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Interview with Mary McMahon of the Watts Gallery

19 July 2013 | Charlie Kenber

"We hope to bring his important work back to public attention and return him to his rightful place as a significant artist of the Social realist movement and the late Victorian era."

In the light of a retrospective of the work of the largely forgotten artist Frank Holl, we caught up with the Watts Gallery’s curatorial fellow Mary McMahon.

London Calling: This is the first such retrospective of Frank Holl’s work for over a century. Why do you think he has been so forgotten?

Mary McMahon: Frank Holl died at the age of 43 in 1888. Arguably, although by that age he had certainly reached a high level of fame he had not had the longevity at that level that would establish his name for posterity. The late 1880s saw a real fluctuation in the fashions of the art world and his social realist images and later portraits fell swiftly from the spotlight. In more recent years his work has often been dismissed as ‘sentimental’, however I think his work is quite the opposite, directly confronting the harsh realities of Victorian poverty and conveying a gritty emotional truth.

LC: How would you describe his work to someone who’s not come across him before?

MM: Frank Holl was a central figure in the social realist movement of the late 1860s and 70s, so the subject of his work often has a social purpose. But it is in his depictions of faces and hands, the composition of his scenes, his experiments with technique and his mastery of light and dark that his work becomes hard to compare. The sheer quality of the paintings on show in this exhibition has left no-one in doubt of how talented a painter he was, and the most commonly asked question has been how his name has never been heard before.

LC: How did you go about curating the exhibition? What was your focus?

MM: This exhibition was curated by Mark Bills and Peter Funnell. Their selection of paintings included the most significant works in the development of Holl’s career and also strong examples from the two main bodies of his work; the social realist pictures  and his later portraiture. In hanging the exhibition we felt there was a natural split between these three themes that complimented the exhibition spaces. As a retrospective exhibition it was important to reflect the breadth of work he produced and the focus became spotlighting the wonderfully atmospheric and dramatic lighting within the images themselves.

LC: What do you hope to do for Frank Holl’s public image?

MM: We hope to bring his important work back to public attention and return him to his rightful place as a significant artist of the Social realist movement and the late Victorian era. Above all we would like to move the public and academic perception of his work from that of a ‘sentimental’ artist to a painter of great depth and talent.

LC: What drew you to working at the Watts Gallery?

MM: Watts Gallery offers a Curatorial fellowship role that is supported by NADFAS. This fellowship, which I began in January 2012,offersan exciting and broadtrainingopportunity that I had never seen in other gallery or museum environments. I was drawn to the gallery for the quality of its collection, exhibitions and the research opportunities that it would afford.

LC: A couple of years after the Gallery reopened following major restoration work, what can we look forward to from you in the future?

MM: Apart from the continuation of our strong exhibition programme the most notable development is our current fundraising project to save George Frederic and Mary Watts’s home, Limnerslease, and secure it for public benefit. It is a lovely country residence designed by the Arts and Crafts architect Ernest George and lies just opposite the Watts Gallery in Compton.

Frank Holl: Emerging from the Shadows is on at the Watts Gallery in Compton, Surrey until 13th November. Further details available here.

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