05 November 2023

A Pre-Raphaelite
wedding painting in
Southwark tells of
change and reform

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), ‘London Bridge on the Night of the Marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales’, in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Charlotte and I stayed on Friday night in the Hoxton, Southwark, beside Blackfriars Bridge and a stone’s throw from the River Thames and South Bank’s galleries and food markets. From there, it was a short distane on Saturday morning to Southwark Cathedral, beside London Bridge.

I was reminded in both places of a painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), ‘London Bridge on the Night of the Marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales’, that hangs in the Pre-Raphaelite collection in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Holman Hunt was among the crowd on London Bridge on the night of 10 March 1863, celebrating the marriage of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, and Princess Alexandra of Denmark, the eldest daughter of Prince Christian of Denmark, later King Christian IX. They were married in Saint George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on 10 March 1863; he was 21 and she was 18.

That wedding day 160 years ago was declared a national holiday, and nationwide festivities were organised throughout the land to mark the occasion. Among the crowds of revellers that night who found themselves on London Bridge was the artist Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt, who had also attended the wedding ceremony earlier in the day.

Holman Hunt was interested in the practicalities of how to show historical events through the experiences of ordinary people, and the scene on London Bridge provided him with the perfect subject. He made sketches of the scene, but he did not complete the work until 16 May 1864, and later he retouched several areas of the painting in 1866, three years after the wedding. The painting, in oil on canvas, measures 98 x 65 cm (38.5 in x 25.5 in), and is signed in monogram and dated 1863.

Holman Hunt was fascinated by the contrasts of natural and artificial light and by the ‘Hogarthian humour’ of the crowds. He decided to include himself and several of his friends and acquaintances in the painting. He is in the left-hand corner, arm-in-arm with the Oxford patron of the Pre-Raphaelites, Thomas Combe (1796-1872), in a top hat.

Combe was the Superintendent of the Clarendon Press, now the Oxford University Press. He and his wife Martha Combe (1806-1893) are commemorated by a blue plaque at Saint Barnabas Church in Jericho, Oxford. They were supporters of the Oxford Movement and good friends of John Henry Newman, and Combe had also been a churchwarden at Saint Paul’s Church, Oxford. Holman Hunt came to live at their home, the Printer’s House in Jericho, and it was there he painted ‘The Light of the World’ for the chapel in Keble College.

The artist Robert Braithwaite Martineau (1826-1869) is also in this painting. Holman Hunt and Martineau were life-long friends: they had studied together, and they had once shared a studio.

Although Combe and Martineau were both friends of Holman Hunt, it is not clear that they were both on the bridge at the time of that wedding celebration that evening in 1863. Yet, more of Holman Hunt’s friends are in other parts of the painting, suggesting he understood their importance in the social scene of England during this era. Martha Combe is in the painting too, as is John William Millais, father of another Pre-Raphaelite painter, Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1879), and the painter’s brother.

Unusually, the frame of the picture was designed by Holman Hunt too. There are elements in the frame that celebrate the wedding and the merging of the royal families of England and Denmark, and the coat of arms of both families is clearly visible.

The wedding painting was bequeathed to the Ashmolean by Thomas Combe’s widow Martha in 1893.

This modern Victorian social gathering for this wedding, the site and the unusual lighting created by the gas lighting come together create a painting that is an historical social comment that celebrates the event and all that is Victorian.

But, with his juxtaposition of the gaslight on the bridge with the moonlight in the cloud strewn sky, Holman Hunt is perhaps both commenting on the celebration and expressing his fears or angst that the royal wedding represented the industrialisation of the era and the social reforms and changes that were being ushered in.

William Holman Hunt also designed the frame for his painting ‘London Bridge on the Night of the Marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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