Frank Holl: Emerging from the Shadows. [Click on image to enlarge it.]. Frank Holl. 1878. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Royal Holloway, University of London. Catalogue no. 15 in the 2013 Watts Gallery exhibition,
Commentary by Robert Fraser
As I came to see Holl’s Committed for Trial (1878), it evokes a pervasive sensation of shame which, in a manner characteristic of the Victorians, was part-social, part-moral. The medium of this sensation is the gaze, both active and passive: looking at others and being looked at in turn. To appreciate the ethos of this composition, is suffices to follow the eyes. On the outside of the cage a wife confronts her disgraced husband through the bars: “why have you done this to us?” From the other side he returns her accusing look with a sullen, reproachful frown. Their daughters cling to her hips: the younger on the left appealing across to her sister to make sense of the situation, while her sister, face half hidden in the folds of her mother’s dress, peers shyly outwards towards us, almost as if we were looking at her, which of course we are. Next to them on a chair sits a second woman clutching a baby, and unable to raise her eyes from the floor; they are being frantically waived to by another prisoner, presumably her husband, crouching and demented, to the right of the first. Standing at attention between the double grill lours an immobile officer, stern but embarrassed. It is the group in semi-darkness to the far right that are the most fascinating because the most mysterious. The woman in furs may be another spouse who has come down in the world, but she is more likely to be a visitor, even a tourist (there were such people) who has come to gawp rather to console. She is confronting, maybe trading rank with, the officer in front of her.
There is one almost constant factor to this depressing scene. With the exception of the prisoners, who have in effect been emasculated, it is the men who possess the power, while the women possess the understanding. Now this is very interesting, because Holl was not supposed to be much good at portraying women. This is a topic that was debated at some length in 2013 in the catalogue to an exhibition of his work at the Watts Gallery, in which the art historian Jane Sellars confronted the critical consensus by asserting that “Women play a significant part in the art of Frank Holl. They are central in his subject pictures which deal almost exclusively with aspects of women’s suffering in Victorian society” (Sellars, qtd. in Bills 75). I did not know Sellars’ essay when I wrote The Founders’ Gift, but I could see quite clearly - in this picture at least - that, while the men control the scene, it is the women - young and old - who provide it with nuance and depth.
- The Woman in the Frame: Victorian Painting, Ekphrastic Poetry, and the Female Gaze (from which the commentary above is excerpted)
- Victorian photograph of Newgate Gaol (c. 1895)
- Principal prisoner's wife and daughter
- Second prisoner, his wife, and infant
- Warder inside cell
Bills, Mark. Frank Holl: Emerging from the Shadows. London: I. B. Tauris, 2013.
Fraser, Robert. The Founders’ Gift: Impressions from A Collection. Egham: Royal Holloway, 2017.
Last modified 10 June 2020