at Magdalen Tower"
William Holman Hunt
On the chapel tower of Magdalen College, Oxford, as the dawn breaks on the First of May, the college choir sing hymns in the sunrise in a ceremony that although re-introduced in the nineteenth century, probably had roots in pre-Christian worship. It is still an occasion for many to gather at the base of the tower to join in welcoming the May sun.
The custom of greeting the sun on May Morning from a high place with a hymn appears to be a relic of Druidical worship. The May Morning service on Magdalen Tower, Oxford, is itself of ancient origin and survived in some form into the 19th Century, when, in the 1840’s it was saved from near extinction through the efforts of Dr. Bloxam and its present form adopted. The Hymnus Euchisticus, with words by Dr. Thomas Smith, Fellow of Magdalen 1663—92, and with music by Dr. Benjamin Roberts, organist 1664—85, is sung facing towards the rising sun.
Hunt took up the subject, which he had long had in mind (he states as early as 1850), in 1888. He took a sketch block to the ceremony on Magdalen Tower on 1 May and made observations but, according to the President’s Note Book, did not sketch on that occasion. Shortly afterwards he began work on the tower from 4 a.m. on the small canvas, and continued on this for several weeks. The present picture was then begun in a room in the New Buildings at the College. He was working again at Oxford on the portraits in December 1888 and January 1889 and the President noted his departure on the 29 January: ‘Mr. Holman Hunt the Artist who had been painting a picture representing the May Morning function on Magdalen Tower in College for some weeks left Oxford today taking the picture with him to London — where he intends to finish it and exhibit it in the Spring.’
Models include distinguished fellows of the college and the staff of the College Choir School, and a few of the choristers, together with several other models introduced by the artist. In particular the artist included the figure of a Parsee, a sun-worshipper, at the right. He also introduced the mass of flowers, chiefly tulips, hyacinths, lilies, imperial martagons and fritilaries, and the William III bowl which is the earliest piece of plate belonging to the college. He excluded the usual crowd of onlookers.
The copper repoussé frame was designed by the artist and made by the Guild of Handicraft established by C. R. Ashbee in 1889. The design incorporates at the bottom, the rising sun with frogs and fishes leaping in the stream at the renewal of morning life; lilies and wild briar twine up either side with, on one side convolvulus or ‘Morning Glory’; at the top is a lark shaking its wings for flight before the crescent moon has set; nesting birds appear at each corner.
A pamphlet explaining the May Morning ceremony in detail was published to coincide with the exhibition of the painting at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1891.
Critical reaction to the painting was mixed and it remained unsold until Lord Leverhulme bought the painting from Hunt’s widow in 1919.