I get great pleasure in “discovering” new artists. Today I am going to look at the life of an artist I had never previously heard of and maybe he is somebody that you have never come across before. In My Daily Art Display today I am going to look at two paintings by the English Victorian social realist painter and portraitist Frank Holl, entitled Hush and Hushed.
Frank Montague Holl was born in Kentish Town, London in 1845. His father, Francis, was a well-known engraver and Academician. His grandfather, William Holl, was also an engraver. He was brought up in a political household. His family were staunch Socialists and from an early age Holl was taught that he had a duty in life to transform society and improve it for the common people. He started his schooling at the Heath Mount School in Hampstead and at the age of fifteen he enrolled as a probationer at the Royal Academy Schools. He proved to be an exceptional student but much to the dismay of his tutors, Holl liked to add a touch of political content to his works of art. At the age of seventeen he won a silver medal for his work and the following year was awarded a gold medal and a travel scholarship for his painting entitled The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away. It was a painting that depicted a family bereavement and when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1869, the then monarch, Queen Victoria attempted to buy the painting it but the original purchaser refused to sell it. Two years later Holl painted another painting on the same theme entitled No Tidings from the Sea and on this occasion Queen Victoria purchased it for a 100 guineas. Holl set off on his travel scholarship to Italy but the journey lasted only two months, at which time he wrote to the Royal Academy saying that he wanted to return home and concentrate on his social realism paintings based on the lower working-class life in England.
Holl started exhibiting his work in 1864 when he was nineteen years of age and from 1869 onwards he was a regular contributor to the Academy Exhibitions. Many of these works were depicting the plight of the less fortunate and their pitiful existence, such as No Tidings from the Sea (1871) and Leaving Home (1873). When he completed his studies in 1869 he was employed by William Luson Thomas, a successful artist, wood engraver and social reformer, who had just founded a new weekly illustrated newspaper, called The Graphic, and was looking for a number of talented artists to illustrate it. For the following five years, Holl produced a series of pictures that were used to illustrate stories in the magazine. Among his fellow workers were Luke Fildes (see The Doctor – My Daily Art Display, May 17th 2011) and Hubert von Herkomer (see Hard Times, My Daily Art Display July 25th 2011), who like him believed passionately in the cause for political and social change. Often they would turn the engravings, which they had fashioned for the pages of The Graphic, into oil paintings. These depictions of the real life lead by the “under-class” of the nation lead them to become known as the Social Realist Movement. Although we may look upon these depictions of poverty as a welcome wake-up call to the nation, they were badly received by the Victorian establishment at the time. They viewed the works as being disloyal. The establishment and many of the people who had never suffered poverty wanted to turn a blind-eye to the suffering of the less fortunate. Their motto was “out of sight, out of mind” and frowned upon these upstart young artists who wanted to drag the social differences which existed into the public forum.
In 1879 Frank Holl had a breakthrough in his artistic career when he completed a portrait of his neighbor, the English mezzotint engraver, Samuel Cousins. The critics loved it. One wrote in a national newspaper:
“…Mr Frank Holl’s portrait of the renowned engraver Samuel Cousins R.A. is a superb work, glowing, for all the austerity of its execution, with animation and intelligence…”
In another newspaper the art critic commented:
“…Mr Frank Holl’s half-length, seated of Mr Samuel Cousins, the engraver is one of the portraits of the year and does the young artist infinite credit…”
So was Samuel Cousins delighted with the finished work? Actually, he wasn’t, saying, with an open show of vanity, that the painter had added to his years, and had made him appear too old. However notwithstanding the sitter’s comments the painting lead to numerous lucrative commissions from wealthy patrons. From that day on till the end of his life, Frank Holl never had to search out work, work searched him out. His portraiture was mainly of men, often ones who were very famous such as Gladstone and Joseph Chamberlain.
In 1888 having sent a number of his paintings to the Royal Academy for their Summer Exhibition he travelled to Spain. He had decided to spend a short period in Madrid and visit the Prado where he could study the works of the great Spanish master, Velasquez. Shortly after returning home he suffered at heart attack and died suddenly on July 31st 1888, aged just 43. His fame as an portrait artist lead to much work, in fact too much work, none of which he ever turned down. Holl continually tried to find time to paint his social realist paintings as well as his lucrative portraiture work but to do this he found himself working every day of the week. He once told his wife of the strain he was under, saying:
“…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…”
After his death his daughter commented that her father continually suffered from the nervous strain of working with such distinguished men and that this strain, in her mind, contributed to her father’s premature death.
Today’s pair of paintings entitled Hush and Hushed were completed by Frank Holl in 1877 and are now housed in the Tate Britain Gallery in London.
The setting for the two paintings is a room in a small dwelling. It is a solemn setting and the somber colours used by Holl enhance the bleak and depressing mood. One can tell by the sparse decor and bare walls that the occupants have little money. The lives of such people was a constant source for Holl’s artistic works. In the first of these paintings entitled Hush, we see before us a mother tenderly bending over the cradle of her sick child. There is a distinct look of concern and apprehension in her face. Whilst she looks into the cradle, she whispers to her other child, who stands close by, to be quiet so as not wake the infant who has finally gone to sleep. The young boy looks equally anxious about the situation. It is a typical homely scene and there is no hint of what is to follow in the companion work, Hushed.
This second work is a follow-up scene in the same room and this time we see the devastated mother gazing sorrowfully into the empty cradle where once the baby had been but had now sadly passed away. We see the mother with her hand covering her face in a sign of grief. Her other child leans against a cupboard with his hands clasped in front of him. He looks at his grieving mother but has no idea what to do to console her.
These are extremely moving works of art and in a way Holl has handled them without resorting to sentimentality. The paintings were meant for people to understand the problems faced by those who were imprisoned by poverty and suffered the fates that accompanied such financial destitution. Infant mortality was high in 19th century and it is estimated 1 in 5 children died before their fifth birthday. Infant mortality had always been high and much of it could be because of the lack of sanitation and general hygiene especially amongst the poor. However in those days, the well-off were not immune to such early deaths, as it was also a period when consumption and cholera accounted for many young deaths.