The Poet, The Artist, and the Gnome

Paul Chapman reminisced about his friendship with poet Coventry Patmore in the October 1904 issue of The Nineteenth Century and After. Patmore was a friend of John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelite artists. In the essay, Chapman tells the curious story of an encounter between Patmore, the painter William Holman Hunt, and a gnome.

[Patmore] said that one evening he was staying in a house together with Mr. Holman Hunt. They were in a room with double folding doors, and were sitting alone together, when, looking through into the further room, which was lit up, he saw a little figure seated on the corner of the table. It was alive and looked about, and was dressed in a quaint dress with a little peaked hat shaped like a harebell, and with pointed shoes. He called Holman Hunt’s attention to the figure seen by himself, and Holman Hunt saw it equally distinctly. Taking some paper, the latter made a sketch of it exactly as it seemed to him to sit there, the sketch corresponding in every particular with Coventry Patmore’s vision of the same. On looking for it again the figure had disappeared. I remember thinking it strange that the figure was so like that of the conventional gnome of the story-books, and I suppose that my host looked on me as a child, and told me a fanciful story. But it was told in a way to impress me, with its veracity, and some time afterwards I endeavoured to find out if Mr. Holman Hunt remembered anything of the circumstance or possessed the sketch, but was told there was absolutely no foundation whatever for the story. Documentary evidence, as I think Professor Huxley once took the trouble to prove, is always absent in such cases. Happily Mr. Holman Hunt is still with us to delight us, and, should he think it worth while, could clear up the mystery.

As far as I know Holman Hunt never did clear up the mystery. Unless it was he who told Chapman that there was no foundation for the story.

This is not the only anecdote about Holman Hunt encountering a gnome. Paul Johnson relates a story told by Lord Tennyson in The Spectator:

Tennyson loved jokes, stored them up, and told them beautifully. Many were rustic items from his Lincolnshire youth. Others were modern. He said: ‘They say I write about fairies as if I knew them, and they ask, “What are fairies really like?”’ He then told the story of the New Forest gnome: Holman Hunt went into the forest to get some studies of foliage on paper. Sitting in a glade he was so absorbed in his work that he did not notice that a little brown man, not three feet high, had crept up behind him. Then he saw a little brown arm stretch out and take his bottle. He looked round, and the little brown man said eagerly: ‘Gin?’ ‘No,’ said Hunt, firmly. ‘Water.’ The little brown man vanished immediately.

Perhaps the sketch alleged by Patmore is hidden away somewhere in an archive or collection.


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