The Hireling Shepherd 1852

On the surface this is a Pre-Raphaelite painting by the artist William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) of a shepherd and shepherdess in the vivid colours of an English landscape. However, it has many different layers of meaning and a fascinating history. Here are just some of them and we’ll return to this painting in a future blog.

Landscapes in art had regularly used images of shepherds and shepherdesses but always in an artificial and beautiful manner. Holman Hunt however favoured what he called ‘social realism’ and wanted to paint real people which led to his critics commenting that his models looked “…ill-fed, ill-favoured, ill-washed…”. This was a shocking portrayal to many in the art world.

One of the meanings of the painting comes from the debates of the time between the Catholic Church and the Church of England and Hunt asserted that he intended the couple to symbolise the pointless theological debates which occupied Christian churchmen while their “flock” went astray due to a lack of proper moral guidance.

The are many details within the painting. The sheep wander off into a neighbouring cornfield or are asleep, having over-eaten. The lamb on the lap of the shepherdess eats on unripe apple and the shepherd shows a Death’s Head moth to his companion.

This painting was much admired by Salvador Dali and and it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852.

You can view this painting in Manchester City Gallery in Room 3 on the first floor. Visit the Manchester City Art Galleries’ website for more information at

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