Edward Robert Hughes was a British painter related to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He is most known for his watercolors, but he also worked extensively with oil on canvas. Hughes's pictures were always painted with utmost detail and usually dealt with fantastic themes and figures, such as witches and fairies. Today, his oeuvre is associated with the Symbolists as well, a movement defined in Art History by its allegorical elements and metaphysical connotations.
Edward Robert Hughes was born in 1851 in London, England. He was the only child of Harriet Foord and Edward Hughes. His father worked as a clerk, experiencing a variety of markets throughout his life. As a child, Edward received the nickname "Ted," which his close acquaintances called him in his later years.
As a child, Edward displayed an early artistic prowess, which was developed under the tutelage of his own uncle, the distinguished Pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes. Arthur depicted his two-year-old nephew in his Edward Robert Hughes as a Child. Indeed, Edward became very close to this side of the family, even living with them for a period, which resulted in another artist, his cousin Arthur Foord Hughes.
Since his uncle was a renowned Pre-Raphaelite, this style surely had a significant influence on him. However, he was also very keen on Aestheticism. He became the assistant to one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, William Holman Hunt. In his later life, William Hunt began to suffer from glaucoma. Hughes was a pivotal character for Hunt to finish some of his most famous artworks, such as his Light of the World and The Lady of Shalott.
According to scholars, young Hughes chose to follow an artistic career by his mid-teens. Soon he enrolled at Heatherley's, in 1866, a preparatory course to the ones interested in joining the Royal Academy. There he met Charles Fairfax Murray, a fellow student with whom he made a lifelong friendship. Murray soon became the apprentice of Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones.
Hughes was quite a perfectionist, as he kept the practice of making several studies and sketches before producing a fully realized painting. While he was at the academy, he met Burne-Jones, who became one of the strongest influences on his work.
With the recommendation of the principal of his school, he passed the Royal Academy exam. His debut was in 1870 with a watercolor painting named The Spinet, a modest scale work that was later labeled as a prime example of Pre-Raphaelite art. The influence of Aestheticism, another strand of thought and practice that had relations to the Pre-Raphaelites, was already present in this artwork.
In the next year, he participated with two works, a watercolor and an oil painting, in an event at the Dudley Gallery. The Dudley Gallery was an exhibition space created to oppose the Society of Painters of Water Colours, which ironically later became the Royal Watercolour Society, to exhibit the works of artists rejected by the Royal Academy. Although Hughes was part of the Royal Watercolor Society, he was also part of the alternative gallery.
From 1873 to 1878, there's no documentation of his participation in public exhibitions. According to Hughes's personal correspondence with friends, he felt personally unstimulated by his patrons, who had a sully mood and way. On the other hand, he focused on working for a private clientele that demanded to be portrayed on oil paintings. As such, he was capable of making a steady income.
By 1874, he was engaged with Mary MacDonald, daughter of George MacDonald, a renowned Scottish poet and writer. Mary passed away before they were able to marry. It was a traumatic event for the young artist, and he spent the next years without exhibiting his work.
It took years before he could recover from the situation, with no documentation on his participation in shows for the next five years. It's in 1879 that, once again, he took part in exhibitions, submitting a painting to the Royal Academy Show and making his debut in the Grosvenor Gallery as well.
While he is most famous today for his fantastic illustrations and images with mythical narratives, Hughes also acted as a portrait painter for Britain's upper classes. In 1881, after ten years of dedication to the genre, he declared himself a specialist in portrait painting.
The association with the Grosvenor Gallery was a major one for the British painter. Sir Coutts Lindsay, the owner of the gallery, invited Edward Hughes to exhibit there. Artists such as Edward Coley Burne-Jones, George Frederick Watts, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler were exhibiting at the space frequently, so in this way, he could find a new clientele amidst artists he admired. From 1879 to 1886, he participated in the annual events.
During his lifetime, Hughes became very respected. He was awarded several distinguished positions, such as becoming a member of the Art Workers Guild in 1888. He also participated in the committee of said institution between 1895 and 1897. The Art Workers Guild included architects and artisans too. Through the Guild, he worked with Walter Crane, Henry Holiday, and Charles Robert Ashbee.
In 1891, Hughes was elected as an Associate Member of the Royal Watercolour Society. Oh, What's That in the Hollow is one of his most renowned pictures, and he used it as his diploma work to receive full membership from the institution. The artwork mentioned above was inspired by Amor Mundi, a verse from the English poet Christina Georgina Rossetti.
Hughes's participation in the Art Workers Guild secured him a teaching post. The London Central School was created in 1896, and the painter started to teach there in 1900. His classes were focused on life drawing, which helped the students apply their skills in illustration and commercial activities that depended on draughtsmanship.
Hughes became vice-president of the Royal Watercolour Society, a position that he handed over in 1903. Hughes exhibited in several galleries throughout his career, such as the Grosvenor Gallery, the Dudley Gallery, the New Gallery, and the Royal Academy itself. As a teacher, he participated in the formation of many British painters.
In 1908, the artist concluded one of his most famous paintings, Midsummer Eve, a watercolor based on William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The piece has the usual fantastic mood present in his work, and in this case, with a precise and detailed rendition of lighting.
Edward Robert Hughes died in April 1914, following an appendectomy. In that year, the Royal Watercolour Society decided to include 34 of his works in the yearly exhibit in his honor. It was especially significant because Hughes never had a solo art show throughout his life, and in this event, there was an entire section dedicated to his work.
"Having grown up among ardent exponents of Pre-Raphaelitism, the artistic ideals of which I share, my sympathies are reserved for that school."
- Edward Robert Hughes