New to the Ackland: A House on the Nile at Damietta, Egypt by William Holman Hunt

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A drawing of the courtyard of a waterfront home

In 1854, William Holman Hunt traveled to Egypt and Palestine for two years to gather material for his paintings of biblical scenes. As a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a small group of artists who favored extreme naturalism and precise attention to detail, Hunt sought to achieve a convincing sense of naturalism in his work through a direct experience of historical places. In May of 1854, Hunt and his companion, artist Thomas Seddon, embarked from Cairo on their way to Jaffa, traveling by boat down the Nile. When they arrived in the port city of Damietta (Dumyat), they were delayed for several days due to a lack of wind. Seddon noted in a letter of May 24, written a week after their arrival, that Damietta appeared “picturesquely upon a hill, sloping down to the river-side, where many of the merchant’s houses have small courtyards in front, fitted up with benches, and with roods of trellis-work covered in vines, and with stone steps leading down to the river.”

Hunt made a number of drawings of the local architecture, including the Ackland’s study, which shows the courtyard of a home located on the water, occupied by a lone figure who stands in profile behind a railing, seemingly unaware of the artist’s intent gaze. Hunt focused on the rectilinear demarcations of the structure, accentuated by his parallel vertical shading lines and the progressively darker hatch marks that suggest recession into space. In his memoir of 1905, where this drawing was illustrated, the artist recalled that “The town had some pleasantly arranged houses on the harbour, with courtyards overlooking the water, reminding one of Holland and Venice.”

Hunt’s drawing joins a recently acquired print by the artist and complements numerous prints in the collection that feature views of the Near East by British artists. With its engaging subject matter and thoughtful draftsmanship, this drawing makes an excellent addition to the Museum’s growing collection of nineteenth-century British drawings.

— Dana Cowen, Sheldon Peck Curator for European and American Art before 1950

Image credit: William Holman Hunt, British, 1827-1910, A House on the Nile at Damietta, Egypt, 1854, graphite on paper, 8 3/4 × 5 1/2 in. (22.2 × 14 cm). Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Gift of Ian Kennedy in memory of Katharine Reid, 2022.25.
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