A Canadian Visionary: Research into the Life of Holman Hunt Unearths an Intriguing and Important Figure

By Lochnan, Katharine | Literary Review of Canada, April 2009 | Go to article overview

A Canadian Visionary: Research into the Life of Holman Hunt Unearths an Intriguing and Important Figure


Lochnan, Katharine, Literary Review of Canada


In the course of her curatorial research into the life and work of English pre-Raphaelite painter Holman Hunt, Katharine Lochnan followed up on an obscure connection to a Canadian, Henry Monk, who inspired Hunt's lifelong devotion to Christian Zionism and its hoped-for concomitant, universal peace. This essay is adapted from the draft and published versions of "The Canadian Diaspora: Last Rights," the last chapter of Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision, published by the Art Gallery of Ontario and Yale University Press. The book accompanies the eponymous exhibition organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario, on display there until May 10, 2009, in association with Manchester Art Gallery in England.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

HENRY WENTWORTH MONK was born in 1827 on a farm along the Ottawa River in the community of March, Upper Canada (present-day Kanata), on land that had been awarded to his father, Captain John Benning Monk, by the British government in recognition of military service during the Napoleonic Wars. Monk's godfather, Hamnett Pinhey of March, a governor of the Blue Coat School, or Christ's Hospital, in London, arranged for Monk to attend the strict Protestant school from age seven to fifteen. This experience left Monk with a strong identification with the exiled.

Returning to March in 1842, he no longer fit into rural pioneer life. He tried studying for the Anglican ministry, but became disillusioned after a year by the strict adherence to church doctrine and lack of interest in searching for "the truth." Raised on the Old Testament, he was fascinated by prophesies regarding the return of the Jews to Palestine. Over the next five years, while working on the farm, he studied the Book of Revelation and travelled to the United States where he encountered religious movements that stressed the importance of the rebirth of Israel.

Toward the end of 1852, believing himself divinely inspired, Monk began writing a book in which he analyzed world problems and proposed solutions. He went to Palestine in 1853, working his passage as a common sailor, and settled in an agricultural colony in the Valley of Ourtass near Bethlehem. Meshullam, a wealthy Jewish convert, had founded the colony around 1850 as part of his goal to reconcile Jews and Christians. Monk took a vow of poverty and decided not to shave his beard or cut his hair until the Jews were restored to Palestine.

One morning toward midsummer 1854, as Monk set out before dawn carrying a lantern to work among the fruit trees, he saw two men ride up to Meshullam's house, one of whom was Holman Hunt. Hunt never forgot the moment when he "first caught sight of Monk stepping through a gateway in Meshullam's garden, carrying a light, and wrapped in profound meditation. ]hat slender figure, with flowing auburn locks and curly beard, radiant eyes and serene forehead--was it not a living image of his own inspiration in England a year ago?" He saw in Monk a startling resemblance to the Christ figure he had painted in The Light of the World. ]he two men, who shared many of the same views, regarded this meeting as providential.

They lamented the fact that despite all the advances of the British Empire, Victorians were no closer to understanding the meaning of life. They were disenchanted by the established church and organized religion but abhorred the onslaught of materialism and atheism. They were deeply concerned by the way in which imperialistic goals were paving the way for devastating wars that threatened the basis of civilization. As the major powers jostled for position, they became increasingly concerned about the future of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, particularly the future of Palestine. Their hopes were based on the prophesy in the Book of Revelation that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land would inaugurate one thousand years of peace on earth. ]hey were identified with the non-Jewish Zionist movement, which worked with Jewish Zionists (also known as Christian Zionism and Gentile Zionism) to achieve this goal. …

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