Today I am going to revisit the Social Realism art movement and look at one of the leading English Victorian Social Realist painters, Frank Holl. I featured two of his very moving paintings Hush and Hushed in My Daily Art Display of February 9th 2012). The Realist movement which has its roots in France came to the fore in French art in about 1840 in the aftermath of the 1848 Revolution which threw out the monarch, Louis-Philippe and saw the start of the Second Empire under the rule of Napoleon III. Realist art flourished in France until the late nineteenth century.
The Social Realism Movement originated from this European Realism, and from the works of the great French Realist painters such as Honoré Daumier, Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet. A revolution was also taking place in England in the nineteenth century – the Industrial Revolution, where changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and technology had a tremendous consequence on the social, economic and cultural conditions of the times. It was a time of poverty and unemployment for many of the lower classes and it aroused a concern in many artists for this urban poor. During 1870s the work of many of the Social Realist artists, such as Luke Fildes (see My Daily Art Display May 17th and 18th 2011), Hubert Herkomer (See My Daily Art Display July 25th 2011) and today’s featured painter, Frank Holl came to the fore.
Frank Montague Holl was born in Kentish Town, London in 1845. His father, Francis, was a well-known engraver and Academician as was his grandfather, William Holl. His family environment was politically driven for his family were steadfast Socialists and even when he was just a youngster his family instilled in him the thought that he had a duty in life to change society and make it better for the common people. Holl went to Heath Mount School in Hampstead and at the age of fifteen he was accepted as a probationer at the Royal Academy Schools. He proved to be an outstanding student but often shocked his tutors by adding a hint 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 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 went away to Italy on his travel scholarship but the Italian sojourn 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 working-class life in England. Holl began 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). After he had 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.
The newspaper when launched in December 1869 was printed in a rented house. A successful artist himself, the founder, William Thomas recruited talented authors for the story lines and exceptional artists for the illustration which were to accompany the words. The gifted artists included Luke Fildes, Hubert von Herkomer and John Millais and great writers who worked on the journal included George Elliot, Thomas Hardy and Anthony Trollope. Thomas believed that it was not just words but the illustrations which had the great power to influence public opinion on political issues. Thomas said later of his newspaper idea:
“…The originality of the scheme consisted in establishing a weekly illustrated journal open to all artists, whatever their method, instead of confining my staff to draughtsmen on wood as had been hitherto the general custom… it was a bold idea to attempt a new journal at the price of sixpence a copy in the face of the most successful and firmly established paper in the world, costing then only fivepence…”
For William Luson Thomas, his commitment was to force social reform and he hoped that the visual images in The Graphic would have a political impact on the reading public. In his 2004 biography of Thomas, entitled Thomas, William Luson (1830–1900), Mark Bills, described Thomas’ journal:
“…The format of the paper offered artists an unprecedented opportunity to explore social subjects, and its images of poverty made it a catalyst for the development of social realism in British art. Many of the wood-engravings which it featured were developed into major paintings…”
This commitment to social reform by Thomas was exactly what Frank Holl desired and what he had been brought up to hear at the family table when he was growing up. He, like Thomas, believed passionately in the cause for political and social change. Frank Holl produced a series of pictures that were used to illustrate stories in the magazine and sometimes he and the other artists working on the journal would turn their engravings, which they had fashioned for the pages of The Graphic, into oil paintings. These depictions of the hard and squalid 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. The more fortunate 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 they frowned upon these upstart young artists who wanted to drag the social differences which existed into the public forum.
The featured painting in My Daily Art Display today is entitled Newgate: Committed for Trial which Frank Holl completed in 1878 and is housed in Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, just outside London. It came about when Holl was given and assignment to visit Newgate Prison by the management of The Graphic. Holl visited Newgate on a number of occasions and over time he and the Governor became friends. What we see before us is what Holl described as a “cage” It was where prisoners on trial were allowed, at certain times, to see visitors and talk to them through a double row of bars. The space in between the two sets of bars was patrolled by a warden. Holl later commented that he became very emotional when he saw the desperation of the prisoners and their visitors as they awaited the results of their trials. In an attempt to better capture the emotion of imprisonment, Holl painted this picture whilst inside the Newgate Prison. In the painting today we see Holl’s depiction of two women and their children visiting their husbands who had been incarcerated. Look at the face of the prisoner on the left. It is a look of wide-eyed innocence but as we catch sight of his wife that stands before him we note how she seems wearied by her husband’s protestations of his innocence. Could it be that she has heard it all before? Almost hidden by this female visitor we can just make out a second prisoner. He is in a much more animated and distressed state and seems to be pleading to his wife who is seated clutching her baby to her chest. Is it a plea for forgiveness and understanding or is it a plea of innocence? Whatever it is, the young woman seems unmoved and somewhat resigned by what she hears.
As I said earlier, the rich and aristocratic were unmoved by what they saw in Social Realist works and it is remarkable that the wealthy English philanthropist, Thomas Holloway, who had made his fortune patenting medicines, would buy this work and add it to his collection, which grace the walls of the Royal Holloway College, which he had built in 1880. Of his collection of seventy seven works of art which can be found there some were simple idyllic landscapes depicting the beautiful English countryside but like today’s work of art by Frank Holl, some were harrowing aspects of Victorian life.
The painting received mixed reviews when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1878 but one critic summed up what we see before us, writing:
“…The characters are so real in this fine work that one feels there is a story to be told of ruined ambitions, of broken home ties, of devotion scorned and trampled underfoot….”
In the next few blogs I will stay with Social Realism art and look at the works of Social Realist artists from other countries