The Cheltonian > Articles

Theodor von Holst: His Art and the Pre-Raphaelites

3 September – 11 December 2010 crack

This September the Holst Birthplace Museum, Cheltenham will present an exhibition devoted to the work of the English Romantic painter Theodor von Holst (1810-1844). It opens on the bicentenary of his birth and, as the great-uncle of Gustav Holst, the museum is very pleased to host this celebration of an unjustly neglected figure who is now beginning to enjoy a growing international reputation. The exhibition will feature over fifty of his works, including paintings and drawings, as well as the work of two other artists who are critical to the von Holst story: Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). The works on show have been selected from the Holst Birthplace Museum, Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum, the Britten-Pears Library, and a number of private collectors. They include recent discoveries never displayed in public before: a beautiful portrait of a young woman, Jessy Harcourt, and a dramatic fire-lit scene, Caesarini and the Soldier in the Forest, from Bulwer-Lytton's novel Alice, or, The Mysteries.

As a significant influence on the Pre-Raphaelite circle, von Holst is an intriguing figure in the history of art: one who straddles both the Regency and the early Victorian period. London born, but with parentage from both Latvia and Russia, he attended the Royal Academy Schools under the tutelage of Fuseli, whose work von Holst’s is often compared with. With such eccentric beginnings it is perhaps not surprising that von Holst had a short and fitful career. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy at the age of seventeen and continued a prolific and prize-winning output all his life. Nevertheless despite the high praise of his peers, he never achieved widespread popularity with the public and died in 1844 from liver failure and sadly, according to intimate contemporaries, ‘of disappointment.’ He never knew that admiring members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood used to gather and dine beneath his pictures hanging at Campbell’s Restaurant in London’s West End. Holst was the first published illustrator of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as well as being the most prolific English illustrator of German Romantic literature and particularly of Goethe’s Faust.

Theodor von Holst: His Art and the Pre-Raphaelites will feature many of his key works, focusing mostly on his proto Pre-Raphaelite style, including his most popular work, The Bride painted, in 1842, two years before he died. This strikingly portrays Ginevra, Shelley’s unfortunate victim of an arranged medieval marriage. Her long dark hair contrasting with the burnished gold background is clearly a precursor to the later ‘stunners’ of Rossetti, Holst’s greatest admirer. The exhibition also includes The Wish painted in 1841, a work which inspired Rossetti’s poem and drawing of The Card Player. Other highlights in the exhibition include The Munro-Holst sketchbook, the only surviving sketchbook of the artist, and two original and characteristically Holstian early works by Rossetti, Illustration to the Raven and La Belle Dame sans Merci, both of which are privately owned and rarely exhibited.

As well as paintings there will also be works on paper and illustrated books. The display will be mounted in three rooms in the Holst Birthplace house, with the Regency sitting room providing an ideal setting for the larger oil paintings, and the Victorian bedroom a more intimate environment for the smaller-scale works. The exhibition is the first major show in the Holst Birthplace Museum’s history, befitting the 35th anniversary of its establishment in 2010.

Theodor von Holst: his Art and the Pre-Raphaelites has been organized by the Holst Birthplace Museum, in co-operation with Max Browne, who is the leading specialist on von Holst. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue which includes a central essay on von Holst written by Browne, as well as a family history essay placing the von Holsts in context by Laura Kinnear, Curator of the Holst Birthplace Museum. There will also be an events and education programme as part of the exhibition.
Max Browne and Laura Kinnear, Curator of the Holst Birthplace Museum, invite the public and the experts to: Come and see what turned the Pre-Raphaelites on!