- Extended catalogue entry
© National Portrait Gallery, London
by Francis Montague ('Frank') Holl
Oil on canvas, 1863
21 5/8 in. x 16 7/8 in. (550 mm x 430 mm)
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Inscriptionback to top
Signed and dated lower left: ‘novr.1863 / .F.H.’
On back of stretcher, inscr. in ink on lower bar: ‘Painted in the year 1863’ [formerly read as ‘Painted in August 1863’];
small round label inscr.: ‘16’.
Labels removed from back of portrait in 1932 (now in NPG RP 2531):
(a) inscr. in ink: ‘Portrait of Frank Holl when a boy / Lent by permission of / his mother Mrs Holl Senr. / … March 4th / Elm House / Milford’.
(b) for Royal Academy Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters, 1899, inscr.: ‘Frank Holl R.A. / Portrait of the painter at 18 / Mrs Francis Holl / Elm House, Milford Godalming’.
(c) for The Victorian Exhibition, New Gallery, 1891–2, inscr.: ‘Frank Holl by himself / at the age of eighteen / Mrs Frank Holl / Reg. No. 205-1’.
This portraitback to top
Frank Holl first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1864 with a subject picture (526) and ‘A portrait’ (145), which has been identified as NPG 2531. It attracted much interest, especially when it was realized how young the artist was. Holl’s daughter wrote:
The picture [no.526] was well hung and favourably noticed but a head portrait of himself which he exhibited at the same time drew much attention to the young painter as being far above the ordinary level of students’ work. The late John Pye, the then eminent engraver, being very much struck with the work, wrote to the boy’s father, asking him to bring his son to see him […] Unfortunately, when the invitation was received, my father was ill in bed from the effects of a strain at cricket […] the crusty old gentleman, doubtless considering that his condescension had not been sufficiently appreciated, wrote retracting the offer, afterwards even refusing to see the boy when he called to explain and apologize.
The portrait was painted in 1863, when Holl was eighteen and had won RA Schools silver and gold medals. The portrait is a remarkably mature exercise in self-scrutiny, and the dark, tonal palette one that he favoured all his life. The scale is also significant. Years later, in an address to art students in 1888, he stressed the importance of working large: ‘I strongly advise you never to neglect the opportunity of painting heads life size. It is the greatest possible practice in your art that you can have […] I don’t think I can impress upon you too strongly the great advantage you will find to taking every opportunity of painting these life-sized heads’.
Professional portrait painting came relatively late in Holl’s brief career, however. His portrait of Samuel Cousins (exh. RA 1879) was the turning point after which he became increasingly interested in this branch of art. A.M. Reynolds also cites an influential visit to Holland and his discovery of Rembrandt in 1881. Some reviewers were critical of this departure, and friends such as Luke Fildes rallied round when the Telegraph criticized the move away from subject painting. As well as NPG 2531 there are a further eight portraits by Holl at the NPG.
The early self-portrait had sentimental value for the family. It belonged to Holl’s widowed mother after his death, and later to his brother Edgar whose widow offered it to the NPG in 1932. It was shown soon after Holl’s death, in 1889 and 1891 (see ‘Exhibitions’) but apparently was not reproduced. Nor was it illustrated in A.M. Reynolds’s biography (1912) or subsequently, and it remains a little-known gem of mid-Victorian portraiture.
Footnotesback to top
1) ‘Holl first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1864, when he sent “Turned out of Church” and a portrait of himself’; Aitchison 1891.
2) Reynolds 1912, pp.22–3.
3) Address to Sutton Coldfield Art Classes, 14 Jan. 1888; cited Reynolds 1912, pp.335–6.
4) Reynolds 1912, p.197–8.
5) Fildes 1968, pp.86–7.
6) NPG 1604, J. Chamberlain; NPG 1751, S. Cousins; NPG 2466, Sir E. Fry; NPG 2911, Sir W.S. Gilbert; NPG 2530, F. Holl snr; NPG 1410, Sir J.W. Huddleston; NPG 2532, P.F. Poole, NPG 1596, Sir J. Tenniel.
7) Two other portraits by Holl were also accepted: NPG 2530, F. Holl snr and NPG 2532, P.F. Poole.
8) The portrait has been on display at Bodelwyddan Castle, Denbighshire, since 1988.
Physical descriptionback to top
Head-and-shoulders to left, looking at viewer, prominent blue eyes, floppy brown hair, white collar, purple necktie held by gold tie pin, greyish background.
Provenanceback to top
Coll. the ?artist; Mrs Francis Holl snr; given to NPG by Mrs Edgar Holl, 1932.
Exhibitionsback to top
RA Summer Exhibition, London, 1864 (145).
RA Winter Exhibition, London, 1889 (223).
Victorian Exhibition, New Gallery, London, 1892 (192).
Frank Holl: Emerging from the Shadows, Watts Gallery, Compton, 2013-2014 (24).
Reproductionsback to top
Ribeiro 2000, p.177, fig.68.1.
Bills 2013, cover, frontispiece and p.111.
View all known portraits for Francis Montague ('Frank') Holl