Two new Victorians with no place to go

Frank Holl Wild Water (1880) watercolour on paper

Frank Holl Wild Water (1880) watercolour on paper

I aquired this painting some time back, unframed, glued to a backing board and in a not entirely happy state. It is by Frank Holl, one of those romantic English painters who died early and is not well remembered – aka my kind of guy.

To the rest of the world Francis Montague Holl (1845 –1888) was a London lad, born into a family of noted engravers. He entered the Royal Academy schools in 1860, winning silver and gold medals, and making his debut as an exhibitor in 1864.

Initially Holl did very well. Good responses to his work led to him being hired to be the artist on The Graphic a very successful newspaper. Holl’s most famous works are probably No Tidings from the Sea (1871) and A Deserter (1874). The first is a scene set in a fisherman’s cottage and the second in a crofter’s hut. Both are full of that breath-catching pathos and power that the Victorians loved. Van Gogh too was a great lover of Holl’s works and wrote enthusiastically about them to his brother.

Holl was something of a work-a-holic and it seemed that this did damage to his health. At the same time as the fashion in painting changed away from widowed wives – Holl was forced to make a move into portraiture essentially re-establishing himself in another genre. The stress of it all led to a decline in his health and by 1884 he had died aged only 43 – leaving behind a self portrait in which he looks every bit the cute romantic artist.

Frank Holl, 'Self Portrait' (1863) Oil on Canvas.

Frank Holl, ‘Self Portrait’ (1863) Oil on Canvas.

I liked Wild Water for it for its Raft of the Medusa character and its fresh vibrant colour. As Holl is a respectable, if obscure, Victorian I decided to give the work the full treatment and have in conserved and then framed in conservation glass. Re-presented in an old frame the painting is lively, still feels fresh and awaits hanging. It is sitting, for the moment, propped up in the library.


Last week there was a very good local auction at the other local auction house – called Kauri House Auctions (ex Durham’s). The sale has a ring of truth about it – in that the pieces felt drawn from the local community and from long settled houses and vendors. There were lots of good things none of which we strictly needed.

I had been attracted to the sale by a wonderful carved sideboard.  Dating, I’d guess, from the period between 1900 and 1914 it had been carved with elaborate panels of dragons set among flowers and foliage. It was a New Zealand piece and so we crawled over it looking for a mark or signature but nothing and there was no provenance from the vendor. This is so typical of the women craftspeople of the period – in that it was considered immodest to sign even the most elaborate work.  I knew there’d be little interest – to dark, to large, to weird – and in the end it sold for a bargain price and I only hope someone will love it – it’s a gem.

Reginald Jones, 'Untitled,' (c1900) Watercolour on paper.

Reginald Jones, ‘Untitled,’ (c1900) Watercolour on paper.

Peter went to the sale and came home with a small watercolour that I had barely noticed. It is by Reginald Jones and depicts a (perhaps) Kentish street scene. Reginald Jones – might not have attracted Von Gogh’s attention but he did get praised by Walter Sicket – who secretly I like rather more than I do Vincent. It’s a lovely little work and a cut above most works of its genre.

Reginald Jones (here comes the insert bio swiped from Wikipedia) was born in Kent in 1857 and lived there and in London throughout his life.  He travelled widely producing many paintings of the landscapes he observed in Britain, France and Italy. Just like Holl, Jones had friends of influence, this time Walter Sickert who wrote of Jones’ 1889 outing at the Royal Institute exhibition –

‘I am not sorry for Reginald Jones or Raven Hill. Their accomplished chic can hold its own anywhere. It is not progressive art, though a course of it might be a wholesome tonic to our stippling brigade.’

If the painting in front of me is anything like the one in front of Sickert, then you can understand the attraction? Rather than a dull depiction of an imagined village – it is a lively little piece of social observation in which the feel of everyday life is everywhere evident – all achieved in a few simple gestures.

There was no romantic ending from overwork or anything else for Jones – he died aged 63 in 1920 having been elected a member of the Royal Society of British Artists in 1915 and having had a career in which he exhibited extensively at the principle London galleries. Our little watercolour, fresh in it colouring, seems to have been bought directly from the artist and has his business card – Reginald Jones Studio 40 Spring Street Hyde Park W, attached to the reverse.


When Peter got the work he messaged me to say he was pleased with it and he felt sure it would look good in the library. I figured that he hadn’t spotted the little Holl sitting propped up on the library floor – solely because there is no place for it to go.

As the often quoted household rule ‘no more small paintings’ obviously has no traction, we are going to have to start a rethink about the spaces and perhaps investigate the hallway that we have still to complete. Its darkness would suit watercolours. I recall too that there is another older décor rule that watercolors and oils should never be hung in the same room. Perhaps we can use that rule as a starting point to think through just where our new Victorians might eventually go.


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3 Responses to Two new Victorians with no place to go

  1. Peter Wells says:

    I don’t think it is a London scene, (see the geraniums over the doors). I think it is a French village scene. I was sitting in the auction right by the little painting and the more I looked at the deftly painted figures and the fresh overall treatment the more I sort of fell in love with it. It went cheaply and would have been even cheaper if the local antique dealer hadn’t tried to sweep it up into his maul. (Peter).

  2. Eliot Mortimore says:

    Hello Douglas,
    I love your Frank Holl – we live near to The Watts gallery where they are currently doing a bit of a thing on him !
    Would you ever consider selling it ?
    All the very best,
    Eliot Mortimore

    • Editor says:

      Hi Eliot

      Thanks for the message. The little Holl will be staying with me as I’m very fond of it but thanks for asking. I got the catalogue from the Watts gallery show and loved it. I’d like to see the gallery next time I’m in the UK. I was in Melbourne recently and they had 3 excellent works by Frank Holl in their historical hang.

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