Frank Holl

(4 July 1845 - 31 July 1888)


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Francis Montague Holl, known as Frank Holl, painter, born on 4 July 1845, at No. 7 St. James's Terrace, Kentish Town, was the eldest son of Francis Holl [q. v.], engraver. He was a delicate boy, and was not at first sent to school. Descended from a family of engravers he showed almost from infancy a passion for drawing. His chief amusement as a child was to draw and colour in the engraving studio of his father, who overlooked and corrected his work. At the age of nine he was sent to a school at Heath Mount, Hampstead, kept by Mr. Ray, and spent his half-holidays in drawing the scenery round the playground. He was afterwards sent to University College School, and remained there till he was fifteen. He still devoted his half-holidays to drawing, and thus prepared a chalk drawing for the probationership at the Royal Academy, which proved successful. After his admission as a student in 1861, he regularly attended the Royal Academy schools. He gained two silver medals there, one for a drawing from the antique in 1862, and one in 1863 for a study from the life, and in 1863, he also obtained the gold medal for historical painting.

Holl had previously painted his first picture, ‘A Flower Girl sitting under the columns of Hanover Church, Regent Street, London.’ It was undertaken for Mr. Schofield of Manchester, who gave him a commission to paint another called ‘Turned out of Church.’ Holl first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1864, when he sent ‘Turned out of Church’ and a portrait of himself. He was henceforth until his death a regular exhibitor each year, except in 1875. During 1866 he passed his autumn at Bettws y Coed, North Wales. Interiors of Welsh peasants' cabins are found in several of his later pictures. While yet a youth his genius was discerned by the older artists who were friends of his father, Paul Falconer Poole, R.A., Francis William Topham, Thomas Danby, William Wood Deane, and others, and he was admitted into a little private club of theirs. Devoted to music, he was an excellent amateur performer on the piano.

In 1868, he gained the travelling studentship at the Royal Academy by his picture of ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ The picture was exhibited in 1869, and made a great impression on the public. The queen wished to buy it, but it was already sold to another collector, Mr. F. C. Pawle. He spent a few months of the spring of 1869 abroad, but his sympathy was entirely with home subjects, and, returning to England, he resigned his travelling studentship.

In 1871 Holl exhibited ‘No Tidings from the Sea,’ a commission from the queen. On 10 February 1872 he produced, as a double-page illustration for the Graphic, ‘At a Railway Station -- A Study.’ He subsequently painted this subject both in oil and water-colour, and called it ‘Leaving Home.’ The oil-painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1873, and is now the property of Mrs. Hill. In 1873 he painted ‘Want -- the Pawnbroker's Shop,’ a young woman with an infant in her arms pawning her wedding-ring; a replica of the woman and child only was painted for Mrs. W. W. Deane. From 1874 to 1876 he was regularly engaged on work for the Graphic and on the twenty-four illustrations for Anthony Trollope's Phineas Redux (London, 1874).

Holl virtually began portrait-painting in 1876 with a portrait of Mr. G. C. Richardson. He had undertaken the work on condition that if it proved unsatisfactory to himself the sitter should allow him to destroy it. The picture was exhibited in 1878 with one entitled ‘Newgate -- Committed for Trial,’ which is now in the Royal Holloway College, Egham. In the same year he was elected A.R.A., and his election was largely due to the merits of his portrait. John Prescott Knight, R.A., recommended him to turn portrait-painter, and his father confirmed Knight's view. At his father's suggestion he painted a portrait of Samuel Cousins, R.A., the celebrated engraver. C ousins did not like the portrait, but when it was exhibited in 1879. its excellence was appreciated by the public, and from that time forward Holl, although he did not altogether abandon subject-painting, was inundated with commissions for portraits. On 26 March 1883, he was elected an associate of the Royal Society of Painters in Water-colours, and exhibited at their summer exhibition ‘Leaving Home,’ the only water-colour picture he is known to have exhibited. On 29 March 1883 he was elected R.A.

From 1879 until his death, in 1888, Holl painted 198 portraits, including almost all the celebrated men of the day. His portraits of the Prince of Wales (two), the Duke of Cambridge, his father, Cousins, Captain Sim, Sir James Bacon, the Duke of Cleveland, Signor Piatti, Sir Horace Jones, Sir W. Jenner, Sir Henry Rawlinson, Sir George Stephen, and Lord Spencer, are all admirable; the last, which was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1888, is perhaps the best example of his art. His only female portraits, besides that of his daughter Madeline in the picture called ‘Did you ever kill anybody, Father?’ 1884 (now the property of Mr. F. C. Tonks); were those of Miss Tonks and Miss Harvey. The latter picture (now the property of the Rev. Alfred J. Harvey) was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the winter of 1889.

Holl was of an anxious temperament, and the strain of continuous work told upon his health. He lived chiefly in London, but spent much time in his favourite county of Surrey, and at Gomshall. Mr. Norman Shaw, R.A., built a house for him in 1885. In April 1888, after his pictures were painted for the exhibitions, he went, on medical advice for a few weeks to Spain, but his health was not permanently improved. On 14 July he was taken ill with disease of the heart, and died on 31 July, at his house in Fitzjohn's Avenue, London (designed for him by Mr. R. Norman Shaw in 1881–2). He was buried at Highgate cemetery on 7 August.

Velazquez and Rembrandt were Holl's favourite old masters, but he was sensible of the grace and refinement of Vandyck, whom in a few portraits, like those of Lord Spencer and Sir George Stephen, he approached. He held the first place among contemporary portrait-painters, and probably no portrait-painter of any age has executed so much first-rate work in so short a time. His pictures gained medals at Philadelphia and Melbourne, and he was asked to paint his own portrait for the Uffizi gallery at Florence, but did not live to undertake it.

Holl's subject-pictures illustrate his strong religious feeling and his deep sympathy with the miseries and sorrows of the poor. In private life he was always ready to do all he could to relieve distress. Wealthy in later life, and courted by the leaders of society, the cordiality of his relations with early and less fortunate friends never changed.

Holl married, in 1867, Annie Laura, daughter of Charles Davidson, the well-known water-colour painter, whom he met during his stay in Wales in 1866. His widow and four daughters, Ada, Olive, Madeline, and Phillis, survived him. The portrait of himself which he painted in 1884 for Mr. J. Macdonald of Aberdeen, is too frowning. An excellent sketch of him at work by M. Renouard was given in the Universal Review, 15 August 1888.

Holl exhibited ninety-one pictures in all at the Royal Academy. These include, besides those already mentioned,
1865 ‘A Fern-gatherer’
1866 ‘The Ordeal’ (the property of Mrs. Harry Stewart)
1867 ‘Convalescent’ and ‘Faces in the Fire’ (the property of Miss Gertrude Agnew)
1868 ‘Francis Holl, Esq.’
1870 ‘Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith’ (Proverbs, xv. 17)
1871 ‘Winter’
1872 ‘A Milkmaid’ and ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’ (the property of Mr. John Akroyd);
1873 ‘Leaving Home’
1874 ‘Deserted’
1876 ‘Her First-born’
1877 ‘Going Home’
1879 ‘The Gifts of the Fairies’ (the property of Mr. F. C. Pawle), ‘Signor Piatti’, ‘The Daughter of the House’, and ‘Absconded’
1880 five portraits and ‘Ordered to the Front’ (the property of Sir Thomas Lucas, bart.);
1881 ‘Home Again’ (also the property of Sir T. Lucas),
and four portraits, including Major-general Sir Henry Rawlinson, K.C.B., and the Rev. Edward Hartopp Cradock, D.D. (now at Brasenose College, Oxford);
1882 seven portraits, including Lieutenant-general Sir Frederick Sleigh Roberts, painted for the queen;
1883 eight portraits, including Lord Wolseley, the Duke of Cambridge, and John Bright;
1884 seven portraits, including the Prince of Wales (for the Middle Temple) and Viscount Cranbrook;
1885 eight portraits, including Viscount Hampden, as speaker of the House of Commons, William Connor Magee, bishop of Peterborough (afterwards archbishop of York), and the Marquis of Dufferin);
1886 six portraits, including the Duke of Cleveland, Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, M.P., and Sir J. E. Millais, bart., R.A.;
1887 eight portraits; and
1888 eight portraits, including the Prince of Wales, as an elder brother of the Trinity House, Earl Spencer, Sir William Jenner, bart., and Mr. W. E. Gladstone.
Twenty-four of Holl's portraits were exhibited at the Grosvenor gallery between 1880 and 1888. Holl's portrait of John Bright, painted in 1887, is at the Reform Club.

Fifty-four of Holl's chief pictures were exhibited at the Royal Academy in the winter of 1889. A committee was formed in January 1889 to place a memorial-tablet to Holl's memory in St. Paul's Cathedral, and to purchase some of his works for the National Portrait Gallery.

[Books of the Royal Academy, Royal Society of Painters in Water-colours, and University College School; Royal Academy and Grosvenor Gallery Catalogues (esp. Cat. of Royal Academy Winter Exhibition, 1889); articles in the Times, 7 January 1889; Daily Telegraph, Standard, Pall Mall, 1 and 2 August 1888; Illustrated London News and Graphic, 4 and 11 August 1888; Hampstead and Highgate Express, 4 August 1888, Universal Review, 15 August 1888; Athenæum, 4 August 1888.]


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