Poetry and the frame: May Morning on Magdalen Tower…

by The Frame Blog

…  Holman Hunt’s painting and its spectacular repoussé copper frame

Sarah Doyle, Poet in Residence at the Pre-Raphaelite Society, responds to Hunt’s painting and frame with her own ‘May-song’. The history of Hunt’s work follows.


William Holman Hunt, May Morning on Magdalen Tower, 1890, frame 1889, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight (National Museums of Liverpool)

Left side of frame sm

Sarah May song 1

Bottom of frame

Sarah May song 2

HH Lark

Sarah May song 3

HH Suns

© Sarah Doyle, 2013, for The Frame Blog.  All rights reserved. 

The history of the paintings and their frames

 Magdalen College Chapel & Tower Engraved R Reeve 1811 BLMagdalen College Chapel and its tower, engraved by R. Reeve, 1811, © British Library Board (Ktop XXXV, 5-L)

Hunt had wanted to paint this subject for many years (perhaps from as early as 1851, when he visited the College) before he actually began it, in 1888; he saw it both as the celebration and preservation of a peculiarly English ceremony, and as an allegory of religious faith expressed through a symbolic worship of the sun. It records the service held on the first of May, on top of the tower of Magdalen College chapel, Oxford, when the choir greets the dawn with hymns and madrigals. Hunt’s composition includes the actual fellows, members and choristers of the College in 1888-89 – along with some extra boys, Hunt’s own son, and the figure of a Parsee, a worshipper of the Persian Mithras, god of the morning sun.

As Hunt himself described it, in the letter quoted by Sarah Doyle, above, and used as the springboard of her ‘May-song’, he wanted his painting

‘to represent the spirit of a beautiful, primitive and in a large sense eternal service, which has only been in part restored on the tower, even to the floral fullness of three centuries since, but which still carries evidence in it of the origin of our race and thoughts in the same cradle with the early Persians.’ (Pall Mall Gazette, 4 November 1891, p.3).

He saw the ceremony as rooted in Druidic rites, but the Christian service which he painted was probably begun in order to commemorate either the foundation of the College in 1458, or the death of its patron, Henry VII, in 1509 (the tower had been completed by 1505). In the 17th century the diarist Anthony Wood noted that members of the College choir ‘do, according to an ancient custom, salute Flora at four in the morning with vocal music of several parts…’ This music had been composed by Wood’s friend, Dr Benjamin Rogers (1614-98), an internationally-recognized composer who was successively organist at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Eton, and Magdalen College.


The Great Tower of Magdalen College, Oxford, as seen from Founders Tower. Photo: Gagravarr

By the 19th century the service had been abandoned; it was reinstituted by Dr J.R.  Bloxam in 1840, leading Hunt to feature him prominently, in his red and black garb, on the left of the painting. Bloxam employed the ‘Hymnus Eucharisticus’ for his revived ceremony, set to Rogers’s music of c. 1673. This aspect of historicizing even in the event itself fitted with Hunt’s idea of a composition which would convey its antiquity: the hint about Flora gave him a reason for including the piles of flowers in the foreground, and linked with both the idea of an ancient Druidic practice of welcoming the spring, and the ancient Mithraic cult of sun-worship. These varied, if slightly confused threads, inspired the natural imagery of the frames (both large and small versions).

Holman Hunt May morning Birmingham MAG sm

Holman Hunt, May Morning on Magdalen Tower, 1888-93, frame 1889-90, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery

There are two frames, just as there are two paintings.  One is for the small canvas in Birmingham Art Gallery, which began life in as the study en plein air made by Hunt on top of the tower at dawn, from which the background of the other, larger painting was taken. From late summer 1888 the paintings seemed to have been worked on at the same time, although they are not identical – there are minor differences in the numbers of figures and the odd gesture. The large frame was designed first, late in 1888 or early in 1889, and the second in 1889-90. This second frame is a clever remaking of a Renaissance tondo frame, the outer fruit-&-flower garland of the latter turned into an art nouveau braid of scrolling half-leaves, with a lark at the top centre, whilst the whole of the infill between the outer frame and the oblong sight edge has become a shimmering sunburst. The scrolls which float across these rays are inscribed with the title of the picture at the top, and at the bottom a quotation from Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale:



Both frames were made at the Guild of Handicraft, an extraordinary institution which had only recently been set up by Charles Ashbee.  Ashbee was 25, and having just left Cambridge (where he had organized classes for working-class children and had encountered Ruskin’s ideas) had taken articles as an architect with G.F. Bodley, a proponent of the Gothic Revival.  Bodley had been, during the first part of his career, as sympathetic to Ruskin and his ideals as Ashbee became during his education at Cambridge.  Bodley had also been both a client of and designer for William Morris’s firm in the 1860s, so that Ashbee may well have encountered Morris by reputation even before he went to one of his lectures on Socialism. This small circle of minds (Bodley, Ruskin, Morris and Ashbee himself) shared similar principles – the need for beautiful handmade objects in the teeth of mass production, the importance of the craftsman, the wish for a more liberal and equal society, the dignity of labour, and the education of the working classes.

Ashbee was stimulated to make his own contribution to realizing these ideals, by organizing classes for poor men in the East End of London; they took place at Toynbee Hall, and included the study of Ruskin’s writings, as well as drawing and design, and practical crafts. These classes became the foundation of the Guild and School of Handicraft. Strangely, William Morris did not encourage its establishment, but Ashbee went ahead with £50 capital and a gradually increasing band of sponsors. Holman Hunt was more encouraging, and was asked to mention the formation of the Guild when he opened the Whitechapel Picture Exhibition in March 1888[2]. He helped Ashbee more practically by giving him the commissions for both the May Morning… frames during the first precarious year of the Guild.

Commercial Street on 1886 map

Commercial Street, London, in1886; with Toynbee Hall shown in red (right), & Liverpool Street Station (left). With thanks to MapCoNet

The Guild craft workshop was initially established, in 1888, in an attic at 34 Commercial Street, very close to Toynbee Hall. There seems to be disagreement over whether it was begun with three, four or five men; according to Alan Crawford it was four, including C.V. Adams, a cabinetmaker, John Pearson, who was already skilled in metalwork, Fred Hubbard, and John Williams, neither of whom apparently had any skills [3]. But extraordinarily it was Williams who – with less than a year’s experience – executed both Holman Hunt’s picture frames from the artist’s designs. It seems that he must have learned from Pearson, and learned remarkably quickly: so quickly, in fact, that he was already able to exhibit one item of repoussé metalwork at the Guild’s first exhibition, in October 1888 at the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society [4].

John Pearson & Williams  Brass charger 1889 Christie s 2 Nov 2000 S Ken

Guild of Handicraft brass charger, designed by John Pearson, made by Pearson & John Williams, d. 1889, 24 ½ in. diameter, etched mark: ‘designer J Pearson, workers JP & J Williams 1889’; Christie’s sale, 2 November 2000

This repoussé brass charger, made by Pearson and Williams together, gives an example of their work from the same year as Hunt’s frames and is probably very like the pieces shown at the Arts & Crafts Exhibition. It demonstrates quite clearly how the work was executed, with the design being hammered into sheet metal from the back, and texture added to the front with punchwork and engraving. It is also clearly a product of the youthful art nouveau style, and has a lot in common with Holman Hunt’s own ornamental designs.

HH frame top left corner

William Holman Hunt, May Morning on Magdalen Tower, 1890, detail of frame, top left

Top right corner of frame

Detail of frame, top right

The use of decorative imagery which is both naturalistic in its detail and stylized in its repetitive rhythms is common to the work of Pearson and Williams, and to the frame designs of Hunt.  All three of them use scrolling or undulating flowers and leaves which have a particular internal scale, a relationship between large and small motifs, and a tension of geometric pattern and representational likeness quite different from the scrolling foliate ornaments used in classical, Renaissance, and NeoClassical decoration.

Holman Hunt Portrait of Miss Waugh sm

William Holman Hunt, Portrait of Miss (Isabella?) Waugh, c.1866, Sotheby’s sale, 15 June 1982; later sold by Lyle & Turnbull, 1 November 2011.

Another example of Hunt’s frames in this category is the gilt architrave design for an unfinished study of his sister-in-law; it was made at least a decade after the painting, and is based on a drawing (1876) of architectural ornament he had made in Jerusalem [5]. The double band of undulating half-leaves on the frieze is punctuated by roundels engraved to simulate the phases of the moon (thus turning the portrait of a young Victorian woman wearing a classical diadem into an image of the goddess Artemis). Divorced from its exotic setting, this motif appears the essence of art nouveau, and Hunt re-used the braid of undulating half-leaves again for the garland on the top edge of the small May Morning… frame.

HH May Morning TONDO detail

Holman Hunt, May Morning on Magdalen Tower, small version in Birmingham, detail, bottom left

Hunt’s framemaker was his perfect partner: Williams’s training in the art of repoussé metalwork had been via the execution of very similar patterns to Hunt’s own. The artist probably provided quite detailed drawings for all the various sections of the frame; in fact a study of lilies related to May Morning… has – in the stem of buds on the left – more in common with the lilies on the left-hand rail of the frame than with the flowers in the painting [6]. The whole design, although appearing fairly simple (even naïve) in its layout, is actually quite complex, and its execution must have stretched Williams’s skills considerably.  It represents the four elements: earth – the lilies and briars roses growing up the frame on the left, and the morning glories and sunflowers on the right; air – the nesting birds in the top corners, and the lark ascending against the crescent moon in the top centre; water – the leaping fish and frogs at the bottom; and fire – the sun rising majestically at the bottom centre.

Bottom of frame

All these motifs are on the frieze, which was made in a separate section from the top edge, with its floral, starfish and star motifs, and from the inner moulding.  This is because each section has a core of wood around which the sheets of copper are wrapped, in order to give support and stability to the metal thin shell. All of this was completely experimental, but of a piece with the optimism and persistence which had founded and was maintaining the Guild. Hunt himself had been nervous about the results, but in the end his letter to Ashbee, after taking delivery of the large frame in April 1889, expressed his entire satisfaction:

‘I have been so continually occupied since the frame came that until now I could write nothing to express correctly my general high satisfaction at the result of our experiment with the repoussée copper.  As a material for the design I made for the frame there was a certain venturesomeness in its use, which made me anxious during its execution… now I view its effect on the painting I regard the work with great pleasure… there is reason to believe that we have made a success in our venture and that not only to artistic people – and the outside world in future years but even to the general public of this day which will tend rapidly to extend the demand for the hammered copper decoration.’ [7]

Holman Hunt empty frame

He was happy for it to be exhibited without the painting, which was still unfinished, in the 1889 Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society – just a year after John Williams’s appearance there with his first exhibition piece. An unidentified press cutting in the V & A gives its first outing a magnificent review:

‘…A very happy idea has occurred to Mr Holman Hunt with respect to the framing of the canvas.  Feeling, as most artists do, that the glaring, shining yellow of the gilt frame is a good deal of an affront – throwing itself, so to speak, at the spectator, and, more often than not, interfering with the key in which the picture is painted – he has devised a new frame of dull, beaten copper.  This metal, showing the marks of the hammer upon it, forms an admirable and reticent setting, indefinite in colour, and free from the stereotyped features of the joiner’s mouldings and mitred corners.  Mr Hunt has gone a step further and has had the frame decorated with a design symbolical of the idea of the picture.  Thus, below we have the rising sun, on either side of which are ‘frogs and fishes awakening into joyous life’.  On the upright members are growing and flowering plants, and above all birds and butterflies.  The whole design is treated conventionally, and hammered into low relief by the workers of Toynbee Hall – a very creditable piece of craftsmanship.’[8]

It is only a pity that we know so little of the craftsman. There are two possibilities in the 1901 census: a John Henry Williams, born in Cheltenham in 1858, and working in London as a silversmith and goldsmith; and a John Williams, born in Rochester, Kent, in 1859, and by 1901 a metalworker in London. Both would have been around 30 or 31 at the foundation of the Guild. ‘John Williams’ is unfortunately a very common name, and it is also the sad fact that people can be missed by the censuses, or aren’t in the place where the researcher is looking for them; however, the first of these two Williamses does seem a possibility for the May Morning… smith. By 1892 John Williams had resigned from the Guild (as had Pearson, too); he moved on to teach at Hammersmith School of Arts, and also provided teaching and designs for metalwork classes in Fivemiletown, County Tyrone. The studio at Fivemiletown apparently gave him this encomium:

‘In designing for pewter and for somewhat heavier applications of brass and copper, John Williams is still the tutelary genius of Fivemiletown. The designs of so able and judicious an artist must be invaluable alike to the native and the more advanced craftsman, for they have a breadth and dignity of line which cannot fail to react well upon the growing style of the executant’. [9]

One further example of his work which illustrates these qualities is a leather document folder with an intricately monogrammed decorative silver cover; it was made almost twenty years after Hunt’s frames, and shows that Williams still had a supreme eye for a design, as well as the skill to produce it.

John Williams document holder2

John Williams, Arts & Crafts leather document holder with silver cover, London, 1908; Titus Omega


With sincere thanks to Sarah Doyle, for her time and skill…

Sarah Doyle specializes mainly in formal poetry.  She reads frequently at poetry events in and around London, and is co-host of The Sunday Edition, a series of jazz-poetry events at Enfield’s Dugdale Theatre.  Publications include the Poetry Society’s Poetry NewsUnspoken WaterThe Dawntreader and Orbis, as well as anthologies; and she has been placed in national poetry competitions: Poetry on the Lake (2008 and 2012), the Pre-Raphaelite Society Poetry Prize, the Ware Poets’ Open Poetry Competition, Cannon Poets’ Sonnet or Not Competition, and Forty Hall’s Poetry Postcard Competition 2012.  In May 2012 she was appointed the Pre-Raphaelite Society’s first Poet-in-Residence.

Read more Pre-Raphaelite posts on The Frame Blog:

Part I: Pre-Raphaelite frames > here

Part II: More Pre-Raphaelite frames > here

Part III: A final look at Pre-Raphaelite frames > here

Restoring a Pre-Raphaelite frame > here

Poetry & the frame: Rossetti’s Blessed Damozel & its altarpiece setting > here

What artists, critics & collectors say about frames: Part 2> here

Love in the frame: the portraits & frames of John Brett > here

Two Pre-Raphaelite paintings from the Leverhulme Collection> here

A Victorian Obsession…The Pérez Simón Collection > here 

[1]  Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, ‘The Knight’s Tale’, ll.1493-94.

[2] Alan Crawford, C.R. Ashbee: Architect, designer & romantic socialist, Yale University Press, 2005, p. 29.

[3] Alan Crawford, ‘The object is not the object: C.R. Ashbee and the Guild of Handicraft’, in Pioneers of Modern Craft, ed. Margot Coatts, Manchester University Press, 1997, p.2.

[4]  Crawford, C.R. Ashbee: …, op. cit., ch. 12.

[5] See Judith Bronkhurst, William Holman Hunt: A catalogue raisonné, 2006, vol. II, D302, p. 154.

[6] Ibid., vol. II, D379, p. 186.

[7] V & A (86.DD.17A):  Letters from William Morris… to C.R. Ashbee, MSS, English; Letter from Holman Hunt to Ashbee, 19 May 1889.

[8] Ibid.; newspaper cutting, c. October 1889.

[9] See Colin Pill, Arts and Crafts Metalwork: ‘The Fivemiletown Class’.