CREATe’s Dr Elena Cooper casts new light on Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World

Photographs by Susanna Brunetti

The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt is well known today as a famous image of the Victorian era, popular amongst both rich and poor in society. In a recent talk in Keble College Chapel, Oxford, before the original painting by Hunt, CREATe’s Dr Elena Cooper shed new light on The Light by connecting it for the first time to broader themes in copyright history. Dr Cooper considered Hunt’s decision in the 1890s, to paint a significantly larger version of The Light (now in St Paul’s Cathedral) in the context of the fraught legal debates between painters and collectors about the right of painters to produce repetitions of works they had sold (in the same medium as the original). She argued that copyright debates – which featured discussions over which types of repetition challenged the authority of the original – had an important bearing on the manner in which Hunt justified his artistic intentions in the 1890s. The presentation also examined the way in which unauthorised photographs of engravings of The Light, which contributed to the fame of the image amongst poorer sections of society, were treated in the law courts, as a means of illustrating the distinct way in which copyright infringement rules relating to artistic works intersected with notions of the public interest in the nineteenth century. The talk formed part of the Oxford Intellectual Property Research Centre Invited Speaker Series, convened by Dr Dev Gangjee. Dr Cooper is the author of Art and Modern Copyright: The Contested Image (CUP 2018), the first in-depth and longitudinal study of copyright protecting the visual arts, which was launched at the Victorian Picture Gallery, Royal Holloway, University of London last December. A film, presented by Dr Cooper, which uses nineteenth century paintings as a starting point for unravelling broader themes from copyright history, will follow later in 2019, produced by Exhibition on Screen.

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