In a letter to the Gallery, Hunt said that his first object had been to paint a real shepherd and shepherdess ‘and a landscape in full sunlight, with all the colours of luscious summer’, but he also used it to highlight problems in the Church.
The Bible tells how the ‘hireling’ shepherd does not care for his flock the way a true shepherd does. Here the hired help flirts with a young lady about a silly superstition of a death’s head moth, while the sheep stray into the corn and become ‘blown’. The shepherd is likened to the clergy at the time, who neglect their pastoral duties in favour of more high-flown ideals.
Hunt used an innovative painting technique, achieving astonishing clarity and brilliance by painting over a wet, white ground. His bright colours and unflinching realism were as shocking to the public as was the perceived ‘coarse’ nature of the couple.