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Fruits of labour

''I still work very hard at grapes and apples,'' wrote William Henry Hunt, near the end of his career, in a letter to John Linnell, ''but I wish persons would like the drawings as bits of colour instead of something nice to eat.''

Hunt and ''Friend Linnell,'' as he addresses him, had been students together in the opening years of the nineteenth century, taught by John Varley in the rudiments of eighteenth-century watercolour painting. The letter, written at the end of 1863, was characteristic of the modesty of the man.

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His small, intensely realistic pictures of grapes, apples and plums did in fact bring him considerable financial and critical success. The bloom on his fruit is rendered with a kind of miraculous and meticulous sensitivity. To make paint - and watercolour in particular - imitate the appearance of something so convincingly appealed directly to the admiration most people still feel for the sheer copying skill of an artist. He seemed completely in command of his medium and endowed with an astonishingly truthful eye. His fruit even outdoes, in some respects, today's colour photography: it re-creates not just the light reflecting off or absorbed into the surfaces of grapes or plums (or leaves, or petals) but also the very feel and subtlest substance of these things. His fruit paintings have a way of going straight to the taste buds.

His contemporary nickname, however, was not to do with fruit. It was ''Birds' Nest Hunt,'' because he also invented and pursued with inimitable virtuosity the kind of ''chunk of nature'' picture typified by ''Chaffinch's Nest With Primroses.'' In this genre, he again displays a miniaturist's capacity for unbelievably detailed naturalism, even down to the different forms and textural minutiae of mosses, lichens, rocks, feathers and what John Ruskin described as the ''silver tracery'' of the chaffinch's nest.

Recent studies have shown that Hunt was by no means solely a painter of fruit and nests. But some of his contemporaries recognized that he was much more of a painter than a naturalist. Ruskin surely appreciated his friend's watercolours as ''bits of colour'' when he made the point that ''Hunt painted mossy banks for five and twenty years, without ever caring to know a spaghnum from a polypody, and embossed and embowered his birds' eggs to a perfection . . . without enlarging his range of ornithological experience beyond the rarities of tomtit and hedge-sparrow.''

Concentration is the essence of Hunt's art, and repetition of a motif was not solely because of its patronage, but also because he persistently felt there was always more to learn. The forms of nature were the standard for art. His advice to younger artists was basically: look at nature and imitate no other artist. His own determination to do precisely this was his originality. He challenged his own abilities by the bafflingly beautiful, little particularities of his chosen subject matter, and he developed completely novel ways of using watercolour. The vivid freshness or warmth of his colour was achieved partly by applying it in minute flicks and dashes of pure hue, sometimes complementary hues, making the effect resonant by letting the eye mix the colours optically at a distance. If this sounds rather similar to the practice of the French Neo-Impressionists and Pointillists - to Seurat and Signac - then it can only be said that it was: though without their systematization. It has even been convincingly proposed, with evidence, that Seurat and Signac arrived at their conclusions partly by reading Ruskin's writing about Hunt's colour.

But one can't imagine Seurat saying, as Hunt is supposed to have done, that he felt ''really frightened every time (he sat) down to paint a flower.'' Baudelaire called Hunt a ''stubborn realist,'' and it is inarguable that his Victorian literal mindedness meant that ''reality'' - the subject in front of him - was the almost relentless dictator to which his brush had to be obedient. Seurat, conversely, began to make the visible world obedient to the painting - to the order and calm and balanced composition of his art.

Ruskin had an exaggerated way of comparing Hunt's colour favorably with the ''Venetians,'' but now it is possible to see that if there are any artistic precedents for works like ''Chaffinch's Nest With Primroses,'' they are probably more in the realm of Bewick's little black and white woodcuts, and, much further back, of the watercolours of Durer, his close-up studies of flowers, and his so-called ''Large Piece of Turf'' - that microcosm of grasses and weeds which he is supposed to have literally lifted out of the ground so that he could investigate it attentively like a still life. One of Hunt's contemporaries records that he took the same approach, and one can see that the primroses and nest are specifically chosen and arranged rather than being some chance close-up of an actual bank, like a snapshot. ''. . . if he painted a bank of primroses,'' wrote William Collingwood, ''. . . it must be there before his eyes, the piece of the bed dug out and brought to him in a barrow just as it stood. It was thus he obtained the wonderful truth and naturalness that so singularly marked his work.''

So he worked in his studio, and he did so painstakingly and very slowly. He developed a technique of mixing opaque ''Chinese white'' with gum to make a hard , bright surface like ivory, on which to glaze or touch or stipple his colours. This introduced completely new possibilities into watercolour painting. It was also taken over by the Pre-Raphaelites, even in oil, and ''the white ground'' became quite a feature of Victorian realistic painting.

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At the same time, however, as he was inventive in technique, almost slavish in his adherence to ''nature,'' and fastidious to a point of extremity in his manner or style, he was also, as Ruskin wrote to a friend, engagingly unassuming about his work. ''He is so modest that he never knows whether what he does is his own doing, I believe. I think he has a vague idea that it comes on the paper by accident.''

But if so, it was a stunningly accurate accident.

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