Throughout the 1870s, Frank Holl specialised in painting grieving widows, mothers lamenting the deaths of infants, and grimly realistic funeral cortèges. These dour images struck a chord with late Victorian audiences, who identified with and shared the grief of Queen Victoria whom for forty years mourned the loss of her beloved husband Prince Albert. Writing shortly after Frank Holl’s untimely death at the age of forty-three, art critic Gertrude E. Campbell summed up his career somewhat cynically:
He appealed for many years of his life to the love of cheap sentimentality which is so notoriously characteristic of the inhabitants of the British Isles. He not only told them stories, but he told them his stories in capital letters; and they loved his stories even as children love a picture alphabet. Everything was on the surface, and was underlined to make it better understood.1Gertrude E. Campbell, ‘Frank Holl and his works’, The Art Journal, Feb. 1889, p. 53.
Holl was born into a dynasty of engravers in London in 1845 (his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all worked at this profession). At the age of twelve, he attended the University College School, where his facility with drawing earned him his first art commission, depictions of ten farms belonging to a wealthy landowner.2Richard Redgrave & Samuel Redgrave, A Century of Painters of the English School, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, London, 1890, p. 330. At fifteen, he obtained a probationership at the Royal Academy Schools and persuaded his father to allow him to leave school and undertake art full-time. He won a silver medal at the RA Schools in 1862, a gold medal in 1863, and the travelling scholarship in 1868. In 1867, Holl married Annie Davidson and the couple set off for France, Switzerland and Italy. After only two months abroad, Holl realised he had little interest in studying the work of the Old Masters. Pining for England, he returned home, rescinded his scholarship, resigned from the Academy, and devoted himself from this point onwards to depicting subjects drawn from English daily life, especially subjects dealing with mourning and grief.
From late 1871, Holl began making black-and-white drawings for reproduction as wood engravings in the illustrated periodical The Graphic, whose founder, William Luson Thomas, was interested in contemporary problems of poverty and injustice. In order to research ‘stories’ for Thomas, Holl took to prowling through London’s poverty-stricken East End. His daughter (and biographer) Ada recalled how
these rambles in the very poorest quarters of London brought my father face to face with many terrible scenes of misery and poverty, and even crime. It was scarcely a morbid attraction for the seamy side which led him forth on these unsavoury peregrinations, but rather, I take it, a latent idea that, by depicting them forcibly and poignantly in his own work, he might bring home to the indifferent eyes and hearts of the public the wretched and iniquitous state of affairs which lies close to our own doors.3A. M. Reynolds, The Life and Work of Frank Holl, Methuen, London, 1912, p. 109.
One person moved by Holl’s art was Queen Victoria, who commissioned him to paint No tidings from the sea, 1870 (Royal Collection Trust, UK), which he showed at the Royal Academy the following year. This depicted an obviously hopeless vigil for a missing sailor, being undertaken by his distraught family in their impoverished home. Numerous similarly mournful compositions prepared for The Graphic by Holl over the next five years were to be worked up into major paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy, establishing him as one of England’s premier social realist artists of the 1870s. He became known particularly for a number of works depicting grieving mothers, including Widowed, 1879.
Holl’s daughter Ada recalled that in 1876, while holidaying in North Wales, Holl encountered a young widow living with her two children in a poor cottage in the fishing village of Criccieth on the Llyn Peninsula. Ada described her as ‘father’s wonderful fisherwoman’.4ibid. p. 169. This widow became the model for a pair of extremely bleak paintings that Holl created in 1877, Hush! and Hushed (both Tate, London). In the first of these a concerned mother quietens a small child, while watching over a sick baby in a crib; the second shows her bent in grief over the crib, which has now become a coffin for her deceased infant. Both compositions are plunged into penumbral gloom, the only light source being a window at upper left that admits a Caravaggesque shaft of light; and the mother’s face is obscured in both paintings, focusing attention on the bewildered face of her small daughter.
Widowed, shown at Arthur Tooth & Sons’s Winter Exhibition in 1879, reprised the same models, compositional structure, humble setting and darkened interior. The empty cradle is still present, and the woman’s grief now compounded by news of her husband’s death. Despite their dark subject matter, these heart-rending narratives appealed greatly to Holl’s audiences in the 1870s. The Art Journal (1879) felt that
‘Widowed’, showing a poor woman burying her head despairingly in her arm, while her little girl looks on in wonder and sympathy, is one of the strongest of Mr Holl’s many strong pictures. The cradle, the stockings hung on a string overhead to dry, and all the other details of this humble home are but slightly indicated; yet the chiaroscuro is so potently managed that we can fill up all the rest for ourselves.5‘The gallery of Arthur Tooth and Sons, Haymarket’, The Art Journal, Jan. 1880, p. 28.
The Observer (1879) noted how Holl’s painting, ‘expressibly sad as it is, does not fail to arrest the attention of the most casual spectator’.6‘Winter picture galleries’, The Observer, 2 Nov. 1879, p. 3. The Times (1879), though, while calling Widowed ‘powerful, if painful’, felt that Holl was ‘altogether too much given, if we may venture to say so, to harping on this lugubrious string’.7‘Winter exhibitions (second notice)’, The Times, 14 Nov. 1879, p. 3.
Defending Holl’s work against claims that he depicted sadness far too often, art critic Wilfred Meynell argued that ‘the one thing needful is that sadness in painting should be a sincerity – that it be real in feeling’. For Meynell:
It is notoriously easy to move a certain amount of not very valuable feeling in the public by the merest sentimentality; all the more precious is the real emotion evoked by real power. The difference between the sham and the true in melancholy art of all kinds is always utterly unmistakable – too subtle to define, yet clear to the apprehension. Action is eloquent of it – the turn of a head, the meaning of a hand, sealing a picture irrevocably as sincere or insincere. In such a picture as ‘Widowed’, for instance … which is perhaps the most beautiful of all Mr. Frank Holl’s compositions, the actions of both figures are thorough. They are drawn by a painter who meant and felt the expressiveness of each. Both attitudes are marked by a fine reticence; even the abandonment of the widow is quiet, and unmarred by a touch of melodrama, while the more mixed meaning of the child’s posture and expression is also exquisitely restrained. In painter-like qualities, in poetry of tone, and in its vivid truth of lighting, the picture is as remarkable as in its feeling. It is indeed in his thorough study of light that Mr. Holl’s greatest technical successes have been achieved; he chooses Nature in her striking moments, but it is always to Nature that he goes; we do not find him indulging himself with an arbitrary effectiveness.8Wilfred Meynell, ‘Our living artists. Frank Holl, A. R. A.’, The Magazine of Art, 1880, pp. 190–1.
Widowed is a classic example of Holl’s use of what another art writer called ‘the sootiness in black, which many people have reproached the artist with all through his career’.9Campbell, p. 55. For the art critic Harry Quilter, this sombre palette was one of Holl’s singular strengths:
The one colour which he loved above all others, and which forms the keynote of almost every picture of his which I can remember, was black, and his dexterity in the management of this tint was extraordinary. There is an often-quoted remark amongst artists that you may tell a colourist by the manner in which he treats black, i.e. by the amount of colour he gets into it. And if this be true, Frank Holl’s claims to be considered a colourist are indisputable, though we must admit that he was a colourist in a peculiar fashion, finding his greatest successes in a very restricted scheme of tint.10Harry Quilter, Preferences in Art, Life, and Literature, Swan Sonnenschein & Co., London, 1892, p. 267.
The plight of widowed women in Victorian England was often severe. In addition to the financial hardship, a widowed woman could find that her deceased husband had made arrangements for her children that overruled her jurisdiction. Dora B. Montefiore, a founder of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, discovered how precarious her situation was when her husband died in 1889:
It was after the death of my husband, when I had to go into business matters with trustees and lawyers that I had my initiation into what the real social position of a widow meant to a nineteenth-century woman. One lawyer remarked to me, when explaining the terms of the will: ‘As your late husband says nothing about the guardianship of the children, they will remain under your care’. I restrained my anger at what appeared to me to be an officious and unnecessary remark and replied, ‘Naturally, my husband would never have thought of leaving anyone else as their guardian’. ‘As there is a difference in your religions’, he continued grimly, ‘he might very well have left someone of his own religion as their guardian’. ‘What! my children, the children I bore, left to the guardianship of someone else! The idea would never have entered his mind, and what’s more, I don’t believe he could have done it, for children belong even more to a mother than to a father!’ ‘Not in law’, the men round the table interjected; while the lawyer who had first undertaken my enlightenment added dryly: ‘In law, the child of the married woman has only one parent, and that is the father’. I suppose he saw symptoms of my rising anger, for he appeared to enjoy putting what he thought was a final extinguisher on my independence of thought; but I could hardly believe my ears, when this infamous statement of fact was made, and blazing with anger, I replied: ‘If that is the state of the law, a woman is much better off as a man’s mistress than as his wife, as far as her children are concerned’. ‘Hush’, a more friendly man’s voice near me remarked. ‘You must not say such things’. ‘But I must and shall say them’, I retorted. ‘You don’t know how your horrible law is insulting all motherhood’. And from that moment I was a suffragist (though I did not realise it at the time) and determined to alter the law.11Dora B. Montefiore, From a Victorian to a Modern, E. Archer, London, 1927, pp. 30–1.
While Holl’s painting shows a poor working-class widow facing a dire financial crisis, social historian Cynthia Curran has pointed out that even many middle-class widows at this time
were forced into impecunious, or even indigent lives by the limitations on employment brought by age, status, and gender … the women left behind by both the professional ‘middle’ group as well as those in what is thought of in ‘lower’ middle class were frequently left financially bereft through death. Many, perhaps even a majority, of those men whose social and economic position fell between the aristocracy and the working people of Victorian England were unable to provide for their families after death.12Cynthia Curran, ‘Private women: public needs: middle-class widows in Victorian England’, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, vol. 25, no. 2, summer 1993, pp. 218–19.
The problem was further compounded by social attitudes casting widowed women in the role of potential femmes fatales. While Holl’s Widowed was on display in Arthur Tooth & Sons in November 1879, The Graphic magazine ran a story, ‘The widow and the wall’, in which a Miss Paxie mistakenly feared that her new neighbour, the widowed Mrs. Lester, had designs on her bachelor brother Peter Paxie, ‘because I thought all widows were designing’.13X. Y. Z., ‘The widow and the wall’, The Graphic, no. 519, 8 Nov. 1879, p. 431.
A watercolour study for Widowed, titled Bad news (date unknown), is in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland.
Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria
Gertrude E. Campbell, ‘Frank Holl and his works’, The Art Journal, Feb. 1889, p. 53.
Richard Redgrave & Samuel Redgrave, A Century of Painters of the English School, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, London, 1890, p. 330.
A. M. Reynolds, The Life and Work of Frank Holl, Methuen, London, 1912, p. 109.
ibid. p. 169.
‘The gallery of Arthur Tooth and Sons, Haymarket’, The Art Journal, Jan. 1880, p. 28.
‘Winter picture galleries’, The Observer, 2 Nov. 1879, p. 3.
‘Winter exhibitions (second notice)’, The Times, 14 Nov. 1879, p. 3.
Wilfred Meynell, ‘Our living artists. Frank Holl, A. R. A.’, The Magazine of Art, 1880, pp. 190–1.
Campbell, p. 55.
Harry Quilter, Preferences in Art, Life, and Literature, Swan Sonnenschein & Co., London, 1892, p. 267.
Dora B. Montefiore, From a Victorian to a Modern, E. Archer, London, 1927, pp. 30–1.
Cynthia Curran, ‘Private women: public needs: middle-class widows in Victorian England’, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, vol. 25, no. 2, summer 1993, pp. 218–19.
X. Y. Z., ‘The widow and the wall’, The Graphic, no. 519, 8 Nov. 1879, p. 431.