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Stained Glass


Light of the World


The Beatles came along at a propitious time. Copyright existed, royalties existed and they were able to reap the fair share of the earnings from their creative efforts. True, the cassette recorder was arriving on the scene but the sound quality was nothing like the real thing. Had they come along ten years later they would probably be out on the circuit again faking enthusiasm for a geriatric crowd who would not let them alter a note of what they created in the audience’s youth. That is because the mass media of the internet and pirate downloads dried up the royalties so you had to pull yourself out of a well-earned retirement to earn money from your creative work by ticket sales and merchandising. Copyright laws allowed creative people to earn a living from their work for a good part of last century. But things are much harder now.

Back in the nineteenth century, painters could do little to protect or earn from the images they created unless they also had some skills in marketing. Holman Hunt was a talented English painter working in the Pre-Raphaelite style. One of his paintings captured the public imagination in a big way. Called Light of the World it showed Jesus with a lantern in a dark landscape about to knock on a door. The image was soon copied by the mass image reproduction tool of the day – the black and white engraving - and in this form it spread across the world with no recompense to its original creator. There was something about this image that gave it both a high-culture and a mass-culture appeal. Before long there was hardly a vestry or Sunday School in the civilized world that didn’t have a bootleg copy of The Light of the World hanging on the wall. And, of course, as any good British subject of the time would tell you, the civilized world was restricted to those communities that had vestries. Holman Hunt reworked his painting and finally made a third version. It was this third version that was sent on a tour of the colonies. Canada was lukewarm, but Australia was different – and particularly Melbourne. Most people knew of the painting from pale reproductions but none had seen it in its full colours. Exhibitions were set up in a darkened room with a bright light emphasizing Christ’s lantern. Expectations were carefully built until the time of arrival. The viewing was subtly promoted as much as a spiritual experience as an artistic one.

In Melbourne people broke through the barriers and women fainted. That may sound familiar. However it is worth remembering that when The Beatles visited Melbourne, a tiny proportion of the population greeted them at the airport or cheered them in Exhibition Street. By the time ‘The Light of the World Tour’ had finished it is estimated that 4 million people had come to see it and most declared to have been profoundly affected by it At that stage, Australia’s population was 5 million which must give that tour some credentials as being bigger than The Beatles.

The ecstatic reception from Australia, but Melbourne in particular helped restore Holman Hunt’s waning status in Britain. In fact it could perhaps be argued that it is because of Melbourne that both the third version of The Light of the World and Holman Hunt himself can now be found in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral – the former above ground, the latter below.

  • Holman Hunt - Light of the World
    Light of the World
  • Crowds in the Stawell Gallerry, Melbourne, to view Light of The World
    Gallery crowds

Seven Melbourne Events that were Bigger Than The Beatles - overview

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