William Holman Hunt’s arresting portrait of Henry Wentworth Monk depicts him as a latter-day Christian prophet. The painting, owned by the National Gallery of Canada, is of particular interest to Canadians.
Monk was born near Ottawa in 1827. Seized with religious fervour (he trained briefly for the Anglican ministry), he worked his way as a sailor to Palestine in 1853 to work on an early kibbutz. Hunt met Monk near Jerusalem in 1854, where Hunt had gone to do his famous painting The Scapegoat. The two shared the idea of a Jewish return to Palestine and Jerusalem as a centre for world government.
Monk returned home and wrote a book promoting this idea and with anonymous financial support from John Ruskin had it published in England in 1858, the same year he sat for this portrait. According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, “Monk held that railways, steamships, and the telegraph made possible a world government based in Jerusalem whose first act of justice would be the full emancipation of the Jews.”
In 1864, Monk was the sole survivor of a shipwreck off the northeast coast of Canada, after which he was given to various personal eccentricities – a refusal to cut his hair or beard, a fear of germs, a preference for sleeping and eating outdoors, and a habit of plunging his whole head into ice-cold water to relieve his severe pains. In Ottawa in the 1870s he worked for the Ottawa Daily Citizen and devoted his energies to the creation of the Palestine Restoration Fund and the idea of an international tribunal to ensure world peace. He died in Ottawa in 1896.
The University of Toronto Art Centre exhibit A Dream of the Past: Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic Movement Paintings, Drawings, and Watercolours from the Lanigan Collection was on view until September 22, 2000.