The Awakening Conscience: The Story of a Pre-Raphaelite Muse

Carol Jacobi

A scene of domestic bliss? An intimate moment between two lovers? Not all is as it seems in William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience.

Often described as revolutionary and radical, Hunt and his Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood artist friends endeavoured to illustrate and consequently challenge the social conventions of the day through their paintings. Far from being a straightforward depiction of another disgraced, ‘fallen’ woman, in this painting Hunt casts his muse Annie Miller as the entrapped lover at the moment of ‘awakening’, in the throes of an epiphany about her place in the world. But was his art imitating life?

Join curator Carol Jacobi as she takes a closer look at this complex ‘psychological drama’ and uncovers the symbolism and motivations behind this 19th century masterpiece.

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The Awakening Conscience is a psychological drama. The idea of a woman enclosed in a room fascinated 19th century writers and artists. They liked the idea that the room gives us hints about her internal thoughts. And the viewer was turned into a kind of detective. They presented an array of clues which gives us some insights into personalities, stories, hidden motivations.

People are often surprised by how shadowy this painting is when they see it for the first time in real life. In fact, the only little bit of sunlight is in the foreground here. A Victorian viewer would immediately have understood that this was a very private moment and space. This is because the model’s hair is loose, and usually if you were in public c, it would be done up. She’s not wearing a corset, which was unusual for the day. On her left hand she has three rings, but no wedding ring. The gentleman by contrast is wearing outdoor clothes. Victorian viewers would’ve understood that he was a wealthy man.

And, first glance, the space itself looks like a well-to-do woman’s room. It’s got a lot of the past-times that a well-to-do woman would be expected to have. For example, the tapestry here, the piano, music, the books on the table. But when you look a bit more closely, you feel like something is wrong.

For example, it is him that is playing the piano and not her. The books on the table are actually manuals for writing, and they haven’t even been opened. So, you get this sense that maybe she’s not educated, that she can’t read. The only sign of domesticity is the cat under the table, tormenting a bird.

This is a temporary, a superficial space, and in fact, probably her clothes, her jewellery as well as her room, has been paid for by the man that she’s with. This is a kind of very asymmetrical intimacy. She is dependent on him, and he would be able to abandon her any time he wanted. And in fact, it’s often observed that the discarded glove on the floor is a sign of what her fate will be when he gets fed up with her.

In fact, if we look, the woman is entrapped in a way in this curved frame, in the same way that the figure inside the clock is entrapped in the curved glass case. And Hunt has even designed the frame to symbolise warning, so you have marigolds which symbolise danger, and bells which symbolise warning.

The woman herself is in fact sort of leaping up from her lover’s lap and we see what she’s looking at reflected in the mirror behind her – the natural world, the sky, the leaves. Her whole posture gives a sense that she has sort of broken in a way from him, that she has her own agency, that her conscience is awakening.

In the 19th century with the sort of advances of science, you have the beginnings of psychology. People become very interested in the mind, and one of the things they’re particularly interested in is memory. How is it that a past experience can revisit you in the present? One of the most powerful triggers appeared to be music.

Hunt has been really interested in this, and he’s imagined that the tune that the man is playing on the piano and singing, and it’s just a popular Irish folk tune called ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’. That music has suddenly taken this woman back to a childhood and her loved ones. The song itself is about memory, it is about exactly the experience of being reminded of your past. And I think Hunt feels that that contrast between her memory and her present condition has brought about a change in her feelings and her thoughts.

So, Hunt has painted a very radical painting. In the 19th century, intimacy of this kind between individuals who were not married to each other was quite common in art that depicted ancient or literary stories, but not in a modern-life setting. Women of this kind were called ‘fallen women’, or Magdalenes. The idea was, that they would be a naive young woman who was seduced before being abandoned. They would be forced out onto the streets. There was very often a suicide, and in fact, the river was usually depicted as their destination.

Even a married woman who had a relationship with a man who is not her husband was shown thrown out into street, separated from her children, abandoned by both her husband and her lover. And so, you see her by the Thames, with the baby of her lover, starving.

It comes at a time I think when male and female roles were being redefined, just by the practicalities of the Industrial Revolution and the new kinds of lifestyles. In the 19th century, particularly with the enormous expansion of city life, there was a huge army of women in these cities who were working women. There were jobs in hat shops, laundresses, and people who were in the textile trade, and these working women were sometimes called problem women. They caused society some anxieties, especially when these women weren’t part of a unit that involved a father, a brother or a husband. William Holman Hunt was a product of this new very fast-changing world.

Hunt was a member of a rebel group of artists, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and they felt that art had become too commercialised, too conventional, they challenged the art establishment of the day which was the Royal Academy of Arts and they’d been students there and the Royal Academy held the major exhibition each year.

This was quite interesting timing. In 1848, many countries in Europe had popular revolutions, and certainly there was part of this revolutionary spirit about these arts students. They did actually publish various theories about art, but their real manifestoes were the paintings. And so, in a way The Awakening Conscience represents what art should be, which was above all relevant, as well as moving and truthful. The Pre-Raphaelites also challenged social conventions. And one of the things they did was challenge the expectation that they should make respectable, secure marriages. Or that their relationships should be from within their own class.

Hunt himself fell in love with a sixteen-year-old working-class girl called Annie Miller, and she is the model for this painting. He met her in the Cross Keys pub, she was living in a slum. And Hunt installed her with a landlady and the landlady gave her good lodgings, clothes, access to schooling. I think what he hoped was, when she had some independence, she might fall in love with him and agree to be his partner.

Annie became a very, very successful Pre-Raphaelite model. She was very sought after, became a lively member of the circle, and she enjoyed the wider social opportunities that she had.

One of Hunt’s motivations for painting The Awakening Conscience was he knew he was going to be away from London, away from Annie, and so he actually left her in the care of his closest Pre-Raphaelite friend, Frederick Stephens. And he gave Stephens a list of the male artists that Annie could model for and the ones she couldn’t. He particularly excluded Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was a very close friend of Hunt’s. Stephens was delighted to have access to this really sought-after model, so of course he made a painting of her himself.

Annie is painted in complete contrast to The Awakening Conscience. She is a wife, a mother, she is sitting in a completely different kind of environment, dutifully waiting for her husband, she has a letter which has clearly come from abroad. So, Stephens has projected the role that both he and Hunt are hoping for onto her. But this certainly wasn’t a role that she was going to accept. In fact, in one of the letters between Stephens and Hunt, Hunt tells Stephens, every time I suggest something to her, she says, I’d rather be dead. Because she’s not prepared to give up any of the control of her life.

So, we have to remember that the psychological drama of The Awakening Conscience is not actually Annie Miller’s story, it is the story of a male artist.

The painting was actually bought by a great sympathiser with the Pre-Raphaelites, but even he asked Hunt to erase the expression of the woman in the picture. He wanted to erase her thoughts, her change, her decision, and Hunt actually had to re-paint the face of Annie Miller.

And in fact, Annie Miller’s own story is different again. She didn’t end up in the river. Ten years after this picture was made, she married Captain Thomas Thompson, they had two children, and she died at ninety in the seaside town of Southam-on-Sea near Brighton. So, she eluded the narratives that had been written for her by society, and even by these radical artists.

With thanks to

18 Stafford Terrace

Charlotte Osborn

The Foundling Museum, London

Tate

Watts Gallery Trust

 

Archive

Birmingham Museums Trust

British Museum

The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge

Getty Images

National Portrait Gallery, London

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

 

Music

9 Lives

Freesound

 

Artworks

 

The Awakening Conscience

William Holman Hunt, 1853

Tate

 

Study for the unfinished painting ‘Found’ 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1853

British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

A Mother Depositing Her Child at the Foundling Hospital in Paris

Henry Nelson O’Neil, c.1855

Courtesy of The Foundling Museum, London

 

Thoughts of the Past

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, 1859

Photo © Tate

CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

 

On the Brink

Alfred Elmore, 1865

The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

A destitute girl throws herself from a bridge, her life ruined by alcoholism

George Cruikshank, 1848

Wellcome Collection

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Found Drowned

George Frederic Watts, 1848–1850

Courtesy of Watts Gallery Trust

 

Past and Present, No. 1

Augustus Leopold Egg, 1858

Tate

 

Past and Present, No. 2

Augustus Leopold Egg, 1858

Tate

 

Past and Present, No. 3

Augustus Leopold Egg, 1858

Tate

 

Printing Office (The Victoria Press) in Great Coram Street for the employment of women as compsitors

duncan1890 / Getty Images

 

The Iron Forge between Dolgelli and Barmouth in Merioneth Shire

Paul Sandby, 1776

British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Victorian Sheffield, Yorkshire, England 19th Century

duncan1890 / Getty Images

 

Steel Mill

ivan-96 / Getty Images

 

Foundry at Canon

John Baptist Malchair, 1792

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

(CC0 1.0)

 

Girls making cartridges for Enfield rifles

DEA / BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA / Getty Images

 

Ironing room in a laundry, 1867

Oxford Science Archive / Print Collector / Getty Images

 

The Sempstress

Richard Redgrave, 1846

Tate

 

Love in Death, for “Good Words”

Dalziel Brothers (After Frederick Walker), 1862

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

(CC0 1.0)

 

William Holman Hunt

London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, c. 1865

albumen carte-de-visite

NPG Ax14899

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

William Holman Hunt

David Wilkie Wynfield, 1864

albumen print

NPG P75

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

William Bell Scott; Dante Gabriel Rossetti; John Ruskin

W. & D. Downey, 29 June 1863

albumen carte-de-visite

NPG x12959

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

Life School, Royal Academy: gas lighting, 1865

SSPL / Getty Images

 

Private View of the Old Masters Exhibition, Royal Academy, 1888

Henry Jamyn Brooks, 1889

oil on canvas

NPG 1833

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

Lamartine in Front of The Town Hall of Paris Rejects the Red Flag on 25 February 1848

Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

 

William Holman Hunt, from photograph taken by Lewis Carroll

Culture Club / Getty Images

 

The Rossetti Family

Lewis Carroll, 7 October 1863

albumen print

NPG P56

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt

Herbert Watkins, 1857

albumen print

NPG P301(36)

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

Effie Gray (Lady Millais)

Herbert Watkins, late 1850s

albumen print

NPG P301(37)

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

Maria Francesca Rossetti; Frances Mary Lavinia Rossetti (née Polidori); Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lewis Carroll, 7 October 1863

albumen print

NPG P1273(21b)

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

Portrait of Annie Miller

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1860

Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust

(CC0 1.0)

 

Woman in Yellow

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1863

Photo © Tate

CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

 

Portrait of Annie Miller

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, c.1860

Photo: Erik Cornelius

Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

(CC0 1.0)

 

The Flaming Heart, after Rossetti

Charles Fairfax Murray, 1863

The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

Frederic George Stephens

Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, 1853

pencil

NPG 2363

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lewis Carroll, 7 October 1863

albumen print

NPG P29

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

Mother and Child

Frederic George Stephens, c.1854

Tate

 

Waiting

John Everett Millais, 1854

Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust

(CC0 1.0)

 

Freesound contributors:

inspectorj
schafferdavid
bedeen

The Awakening Conscience, William Holman Hunt’, Tate

18 Stafford Terrace’, The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Found Drowned, George Frederic Watts’, Watts Gallery, Collections

Learn about the Foundling Hospital’, The Foundling Museum

India Lewis, ‘Seven female Pre-Raphaelites’, Art UK, 27 March 2019

Pre-Raphaelite Online Resource’, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery

Why were the Pre-Raphaelites so shocking?’, Tate

Annabel Rutherford, ‘A Dramatic Reading of Augustus Leopold Egg’s Untitled Triptych’, Tate Papers, no.7, Spring 2007

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