Emerging from the Shadows is a good title for an exhibition devoted to the work of long-forgotten Frank Holl, currently at the Watts Gallery in Surrey and later at the Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate. If known at all, Holl is remembered as a social-realist painter of sombre scenes of poverty and bereavement, but here the standout works are portraits, beginning with a youthful self-portrait of 1863 that Carol Blackett-Ord describes as a marvellous, almost unknown gem of Victorian portrait painting, and a remarkably mature exercise in self-scrutiny.
The majority of Holl's portraits however are of old, sometimes very old, men, including Capt. Alexander Sim, who began his career as a cabin boy in Nelson's fleet, and later spent 35 years as director of the Commercial Dock Co., in the days before compulsory retirement. Discussing these portrayals, Peter Funnell cites the observation by Pat Thane in Old Age in English History (OUP, 2000) regarding their strong emphasis on defying age, as images whereby sitters 'could be recognized as old yet still command, and know themselves to command, authority in private and public life.' Sim was 94 when painted, and died six months later.
Another more famous sitter was Prime Minister Gladstone, who did distinctly defy ageing, by standing for his portrait in sessions lasting 2-3 hours. Holl noted that he still retained 'all the ambitions of youth, even, I should think, more than youthful restlessness, as it is the restlessness of wanting still more ... and his age - now I think about seventy-six - not giving him the natural chances of many years either to obtain or hold it.'
Sadly, Holl himself died shortly after his portrait of Gladstone was completed, aged only 43.