Frank Holl RA: Van Gogh’s Favourite British Painter?

Francis Montague Holl was unquestionably one of the most gifted and influential artists of the 19th century. To my mind his decency and depth of feeling as a human being only elevates his reputation still further. In an era long before social security, the national health service, free education, and assisted housing Frank Holl was one of the few public figures to spare more than just a passing charitable thought to the millions all about him living in abject poverty.

It is perhaps hard today to truly imagine what the predominant attitude to poverty was back then but I think it can be accurately summed up in a single sentence; if you are poor, you only have yourself to blame. The comfortably-off of Victorian London where only too eager to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the human tragedy playing out around them. This was an epic conspiracy of silence that condemned millions to death. Anyone in any doubt as to the extent of this shameful denial should seek out the original – now redacted – lyrics of Cecil Frances Alexander’s famous hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ published in 1848:

The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

God made them, high and lowly,

And order’d their estate.

In other words, brethren: ‘Poor men of Britain, you have no work and your wives and children are dying of starvation because that is what God wants’. Charming.

But thanks to the efforts of the Church and the other great British institutions of the time this is what many people truly (or at least conveniently) believed. A man of conscience and compassion, Frank Holl meanwhile made it his mission to confront this laissez-faire conceit by using one of the unmissable dates of the London Season – the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition – to bring the great and powerful of Victorian Britain face-to-face with the inconvenient truth, presenting them with beautiful paintings of troubling images and the talent behind them, like the message within them, was unavoidable. With his ground-breaking survey of 1851 – ‘London Labour and the London Poor’ – Henry Mayhew had put the previously unheard cries of London into words, now Frank Holl and others like him would put them into pictures. In journalistic terms, Holl was Fiz to Mayhew’s Boz.

It makes me despair today when I hear people dismissing social realist paintings of the 19th century as “Victorian sentimentalism”. We’re not talking Myles Birket Foster here, these aren’t pretty pictures of make-believe maidens standing in cottage gardens waiting for their sweethearts, these are monumental works capturing heart-rending moments in the lives of real people, and consequently of huge artistic and historical significance.

Frank Holl was born in 1845 and aged fifteen he became a student at the Royal Academy schools. Whilst still a pupil he began producing the kind of provocative subject paintings which were to become his trademark, a radical decision for a hopeful young painter just starting out and the very opposite of the traditional history pictures his tutors expected him to paint. But Holl wasn’t just another gifted student – he was a nascent genius whose gifts were obvious and difficult to deny.

Aged 19 he had his first two paintings accepted by the Royal Academy; a now famous self-portrait and a subject picture entitled ‘Turned Out of Church’. Holl’s prodigious talent quickly won important admirers. When Queen Victoria herself tried to purchase Holl’s painting ‘The Lord Gave, and the Lord Hath Taken Away’ the original purchaser declined the offer and refused to sell, and saying no to the most powerful woman on earth wasn’t something done lightly back in 1869! Subsequently Her Majesty commissioned Holl to paint another work depicting a subject of his own choosing. The result was ‘No Tidings from the Sea’, for which Victoria paid 100 Guineas.

In 1869 a new weekly news magazine was published called The Graphic, edited by social reformer William Luson Thomas. In the days before affordable photography publications like The Graphic and the Illustrated London News used prints of wood engravings to illustrate their articles. The 1871 Holl was invited to join other future Royal Academicians Luke Fildes and Hubert Herkomer and submit images for the magazine. An assignment for The Graphic prompted Holl to paint one of his most famous works, ‘Newgate: Committed for Trial’. When it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1878 it was – like the pictures of Fildes and Herkomer – considered deeply shocking and roundly attacked by many critics of the day who believed “there is little in a theme of such grovelling misery to recommend it to a painter whose purpose is beauty!”

Meantime, a portrait he had also submitted resulted in a mountain of new commissions from wealthy clients wanting their pictures painted. Portraiture was experiencing of a surge in popularity with the newly monied Middle Classes and Holl, who was now a husband and father, decided like Fildes and Herkomer that he couldn’t afford to turn-down such lucrative commissions.

Holl though couldn’t abandon what was his calling and worked incessantly on as many pictures as he could paint – some for love, others for money. As he admitted to his wife; “Hunger for work is always on me and it is when I cannot satisfy this hunger that I get so worn out. If only I could banish my tormenting conscience for work. But that never lets me alone, and if I do nothing I feel of no use.”

Frank Holl died in 1888 at the age of forty-three, the cause of death given at the time was ‘overwork’, but it is likely he had always had a congenital heart condition. According to his daughter and biographer: “It is not too much to say that my father threw his life away by his utter inability to rest from work.”

So many names now revered in the art world were enormous admirers of Frank Holl. Vincent van Gogh – today arguably the most famous painter in the world – considered him a Master, and whilst living in London fastidiously cut out and collected Holl’s engravings published in The Graphic. Everyone even remotely interested in art should take some time to read the fascinating letters of Van Gogh (sent to his brother Theo and friend Anthon van Rappard). One name mentioned reverentially again and again is that of Frank Holl.


by Gavin Claxton © Academy Fine Paintings Ltd 2020