Making a drama into a tragedy
How Victorian painter Frank Holl looked into women’s hearts.
Review by Corinna Lotz
The remarkable Watts Gallery, deep in the Surrey hills, continues to surprise with the imaginative quality of its offerings.
In plucking Victorian painter Frank Holl from obscurity, outgoing curator Mark Bills and his team have opened up a window on a time when a major group of artists tackled the social problems of the day.
Many were associated with the new picture magazine, The Graphic, which first appeared in December 1869. This socially-conscious rival to the Illustrated London News, encouraged not only the usual engravers and illustrators but also new fine artists.
Outstanding contributors included not only Holl, but Luke Fildes, Hubert von Herkomer and John Everett Millais and writers like George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope and H Rider Haggard. Vincent Van Gogh was a great admirer of these illustrations.
A bit of a child prodigy, Holl won a prestigious Royal Academy travelling scholarship in 1868 for his painting “The Lord Giveth and the Lord Hath Taken Away”. It is a bleak scene of a family in mourning for their lost father.
The founding of The Graphic by William Luson Thomas came at a dramatic moment in the artist’s life. It provided not only a steady job but a greater sense of social purpose. It allowed him a vehicle to express his “sympathy with misfortune” (Marion Spielmann writing in The Graphic).
Contributing regularly for the magazine forced Holl, as his daughter Ada noted, “to steady his aim, to concentrate his forces, fix his purpose, and enable him to finish and carry right through that which he began”. This discipline, she believed, was “the making of the man”.
Holl made his unforgettable depictions of what can only be described as doom and gloom, largely during the 1870s. “Holl just didn’t do happy”, new Watts curator Nicholas Tromans notes wryly. He specialised in bringing to light the harsh realities of life for girls and women in the poorer classes just as industrial capitalism was transforming urban life.
In working for The Graphic Holl developed a powerful sense of narrative together with a economy of means. His wood engraving, “Gone – Euston Station” (1876) brings to life the moment of departure as women mourn their husbands, gone to Liverpool to catch the ships for emigration. It is a real event at a specific time and place.
But like French artists before him, Honore Daumier and Jean-Francois Millet – also admired by Van Gogh – Holl’s best paintings have a timeless sense of classical tragedy.
By bringing together Holl’s outstanding depictions of a fisherman’s family in Criccieth, Wales, where he returned year after year, we can see how deeply he was attached to a single family. Four paintings, all made in 1877, all have the same small window, the light falling dramatically from the left. It barely picks out the greys, pale blues and stark wooden furniture. A few simple plates stand on the window sill.
The latest in the series, Hope, shows the same strong mother figure, this time with four children who share her sense of apprehension. These Welsh paintings are stark and simple in comparison with Holl’s grander narratives like his cinematic Newgate, Committed for Trial.
By the 1880s, taste in art was changing. Anti-sentimentalism and the Aesthetic movement began to take hold. Holl became part of the artistic elite in London who had prestigious, purpose-built studio homes. His extravagant house, Three Gables in Hampstead’s Fitzjohn’s Avenue, was designed by fashionable architect Norman Shaw centred on a gigantic studio. He moved there in 1882, a far cry from his Camden Town origins.
Funding Three Gables and his second home in Shere, Surrey was a massive financial commitment. That year, he increased his submissions to the Royal Academy from six to sixteen paintings. He refused to turn down any commissions and the workload took its toll. In July 1888, Holl became ill and died, aged only 43.
In the beautiful exhibition book, Mark Bills argues strongly for a distinction between the sentimental and what he terms Holls’ “tragically emotive” style, which rejects a maudlin or an indulgent approach.
Holl's subject paintings, together with a major group of male portraits, brought together from galleries around the country as well as the Royal Collection, allow us to appreciate not only a particular Victorian moment, but the contribution of an artist rescued from the shadows of history.
9 August 2013