Saturday, 6 July 2013

Drag Me to Holl!

Come on, I have an entire bevy of Holl/Hell puns, because today the Walker family went to Holl and back and here is my review...

Self Portrait (1863) Frank Holl

In many ways, Frank Holl is much like Thomas Hardy.  Both seem to carry around a reputation of being unrelentingly bleak and miserable doom-pushers, but that reputation is ill-gained in both cases.  Certainly Holl supplied some of the classic knuckle-biters of the Victorian era but Frank Holl: Emerging From the Shadows attempts to give a more complete picture of an artist who packed a great deal into his relatively short life.  The Watts Gallery at Compton has given us the first major retrospective for more than 100 years and it is a brilliant chance to see arguably the best social realist and portrait painter of his generation.

Francis Holl (the artist's Father)
Frank Holl was born in 1845 to a family of notable engravers. Frank entered the Royal Academy at 15 and achieved success and a scholarship to Europe.  Painting scenes of loss and mourning during a period of national grief brought attention, even from the Queen who commissioned images of Cornish fishing life, replete with uncertainty, loss and hardship.

No Tidings From The Sea
This had a splendidly Pre-Raphaelite frame, very reminiscent of Rossetti, which almost distracted me from the sobbing.  For more Cornish Village jollity, may I recommend my post on the subject *Sob!*, but good old Holl didn't limit himself to just Cornish despair and spread it around a bit.  Possibly the highlight of the first room is this little gem...

The Lord Gave and the Lord Hath Taken Away (1868)
Hurrah!  Sorry, anyway, this is a magnificently sob-worthy image where someone is obviously a bit dead and there is a scary vicar round for tea. Also, someone has nicked the poor lass' chair.  There was a great amount of debate over what in God's name is going on here - possibly the death of one or more parents as all the people around the table seem to be of a similar age (apart from Chairless Lil).  There is a lurking crone in the background but I assume she is a servant rather than anyone's Mum.  I bet she's down in the Census as 'Lurking Crone'.

The Wide Wide World
Gosh, I loved this because there is no end of picking that can be done: she's a young widow, she's poor, she's under a sign saying '3rd Class' (nice), and there is a load of ripped up paper near her feet.  Does she want escape but can't afford it?  Has a gust of wind just taken all the receipts out her bag (been there)? Is she just trying to work out how much money she needs for both a Flake and a Diet Coke?  Actually, although it is easy to think she is concerned over her money I think she actually is more worried about the uncertainty that now surrounds her.  I think she's worried that she does have enough money and therefore has no excuse not to go on her way, third class though it is.

Head of a Welsh Fisherwoman
Despite the glorious range of misery on offer, including some rather pretty Seamstresses, stitching their miserable existence into dresses, my favourite picture of the whole lot was this tiny Head of a Welsh Fisherwoman.  She has such a stunning expression, so alive and immediate, that I took to her as much as Holl obviously did.  He used her face in many of his pictures and she was a striking, rather feral-looking lassy, and if this little oil sketch is anything to go by, she had the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen.  Almost distracts you from the oncoming train of dry-sobbing into a bloodstained hankie over an empty cradle by some fisherman's nets. Almost.

1879 was a turning point for Holl.  He did his first serious portrait of an engraver called Samuel Cousins and this started a second career as a very successful portraitist.

Samuel Cousins (1879)
I had completely missed that he did one of my favourite formal portraits from the later Victorian period.  No-one does a grumpy old chap like Holl, take a look at this one...

William Schwenck Gilbert (1886)

As some of you will know (and I will elaborate in a later post, I promise) I am a huge fan of G&S or Gilbert and Sullivan, the creators of some fabulous light operas of the Victorian period.  Arthur Sullivan did the music and William Gilbert did the libretto, or 'the words' (I was using a posh word to impress you).  I have done a fair number of them in my time from Pirates of Penzance (I was the daughter who had a homely face and bad complexion) to an over-excitable fairy in Iolanthe.  I started when I was really quite young so consequently I have quite an impressive lung capacity (I'm just flirting with you now).  Anyhow, William Gilbert always struck me as a bluff old codger full of mad ideas and that's how Holl makes him look.

There is one portrait I found while searching out the images for this which I wish they had used, but of course you can't have all of his portraits and maybe they asked and it wasn't available or maybe they thought they shouldn't pander to me and my problems.  I've put it in here because I have never felt so frightened and rather curious all at once while looking at a picture.  I better not say any more, here it is, make your own mind up and don't judge me.  Only God and my close friends can judge me (because they have to spend time with me, so really, that's their pay off)...

Major General Sir Herbert Stewart (1886)
God, the emails I'll get for that one.  Moving on...

One of the most touching image has to be Gone...

Gone (1877)
In some ways this image brings together a lot of Holl's themes and emotions.  There is a lovely quote next to it in the gallery (excuse me if I took it down wrong, but you'll get the idea) 'Death and Absence differ but in name'.  While not exactly heartwarming, it did strike me as a beautiful way of summing up the predicament of many of the women in Holl's art.  The women in Gone have said goodbye to their husbands at the docks in Liverpool but who knows who will survive before they can be together?  Less pressingly obvious than the perils of being a fisherman, Gone highlights that everyday may bring changes, some temporary, some permanent.  It is rather a poignant that Frank Holl died in 1888 at the age of 43, gone before he really reached his true height of fame.  The idea that someone leaving could well be permanent can also be turned on its head and say that by capturing someone on canvas, they will never die.  The weeping women will always be there, but so will William Gilbert and Holl, looking young and a little belligerent at 18.  In the end, I found that Holl was less about misery but more about the endless pause of eternity where I can look forever at a moment of someone's life.  If you ever think that Holl shows us a moment that is too miserable to enjoy, then think, this is but a moment.

Frank Holl: Emerging From the Shadows is on at the Watts Gallery until 3rd November.


  1. "Almost distracts you from the oncoming train of dry-sobbing into a bloodstained hankie over an empty cradle by some fisherman's nets." I laughed so hard I spat out my tea, so thank you very much.

    As for Major General Sir Herbert Stewart, he looks like he'd thrash some of that '50 Shades' twaddle out of us. Make us count the strokes, too...

  2. Thanks for your comments. Yes, I did think the Major General would make the exhibition more 50 Shades of Holl than it needed to be. I've never seen anyone look so unhinged in a portrait before.

    I bet he *would* make you count the strokes. Lawks.

  3. I think it's that The Major General has commissioned such an informal portrait - his jacket's unbuttoned, he's taken his gloves off, and he's staring straight out at you, flexing that cane....

    Oh dear, I've come over all previousl. "One..... two...... threeeeeeeeeeeek!!!!!!!!"

  4. Ha! Let me just make the situation worse by mentioning it's a posthumous portrait.
    My word....

    Freyalyn, have a glass of water and a brisk walk immediately!

  5. Dear Kirsty
    Fascinating post as always. I am a huge G and S fan and was also one of the daughters (Edith) in Pirates. In fact, I met my lovely husband when we were both in The Gondoliers (he was a principal - Giuseppe - and I was a chorus member but sang a few little solo bits). Happy days!
    Incidentally, I just read this post to Chris who hooted with laughter!
    Best wishes

  6. Thank you for your comments! I was about 12 when I did Pirates I think, possibly 13. I loved doing the Mikado as the costumes were so beautiful, even if the wig itched like a good 'un. Happy days :)

    Glad you all enjoyed the review....

  7. Thanks for such an entertaining and intelligent review. Those portraits are stunning, especially the one of his dad. I cant quite make out what's going on in the background of "Gone" but the figures are very reminiscent of some of Sargent's pictures of Venetian women, though looking at the dates the influence is more likely to have been the other way around. Either way I will be scheduling another visit to Compton in the near future.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx