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Frank Holl: Emerging from the Shadows

18 June - 3 November 2013

'What a knockout of a show it is'
'4 out of 5 stars'Read The Telegraph's review

'admired by Van Gogh and Queen Vic herself' Read The Guardian's review

'Frank who? Yes, the name of this Victorian artist is little known. More's the pity'
Read The Independent's review

Watts Gallery will present the first major retrospective exhibition in more than 100 years of eminent Victorian artist, Frank Holl (1845 – 1888). Widely regarded in his own lifetime as a leading figure in social realist and portrait painting, Holl’s early death meant that the artist never fully received the acclaim his work merited. For the first time, this exhibition will bring together around thirty of his major works to examine how, during his short career, the artist became a distinct and insightful voice in British painting.

Watch a short introduction to the exhibition

Francis Montague Holl was born in London in 1845 into a family of engravers. Having entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1860, the young artist achieved early notable success and won a scholarship to visit Europe for his painting The Lord Gave and the Lord Hath Taketh Away, Blessed Be the Name of the Lord (1868). But, having travelled through France, in Italy Holl resigned the scholarship, returning north. Time spent in Antwerp proved influential; Holl was moved by the glories of northern painting, experiencing works by amongst others Rembrandt and Rubens.

Back in London, Holl’s powerful portrayals of the impact of loss, departure and death attracted attention. In 1870, he was commissioned by Queen Victoria and travelled to the poor fishing village of Cullercoats to capture a community’s hard life at first-hand. Throughout his career, Holl demonstrated a profound belief in the fidelity of truth in paint, exemplified by his painting of Cullercoats for the Queen, No Tidings from the Sea (1870, Royal Collection).

In 1872, Holl joined the group of eminent artists – amongst them Luke Fildes, Hubert von Herkomer and Millais – who illustrated the newly launched The Graphic. The artist’s reputation grew; he was awarded a medal at the American Centenary Exhibition in 1876 and was admired by, amongst others, Whistler and Van Gogh, who collected several of his prints from The Graphic. Holl was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1878, on the strength of one of his most celebrated works, Newgate; committed for trial (1878, Royal Holloway).

The 1880s witnessed a change in direction for Holl. The artist stopped subject painting in favour of portraiture. This change can be seen as a response to a shift in artistic taste that occurred at the time but, significantly, it was also brought about by financial need. With a family, a studio house in London and a house in Surrey – both designed by Richard Norman Shaw – the artist had lived beyond his means.

Holl soon became an acclaimed portraitist. His portraits of Samuel Cousins and William Gladstone were greatly acclaimed and, when G.F. Watts withdrew from a commission to paint Prince Edward, Watts suggested that Holl was the man to do it. 

Elected Royal Academician in 1883, Holl’s career was at its peak. Commissions were constant and the artist would not decline. This ceaseless workload took its toll; Millais describes Holl’s “killing portraits” in a letter to the artist in his final illness (1888) having taken note of the detrimental impact this rigorous regime appeared to have on Holl’s health.

On 31 July 1888, exhausted, Holl died. The annual Old Masters’ exhibition at the Royal Academy the following year dedicated two rooms to the artist, showing more than 50 works.

Frank Holl: Emerging from the Shadows, is curated by Mark Bills and Peter Funnell. Watts Gallery is pleased to have collaborated on this exhibition with National Portrait Gallery, London and Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate.