In 1871, Holloway initiated a public debate through the pages of The Builder, welcoming suggestions as to ‘how to best spend a quarter of a million or more’, a sum of money that he soon doubled.
However, it was his wife Jane who suggested that a college for women was the best way in which Holloway’s money might affect what, in his own words, he wanted to achieve: ‘the greatest public good’.
The architect of the College, William Henry Crossland, of whom you can read more about in The Founder, was selected by competition to design Holloway’s first philanthropic endeavour – the Sanatorium at Virginia Water, begun in 1873 and opened in 1883.
Holloway was actively involved in determining the style of the new College and settled for a flamboyant interpretation of the French Renaissance. Inspired largely by the early 16th century Château of Chambord in the Loire Valley, the College is built around two very large quadrangles.
Founder’s Building impresses as much by its bulk as by the exuberance of the roof-line, the whole building much enlivened by the contrast of white Portland stone with predominant red brick.
It has also led to Royal Holloway being named one of the most beautiful campuses in the world by the Telegraph.
Holloway’s Collection of Victorian art provided an essential element for the fulfilment of a first-rate educational establishment in his view. The importance he placed on the paintings illustrates a typically Victorian belief in art as the ultimate civilising influence. According to the period, art could teach; not only in the obvious sense of portraying a moral lesson or illustrating an edifying text; but in its own unique way, through the medium of visual beauty. Holloway believed that a picture collection of the highest quality would add the ultimate refinement to a programme of education for young ladies.
Regardless of cost, and using his own judgement, Holloway made his collection – with the aid of his brother-in-law George Martin – almost exclusively from Christie’s sales catalogues. All but five of the works were acquired in this way and Holloway is only known to have been outbid once.
The press issued a loud furore against the artificially high prices that his methods stimulated and against the fact it was the dealer and not the artist who benefitted. But like other self-made Victorian collectors with little education, Holloway was wary when buying pictures. A sound origin was crucial to him and he felt that this was more likely to be provided by major dealers and auctioneers rather than private sellers.
He was also careful to only buy the best examples of paintings from each particular class, giving the Collection quality, range and national recognition.
Among the scenes of contemporary Victorian life, Holloway was fortunate enough to acquire some of the most important ever produced. William Powell Frith’s Railway Station (1862) is one of these.
This painting was a fitting successor to his Derby Day, which had enjoyed a hugely successful exhibition at the Royal Academy and is now displayed in the Tate, and is the most potent and revealing image ever painted of mid-Victorian urban life.
Like Holloway, a self-made man, Frith proudly included himself in the centre of the picture as the typical Victorian paterfamilias. The artist is surrounded by his family and other varied groups, representing every class of society from the criminal to the aristocratic young bride. This entertaining panorama provides a stark contrast with two of the most significant works in our Collection by a group of artists known as ‘social realists’.
Luke Fildes’ Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1874) remains the most savage indictment of poverty and homelessness produced by any Victorian artist; and Frank Holl’s Newgate: Committed for Trial (1878) demonstrates the tenuous hold of the poor on respectability and the means of survival, both instantly under threat when the breadwinner turns to crime.
You can also find a class of pictures that illustrates the popularity of subjects taken from history. For example, Edwin Long’sBabylonian Marriage Market (1875), inspired by Herodotus, fetched a record price for a painting by a living artist when Holloway paid £6,615 for it in 1882. The largest work in the Collection, it provides a meticulous reconstruction of the customs, architecture, décor and costume of a past civilisation.
Daniel Maclise’s portrayal of Peter the Great at Deptford Dockyard (1857), an event from 1698-99, shows the Emperor in characteristically vigorous attitude, acquiring the techniques which would enable him to build his own fleet on his return to Russia. He contrasts amusingly with the somewhat effete figures of King William III and his retinue.
Perhaps the best known of all the history paintings that were purchased by Holloway is John Everett Millais’ Princes in the Tower (1878), as it is familiar to generations of school children through their history books. In the painting, Millais expresses the inevitability of their tragic fate through their apprehensive faces and the attitudes of the vulnerable, boyish figures without resorting to distracting detail. This picture is now on loan in Japan.
Two of the greatest animal painters of the Victorian era are also well represented at the Picture Gallery. It is home to Edwin Henry Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864) and Briton Riviere’s Sympathy (1877) andAn Anxious Moment (1878).
Based on the real incident of the loss of Sir John Franklin’s expedition to complete the Northwest Passage in the Arctic from 1845-47, Landseer’s painting illustrates the futility of human effort in the face of the destructive forces of nature. Two polar bears, their fierce and brutal natures uncompromisingly portrayed, tear up the remnants of the expedition.
It lacks the kind of sentiment and humour that can be seen in Riviere’s works. Sympathy, showing a pretty girl consoled by her dog, remains one of the most persistently popular and frequently reproduced pictures of the era. Here there is no great seriousness of purpose, but works of this sort were intended to appeal to the sentiments; to arouse the gentler feelings, and, thus, in their own small way , to exert that refining influence that the Victorians expected of their art.
Landscapes, townscapes and travel scenes, which form an impressive portion of the collection, are represented by John Linnell, Benjamin Leader, Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, John MacWhirter and David Roberts.
The latter’s Pilgrims Approaching Jerusalem (1841) is one of his most successful in this vein. The landscapes exhibit a wide range of mood and techniques from the crystalline perfection of John Brett’s Carthillon Cliffs (1878) to the more impressionistic methods of Peter Graham’s Highland Croft (1873). In this piece, a broader technique convincingly suggests the atmosphere and texture of a rough modern terrain.
The paintings mentioned comprise only a small selection from this important Collection. The Gallery is open to researchers by appointment and for public viewing on certain days of the year.
The next public viewing days will be on 9 June 2013, as part of the College Garden Party, and on 15 September, as part of the College’s Heritage Open Day. On both dates there will be tours of the collection led by the curator Dr Laura MacCulloch as well as a chance to spend time in the gallery.
From September 2013, a programme of regular gallery talks and public open afternoons will be taking place. These will be advertised on this website when the programme is fully confirmed.
For more information about the Royal Holloway and Bedford New College Art Collection please contact the curator Dr Laura MacCulloch on 01784 443 998 or email laura.maccullochrhul.ac.uk.
Group tours can also be arranged by appointment. For further details please contact the Events Office, telephone 01784 443004 or 443824.
For details about hiring the Picture Gallery as a venue for wedding receptions, conferences and other occasions, please contact the Conference Office on 01784 443045 or 443046.
The Founder’s Building and Holloway’s Collection provide an appropriate setting for the Centre for Victorian Studies. The Centre was originally established with support from Christie’s, through whose salesrooms almost the entire collection was assembled, and it provides a focus for teaching and research in Victorian literature, culture, history, drama, architecture, visual arts, science and technology.
The Picture Gallery functions as a stunning venue for numerous events as well as an irreplaceable object of study in its own right. The Centre offers a one-year MA in Victorian Literature, Art and Culture. Details of this course can be obtained from Dr Sophie Gilmartin. Tel: 01784 443214.