was suggested by a real incident witnessed by Hunt. Two of the rough pencil sketches show a girl plaiting straw while a pet bird sits on her shoulder as she works. The first of the three sketches depicts an older child seated with her straw-plait and looking affectionately at a dove perched on her shoulder, whilst two further drawings show her standing with the bird in the same position. However, there was a precedent for the format of the painting in Hunt’s existing oeuvre, the beautiful little oil painting begun in 1858 entitled The School Girl’s Hymn (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). Both Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw and The School Girl’s Hymn depict the innocence and youthful energy of children and share a similar composition of a half-length figure set against a rolling landscape. The fundamental difference in the two paintings (apart from the geographical location) is what the two children are holding in their young hands. In the earlier painting the girl is poor (the seams of her jersey are coming apart and her costume is humble) and the model was the foster daughter of a shepherd, but she is at school and therefore has a chance of a better life than her parents. Holman Hunt was a firm believer in the power of education to lift people from squalor and his paintings were intended to be pictorial lessons for everyone. The girl depicted in Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw has little chance of an education and her hands are nimbly working the straw as part of a cottage industry from which she will probably never escape. In Florence in the 1860s an estimated £300,000 worth of straw plaiting was exported every year and it was one of the most important cottage industries of the region. Undoubtedly Hunt intended the subject to be picturesque and to suggest the continuing traditions of handicrafts in the region, but the young age of the girl also makes a social comment about the children who worked in the industry. However, back at home in England, children even younger faced greater hardships in the mills and factories where infant mortality was common and life was very tough. This little Tuscan girl has bright eyes and a clean, healthy complexion from her life in the clear rural air and she is well fed and beautifully dressed. The dove perhaps symbolizes peace and certainly suggests contentment.
...These angelic-looking children proved to be difficult for Hunt to control. They were half-wild country children, full of the restless energy of youth and did not much enjoy being told to sit still in Hunt’s studio while he painted them as they wanted to be outside playing. On 23 February 1869 Hunt wrote of his frustration to Frederic George Stephens, shortly after completing the pictures, that he was: ‘very very glad… to have done with the long weary task of keeping the little unruly savages moderately attentive to their work’ (letter, Bodleian Library, Oxford).
The feathered model for the picture was hardly more co-operative but their species held a particular fascination for the artist. Five years earlier, while struggling to paint the first version of The Afterglow in Egypt (Southampton Art Gallery) Hunt wrote to the painter Edward Lear: ‘I will try and get free somehow from the eternal pigeons which threaten to occupy me for the remainder of my life’. Despite this protestation, in 1865 Hunt painted The Festival of St Swithin (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) depicting the pigeon-house in the back garden of his home in Tor Villas, Campden Hill. Towards the end of his life Hunt again painted doves flying among the floating tapestry threads in The Lady of Shalott, completed in 1905 (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut). Religious symbolism is never wholly absent from Hunt’s work; the dove exemplifies the special care Christ affords to young children. Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw perfectly captures the innocence of the child model, protected by Christ’s blessing. The presence of the dove brings to mind John Everett Millais’ painting of The Return of the Dove to the Ark of 1851 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).
Hunt had expected to paint Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw and Caught relatively quickly and the subjects were ones that he felt were commercially attractive and rivalled the children’s portraits that Millais had lately been painting. However, they took longer to paint than he envisaged and he invested more artistic energy into them than he originally intended. On 23 February 1869 he wrote to his patron and business advisor Thomas Combe: ‘Your notion of… sending them home without giving myself the opportunity of touching them more amuses me. If I sent them home now not only would Gambart refuse to give me as much as I asked – he would object to pay me one pound for them – while from the two I expect to get at a least £500 when they have had another three days work divided between them… Now I ought to soften a few things and change the color of a bit of drapery in one and send them home…’ They were finally completed by 14 March and the £600 recorded in the records of Coutts bank on 10 May 1869 was almost certainly in payment for them from Ernest Gambart.
Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw was first exhibited at the inaugural exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 where it was ...compared favorably to Millais’ portrait of the daughters of the Duke of Westminster: ‘Though the first three are ladies of the highest rank and cultivation, and the fourth is only a peasant’s child, yet… there is far greater grace, refinement, and delicacy about the last than the first-named pictures. And how are we to account for this? Do you suppose that there was so much expression and feeling in the child which Holman Hunt painted, and that there was none in the faces of the Ladies Grosvenor? Not a bit of it.’ (Spectator, 19 May 1877, p.631)
By the time Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, it was owned by John Francis Austen, a relative of the novelist Jane Austen....