Frank Holl: Emerging from the Shadows represents the first major retrospective in more than 100 years of this eminent Victorian artist.
At the 1889 annual Royal Academy Winter Exhibition ‘of works by the old masters and deceased masters of the British school’ at Burlington House, galleries four and five were set aside for a painter who had died tragically young the previous year (figs. 1, 2). The exhibition, advertised as ‘A Special Selection from the Works of Frank Holl, R.A.’, was a tribute to an artist and leading Royal Academician who had achieved a staggering reputation by the time of his death at just forty-three. William Powell Frith (1819–1909), who selected the paintings for the exhibition, noted that, such was the support for Holl, all the loans requested for the exhibition were easily obtained from the owners, who included the Queen, William Agnew, Henry Tate and numerous private collectors.
From his prizes at the Royal Academy and his first exhibition at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1864, critics and fellow painters alike noted the worth of Holl. The lithographer Thomas Way (1837–1915) wrote to J.A.M. Whistler (1834–1903) on 1 May 1880 about the Grosvenor Gallery exhibition where Holl was showing for the first time: ‘The best work is a portrait by Frank Holl who beats Millais in strength & bottles up poor Gregory [painter and illustrator] entirely.’
His social-realist drawings, which became wood engravings for The Graphic, were equally celebrated and Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) collected them. Writing to Anthon van Rappard in 1883, he said:
‘Nonetheless, I can’t resist mentioning a few prints that are absolutely matchless. For example, The foundling by Frank Holl … Then there’s a funeral, also by him, several people going into a churchyard, beautiful in sentiment. He calls that print: I am the Resurrection and the Life.’*
Since Holl’s death he has become a lesser-known figure, something that began shortly after his death and was evident in the Frank Holl Memorial Fund set up in January 1889 with the intention of buying a major work for the national collections and erecting a large monument in St Paul’s Cathedral. The subscriptions closed in June with much disappointment at the £600 raised. ‘The smallness of the fund’, reported a paper, ‘will not allow the committee to carry out the original plan of buying one of his pictures for the National Gallery.’
His early death, at a point when the art world was rapidly changing, has to a great extent robbed Holl of his rightful position as a leading portraitist alongside John Everett Millais and George Frederic Watts, and also as the most convincing Victorian painter of social realism.
Below you will see we have put together a little gallery of Holl’s portraits and narrative paintings for you to browse, while more details about the book can be found at our website. ■
*Vincent van Gogh, Letter 304, ‘To Anthon van Rappard. The Hague, on or about Thursday, 25 January 1883’. Three works by Holl preserved in Van Gogh’s estate all came from The Graphic (1872–3).
Frank Holl: Emerging from the Shadows is out now, while the exhibition the book accompanies opens at the Watts Gallery today, and runs until 3rd November.