Monday, 19 August 2013

Frank Holl: Emerging From the Shadows (1845-1888)

Francis Montague ('Frank') Holl, by Francis Mo...
Francis Montague ('Frank') Holl, by Francis Montague ('Frank') Holl (died 1888), given to the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1932 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An excellent day out organised by London Historians to the Watts Gallery at Compton introduced us to the wonderful artist Frank Holl, it is the first major retrospective exhibition of his work in more than 100 years.

This eminent Victorian artist died  young and thankfully his great talent was recognised at an early age when he entered the Royal Academy at 15.

Holl won a travelling scholarship with his painting The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away, Blessed be the Name of the Lord a picture rarely seen and was happily loaned by my favourite Guildhall Art Gallery to ensure it saw the 'light of day' after being in storage for many years!  The trip to Italy was a turning point for the young Holl, the south did not appeal to him as he had 'an unconscious preference for the graver, greyer aspect of life'. He was at heart a northern artist in sentiment and character and comes through in much of his art.

Frank Holl used family members as models in
'The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken way'
(c) Guildhall Art Gallery

Holl began his career as a painter of subject paintings and was considered a central figure in what is known as Victorian art's social-realist movement. Often derided for their pathos and sentimentality at the end of the Victorian era. They are beautiful in their composition perhaps not the word to use to describe such heart-rending subject matter as the death of a child or parent, or the evident loss and distress of a family when the breadwinner is not coming home as in 'No Tidings from the Sea'.

The use of deep shadow and considered directional beams of glowing light enhance the melancholy emanting from the paintings, and the viewer has to admire the chirascuro and its execution. A feature of several of Holl's paintings is the symbolism of the empty pair of boots, or bare feet often in the 'viewer's face', and something that an admirer of Holl's felt drawn too in particular, Vincent Van Gogh no less!

Van Gogh had come across Holl through his work for The Graphic illustrated weekly (first edition 1869) withg ood quality wood engravings and became particularly noted for highlighting the poor of London. The editor of the magazine approached not only engravers and illustrators but fine artists too. Holl submitted many pieces and his work for The Graphic which moved him from his favoured rural depictions towards the urban scenes of poverty that were all around him in London.

Luke Fildes 'Homeless & Hungry' 1869

Frank Holl came from a family of engravers and this is likely to have influenced his style from the beginning, the hard work of the engraver, the power of black and white, dark and light. However for all his talent as social commentator he moved toward portraiture as a means to supporting his family and standard of living.

From his first tiny portrait of his brother Edgar (1860-5) to his final work of William Gladstone his talent at capturing the sitter, their energy, status and intimacy is a thing to behold. The facial features are minutely detailed, but the clothing and background has an almost impressionistic feel to them. Everything was in the face. The Gladstone portrait  is said to have exhausted him and led to his early demise at the age of 43. Holl who's nervous energy would not let him rest ensured he followed a punishing schedule of work with complete disregard of his serious heart condition, which was never known to the public at large.

Other interesting items of note Queen Victoria had wished to purchase the 'Lord gave ...' but it was already sold and the owner was not prepared to give it up. So the Queen commissioned Frank Holl to paint her another subject matter left it to him, it resulted in 'No Tidings from the Sea' a grieving woman would no doubt have suited the great Queen's own frame of mind.

For Guides who tour the Guildhall Art Gallery, you may also like to know that a certain young model posed for Holl at the age of four as the young girl holding father's hand in I am the Resurrection and the Life (The Village Funeral)'  1872 - She is Connie Gilchrist - who features in the Leighton portrait The Music Lesson (currently on tour).  Ada, Holl's daughter writes at some length about Connie in her biography of her father, 'with great sympathy for the hard-working life she led as a child model contending with a harsh mother'.  Luckily Connie was to escape to become the Countess of Orkney!

Also look out for the 'two hour' portrait, apparently all the rage in Victorian England and a rare example of what can be achieved in a short space of time by a talented portraitist.

Paul Falconer Poole, by Francis Montague ('Fra...
Paul Falconer Poole, by Francis Montague ('Frank') Holl (died 1888), given to the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1932. S(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Please do go to this exhibition it is likely to be another 100 years before another retrospective so go along, you have until 3rd November 2013 to visit!

Also another member of the London Historians has written a delightful blog (see link below) about the work of the G F Watts and his talented wife who created the extraordinary Mortuary Chapel at Compton, Guildford Surrey GU3 1DQ.

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1 comment:

  1. I warmly endorse Miss B's recommendation to visit this superb exhibition at the Watts Gallery, itself a hidden gem in the Surrey countryside but only a short bus or taxi ride from Guildford Railway Station.