On display

Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1868)

Isabella and the Pot of Basil is a painting completed in 1868 by William Holman Hunt depicting a scene from John Keats's poem of the same name. It depicts the heroine Isabella caressing the basil pot in which she had buried her murdered lover Lorenzo's severed head.

The painting portrays Isabella, unable to sleep, dressed in a semi-transparent nightgown, having just left her bed, which is visible with the cover turned over in the background. She drapes herself over an altar she has created to Lorenzo from an elaborately inlaid prie-dieu over which a richly embroidered cloth has been placed. On the cloth is the majolica pot, decorated with skulls, in which Lorenzo's head is interred. Her abundant hair flows over the pot and around the flourishing plant, reflecting Keats's words that Isabella "hung over her sweet Basil evermore,/And moistened it with tears unto the core."

The emphasis on sensuality, rich colours and elaborate decorative objects reflects the growing Aesthetic movementand similar features in the work of Hunt's Pre-Raphaelite associates John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, such as Millais's Pot Pourri and Rossetti's Venus Verticordia. The pose of the figure also resembles Thomas Woolner's sculpture Civilization, which was partly modelled by Fanny's sister Alice.