Oil on canvas, signed and dated lower right 1882
Image size: 36 x 29 inches (92 x 74 cm)
Gilt Watts frame
The Life and Work of Frank Holl, Ada Holl Reynolds, 1912, Methuen & Co, pp. 191- 193.
‘A Daughter’s Story: Frank Holl and Women’ in Frank Holl: Emerging from the Shadows, Mark Bills, 2013, Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd, p.85.
The sitter of this compelling portrait is Miss Tonks, the sister of W. H. Tonks and Edmund Tonks. The entire family was painted by the artist Frank Holl, one after another in the early 1880s. The portrait of Edmund Tonks is currently in the collection at The Birmingham Museums Trust. This portrait of Miss Tonks, along with a portrait of W. H. Tonk’s wife, were the first women portraits attempted by Holl and were only carried out at the express wish and earnest persuasion of Mr Tonks himself, one of Holl’s loyal patrons.
Frank Holl painted over 200 portraits, however only a handful of these were of women. Holl initially had an eversion for taking on a female subject and had noted ‘Well, you know, if anything goes wrong I can’t fling my brush at my sitter’s head, nor indulge in any strong language to ease my mind a bit!’. Nevertheless, women came to play a significant part in the art of Frank Holl. They were central figures in his subject paintings, which dealt almost exclusively with aspects of women’s suffering in Victorian society. Furthermore, it is a women writer (his own daughter Ada) that we turn to for the most important source of information about his life.
Ada discusses this portrait of Miss Tonks in her book ‘The Life and Work of Frank Holl‘. She notes that Miss Tonks was a ‘striking-looking woman with a fine head, remarkably like her brother’s’. Undeniably, Holl’s most successful female portraits were in the instances when the sitter had pronounced and strongly marked features, such as is the case here.
Ada notes that the Tonks portraits ‘possessed of almost Rembrandtesque physiognomy, grim and full of character, presenting to my father as none of his previous sitters had done, the true type of his ideal, and the very echo of the man who was, to him, the greatest painter the world has ever known.‘ Indeed, for the artist old Miss Tonks was the literal embodiment of a real Rembrandt, resembling in almost every particular the actual type of the Dutch gentlewoman of Rembrandt’s day. Indeed, Holl’s distaste for painting a woman’s portrait was removed at the first sight of Miss Tonks and he realised the opportunity before him. Ada finally notes that ‘the portrait still remains one of my father’s masterpieces, and might almost have come from the brush of the great master himself’.
Francis Montague Holl was born in London in 1845 into a family of engravers. Having entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1860, the young artist achieved early notable success and won a scholarship to visit Europe for his painting The Lord Gave and the Lord Hath Taketh Away, Blessed Be the Name of the Lord (1868). But, having travelled through France, in Italy Holl resigned the scholarship, returning north. Time spent in Antwerp proved influential; Holl was moved by the glories of northern painting, experiencing works by amongst others Rembrandt and Rubens.
Back in London, Holl’s powerful portrayals of the impact of loss, departure and death attracted attention. In 1870, he was commissioned by Queen Victoria and travelled to the poor fishing village of Cullercoats to capture a community’s hard life at first-hand. Throughout his career, Holl demonstrated a profound belief in the fidelity of truth in paint, exemplified by his painting of Cullercoats for the Queen, No Tidings from the Sea (1870, Royal Collection).
In 1872, Holl joined the group of eminent artists – amongst them Luke Fildes, Hubert von Herkomer and Millais – who illustrated the newly launched The Graphic. The artist’s reputation grew; he was awarded a medal at the American Centenary Exhibition in 1876 and was admired by, amongst others, Whistler and Van Gogh, who collected several of his prints from The Graphic. Holl was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1878, on the strength of one of his most celebrated works, Newgate; committed for trial (1878, Royal Holloway).
The 1880s witnessed a change in direction for Holl. The artist stopped subject painting in favour of portraiture. Holl increasingly turned away from the work that originally made him famous to paint portraits of the rich and famous. This change can be seen as a response to a shift in artistic taste that occurred at the time but, significantly, it was also brought about by financial need. With a family, a studio house in London and a house in Surrey – both designed by Richard Norman Shaw – the artist had lived beyond his means. Holl soon became an acclaimed portraitist. His portraits of Samuel Cousins and William Gladstone were greatly acclaimed and, when G.F. Watts withdrew from a commission to paint Prince Edward, Watts suggested that Holl was the man to do it.
Elected Royal Academician in 1883, Holl’s career was at its peak. Commissions were constant and the artist would not decline. This ceaseless workload took its toll; Millais describes Holl’s “killing portraits” in a letter to the artist in his final illness (1888) having taken note of the detrimental impact this rigorous regime appeared to have on Holl’s health.
On 31 July 1888, exhausted, Holl died. The annual Old Masters’ exhibition at the Royal Academy the following year dedicated two rooms to the artist, showing more than 50 works