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More about Royal Holloway, University of London

The spectacular facade of Royal Holloway is a familiar sight to motorists on the A30 between Egham and Sunningdale. Financed by the patent medicine millionaire, Thomas Holloway, it was designed by William Henry Crossland, who took the sixteenth-century Château de Chambord as his model, and opened as a college for women in 1886. No expense was spared. Solid, extravagant and richly decorated with sculpture, it stands as a monument to the wealth, optimism and spirit of philanthropy which so characterized the Victorian age. More famous even than the unique building is the collection of paintings which hangs in the College gallery in authentic High Victorian style, almost frame to frame and regardless of subject. It was assembled by Holloway in the last two years of his life, as the final educative touch to his generous endowment.

Heedless of cost, Holloway spent the equivalent, in today’s terms, of several million on his collection. The importance he placed on it illustrates the Victorians’ belief in art as the ultimate civilizing influence. Like literature, art could teach; not only in the obvious sense of portraying a moral lesson or illustrating an edifying text; but, in its own unique and inimitable way, through the medium of visual beauty. A picture collection of the first quality would provide the ultimate refining influence in Holloway’s College for young ladies.

Virtually all the paintings were bought at Christie’s, and the vast majority were modern. Holloway made his choice from the catalogues in consultation with his brother-in-law, George Martin, who did the bidding on his behalf. Amongst Holloway’s purchases were some of the most important paintings of the period, including William Powell Frith’s The Railway Station (1862), a panoramic view of the busy crowd at Paddington with the artist and his family in the centre-foreground. It is the most potent and revealing image ever painted of Victorian urban life; and no painting has been more admired or vilified. For the modernist critic Roger Fry, its mundane realism marked the lowest point to which Victorian art ever sunk: ‘an artistic Sodom and Gomorrah’, he called it. Frith, who expressed a healthy disdain for aesthetes, would have scorned such criticism. He knew that he was painting history in the making, and posterity has proved him right. As a visual social document and a repository of contemporary ideas, The Railway Station has few equals. It provides a stark contrast with another significant portrayal of contemporary life: Luke Fildes’s Casual Ward (1874) – the toughest pictorial statement ever made on Victorian urban poverty and homelessness. It caused a sensation at the Royal Academy of 1874 and was voted picture of the year by popular assent. Fildes was the acknowledged leader of a group of artists who emerged independently in the 1870s, and whose direct engagement with the problems of the day earned them the title of the Social Realists. Frank Holl’s Newgate (1878) is another masterpiece in this category. Painted from studies made in Newgate itself, it demonstrates the tenuous hold of the poor on respectability and the means of survival, both of which are instantly under threat when the breadwinner turns to crime.

Most Victorians preferred historical subjects to portrayals of their own time. Supreme amongst those at Royal Holloway is John Millais’s Princes in the Tower (1878); a masterly exercise in psychological drama which once adorned every child’s history book. Daniel Maclise’s Peter the Great at Deptford Dockyard (1857) is far more elaborate. It was based on contemporary accounts, and depends on an accumulation of historical detail to illustrate an episode from the period when the Russian Emperor visited England in order to learn how to construct his own navy. The contrast between the energetic figure of Peter, engaged in carpentry, and the refined and elegant form of William III, is the dramatic point of the picture. The largest painting in the Collection – Edwin Long’s Babylonian Marriage Market (1875) is a meticulous archaeological reconstruction of the ancient world. Every detail was supplied by the Assyrian Galleries at the British Museum, and by published books by Austen Henry Layard and others on the excavations at Nineveh and other sites. The subject – young girls being auctioned in the market place, in order of beauty – may seem an odd choice for a college for well-bred young ladies; but critics agreed that the artist had handled the subject with irreproachable delicacy.

Holloway also secured two of the most celebrated animal paintings of the period. Briton Riviere unashamedly played to the gallery with Sympathy (1877); which shows his woeful little daughter being comforted by her pet bull terrier. Landseer, on the other hand, courted controversy with Man Proposes - God Disposes (1864) – a bleak portrayal of polar bears tearing at the remnants of an abandoned ship: a scarcely veiled reference to Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to the Northern Arctic some 20 years previously. It may also be read as an image of the helplessness of man, and the ultimate decline and wreckage of all civilizations.

The cherished notion of an unspoiled countryside, and the continuity of traditional peasant and Highland life, is celebrated in landscape and figurative works by artists as distinguished as John Brett, Thomas Creswick, Thomas Faed, Benjamin W. Leader, John Linnell and John McWhirter. The much travelled Holloway, whose patent medicines reached the remotest corners of the world, also acquired scenes of favourite Continental destinations including Cairo, Venice, the Austrian Alps, Switzerland, the Pyrenees and Turkey. James Holland’s view of Verona (1844), William J. Muller’s Tomb in the Water, Telmessus, Lycia and Ludwig Munthe’s Norwegian Snow Scene (1873) are particularly fine examples in this category.

Pride in Britain’s naval and trading prowess is evident in numerous depictions of ships, harbours and dockyards; and the more negative aspect of native bull-dog pugnacity is celebrated in George Morland’s portrayal of a press-gang in action. Clarkson Stanfield, whose contributions to the collection include a battle scene from the Napoleonic Wars, was himself press-ganged into the Royal Navy in 1812. Stanfield’s ability to cover huge canvases at speed was aided by his time as a scene painter at Drury Lane Theatre – a task he shared with another great artist, David Roberts, whose Pilgrims Approaching Jerusalem (1841) is among Holloway’s most inspired purchases.

The College also has a distinguished and varied secondary collection. This includes a large and impressive landscape by Sir David Murray, Spring in the Alps, which was exhibited as Spring Blossoms to the Mountain Snows at the RA in 1910. There is also a small number of paintings in tempera, dating from the turn of the twentieth century when the medium underwent a major revival in England. Most are high quality copies of early Renaissance paintings by Lady Christiana Herringham, an expert in the field, and founder member of the Tempera Society in 1901. Another of her copies, in oils, of Gherardo di Giovanni’s Battle of Love and Chastity (circa late fifteenth century, National Gallery, London), is perhaps the finest of all. The Garden of the Slothful (c.1901) by Margaret Gere, who was also active in the tempera revival, is a highly personal and charming interpretation of two verses from Proverbs.

The Herringham Collection, some portraits and other artworks, came with the merger of Bedford College with Royal Holloway in 1985. The College owns a number of outstanding portraits, including two by one of the most celebrated of all early-twentieth-century portrait painters, Philip De Laszlo. There are other major examples by Sir William Orpen, Sir Hubert von Herkomer (renowned as a Social Realist as well as a portrait painter), Sir James Shannon, David Jagger and Sir Herbert James Gunn. The tradition of commissioning portraits continues, and more recent examples include works by Sir Lawrence Gowing, Peter Greenham, Paul Brason and Louise Riley-Smith.

In 2001 the College was the recipient of an anonymous donation of ten contemporary paintings dating from the 1980s. These hang in the award-winning International Building, which was completed in 1999. They include John Bratby’s Washline, Little Bridge (1989), Jon Groom’s Moorish House V, and abstracts by Jeremy Annear, Fred Pollock and Gary Wragg. Other benefactors have enabled the College to acquire contemporary works which range from the representational to installations and other conceptual works. The former include particularly fine examples by Louise Courtnell, Steven Hubbard and Clive Wilkins.

In current values, Holloway spent at least £50,000,000 on the building and the collection. He appreciated the civilizing effects of art and architecture and their role in education, and through them he created a fitting memorial to himself and his wife. Holloway died rightly confident that his generous gift would inspire generations of students and teachers; and that inspiration has also been shared by the numerous visitors who have flocked to the College since it first opened. Holloway would have approved that the College buildings – and the contemporary art collection – continue to expand; for the enterprising spirit and generosity which make this possible are very much in the tradition of the College’s original founder.

Mary Cowling, Curator & Lecturer in History of Art

Text source: PCF / Royal Holloway, University of London

This description was originally written for a catalogue.

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