Frank Holl RA (1845-1888)

‘Seldom has swifter or smoother progress to distinction fallen to the lot of an painter than athat which Mr. Frank Holl’s career shows us…At the early age of fifteen he entered the schools of the Royal Academy…And from the day, two years later, when he gained his first distinction… to the year 1878, when he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, and to the year 1883, when he was elected to full membership, his advance has been steady, from success to success…’

And he was dead just five years later. Frank Holl was born in Kentish Town, London, son of an engraver, Francis Holl, and received his earliest training from his father, before going to the RA Schools in 1860 and following the swift path to success outlined in the quote above. He made his name painting the poor suffering, and as such was one of the leading members of the school of Social Realism, along with Hubert von Herkomer and Luke Fildes. Between 1872-76, and sporadically thereafter, he contributed illustrations to the Graphic, excellent and intense works with strong effects of light and shade and modelling of the figures. Some of these were later worked up as oil paintings. Apart from the Graphic, his other illustrative work did not rise to anything too special.

Later on, as he became more successful, Holl turned to portraiture, almost entirely of men, and he was considered one of the best portraitists of his time. Among his sitters were the artists Millais and John Tenniel, and also William Agnew the auctioneer, Chamberlain, Gladstone, and Jenner. He moved to a fine house in Hampstead, and the future looked bright, until his untimely death at the age of just 43 – an illness, by general agreement thought to have been induced by overwork.

Widowed - an illustration

Among his social realist paintings, a pair was in the original collection of Henry Tate, and are now in Tate Britain - Hush and Hushed (1871), the first showing a mother quieting her young son for the benefit of a sick baby, the second with the mother distraught, the baby having died. Grim indeed. In Leeds City Art Gallery is the Village Funeral (1872), with stunned disbelief on the face of father and sisters of the deceased; a similar work is Her Firstborn in Dundee. The well-known Song of the Shirt is in Exeter, and most famous of all, worked up from a Graphic illustration, is Newgate – Committed for Trial in Royal Holloway College. A grieving woman and child, entitled Despair is in Southampton, and another picture of poverty, called Gone is in the Geffrye Museum in London. Among portraits, several are in the National Portrait Gallery, and we may also mention Millais, which was Holl’s picture deposited at the Royal Academy in the Diploma gallery, and the excellent picture of Captain Hill which for many years hung in the Brighton Art Gallery on the back staircase, though the label had dropped off and it was called simply ‘Bearded figure’ in the catalogue. And one abroad – the portrait of the artist’s daughter as a pretty but unwell child, pampered in her bed with pictures, an orange, flowers, and a parrot, under the title Daughter of the House in Melbourne.

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