William Holman HuntThe Awakening Conscience 1853

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William Holman Hunt (1827‑1910)
The Awakening Conscience
Date 1853
MediumOil paint on canvas
Dimensionssupport: 762 x 559 mm frame: 1060 x 857 x 97 mm
Acquisition Presented by Sir Colin and Lady Anderson through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1976
On loan to Palazzo Chiablese (Turin, Italy)


The Awakening Conscience was conceived as the material counterpart to Hunt's The Light of the World (1851-3, Warden and Fellows of Keble College, Oxford). Its inspiration was a verse from Proverbs: 'As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, so is he that singeth songs to an heavy heart'. With his typical thoroughness, Hunt hired a room at Woodbine Villa, 7 Alpha Place, St John's Wood, a 'maison de convenance', to use as the setting. A gentleman has installed his mistress (known to be such because of her absence of a wedding ring) in a house for their meetings. As they play and sing to Thomas Moore's Oft in the Stilly Night, she has a sudden spiritual revelation. Rising from her lover's lap, she gazes into the sunlit garden beyond, which is reflected in the mirror behind her. The mirror image represents the woman's lost innocence, but redemption, indicated by the ray of light in the foreground, is still possible. Intended to be 'read', the painting is full of such symbolic elements. The cat toying with the broken-winged bird under the table symbolises the woman's plight. A man's discarded glove warns that the likely fate of a cast-off mistress was prostitution. A tangled skein of yarn on the floor symbolises the web in which the girl is entrapped… (read more)

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