By Haydon Luke.
[This is an amended form of the article which first appeared in The Volunteer – the online magazine of the Friends of the Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve.]
It is well-known that there is a deep association between the Fairlight landscape and the work of the Pre-Raphaelite painters of the mid-19th century, several of whom spent long periods staying in the area. Perhaps the best-known use of the Fairlight landscape is in the famous painting Our English Coasts which can be seen in Tate Britain.
The location for the picture was near the Lover’s seat, a well-known beauty spot perched on the cliffs overlooking Covehurst Bay, near Hastings. Sadly the Lovers’ Seat no longer exists having fallen victim to the unstable nature of the coast in the 1960s. But the general lie of the land as depicted in the painting can still be seen today.
Hunt has paid scrupulous attention to natural detail and it would be nice to think that one could find the exact spot where Hunt placed his easel, but the truth is that the cliffs, sheep and parts of the foreground were all painted from different viewpoints, and the butterflies in the left foreground were painted indoors from a live specimen.
Hunt exhibited the picture at the Royal Academy in 1853 but it was painted a year earlier when Hunt was only 25 and was staying with one of his pupils, Robert Martineau, who lived nearby at Fairlight Lodge. Much of what we know about the painters in that exciting period in the mid-19th Century is contained in the account written by William Rossetti, brother of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was also in Hastings at that period.
D G Rossetti enjoyed walks in what is now the Country Park with his beloved but sickly Lizzie Siddal whom he later married in St Clement’s Church, Hastings, on May 23rd 1860. At the time they lived at 5 The High Street and a pencil drawing by Lizzie clearly situated in that house was recently exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in the exhibition Pre-Raphaelite Sisters – works by the women associated with the Pre-Raphaelites.
There is a lesser-known second Holman Hunt landscape painting with its location in the Country Park. It draws together Lear and Hunt who spent a lot of time in each other’s company in 1852 whilst Lear was working on his painting The Quarries of Syracuse which he had earlier begun in Sicily. Hunt, who at the time was staying with the Martineau family at Fairlight Lodge, persuaded Lear that some of the Fairlight quarries would be adequate stand-ins for the famous Sicilian quarry.
It was during their association that Hunt began to paint Fairlight Downs- Sunlight on the Sea which he exhibited in 1856. The subject of the painting is familiar to anyone who has walked in the country park – the view over the glens and out to sea with a brilliant sun shining off the water and a few ships dotted about. But the execution of the painting gave Hunt considerable problems, notably the high contrast between the brilliant reflection of the sun off the sea and the relatively subdued autumnal fields in the foreground and middle distance. It is almost impossible to find an accurate reproduction of the colours in the painting or to see the original which is in private hands.
There are two curious details in the painting: a flying walking stick in the left foreground and a large black dog on the right-hand side. These details are believed to be a humorous reference to Edward Lear who, though he liked animals, was not keen on the Martineau’s big Newfoundlands which often accompanied them on walks. Lear has presumably ‘exited left’ in a hurry, abandoning his walking stick in his anxiety to avoid the over enthusiastic animal eagerly running towards the viewer.
Hunt made several further visits to Fairlight over the next decade and one result was a very small painting, scarcely bigger than a postcard, in pencil, watercolour and gouache called The Silver Lining. The inscription on the back locates it on Fairlight Down. Although the dramatically back lit clouds in the sky and the downland landscape with sheep are quintessentially Sussex, it is nigh on impossible to pinpoint exactly where on Fairlight Down it represents. But we would love to know! All suggestions gratefully received.
By Haydon Luke