Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/Holroyd, Charles

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4180655Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement — Holroyd, Charles1927Campbell Dodgson

HOLROYD, Sir CHARLES (1861–1917), painter-etcher and director of the National Gallery, London, the eldest son of William Holroyd, merchant, of Leeds, by his wife, Lucy, daughter of Henry Woodthorpe, of Aveley, Essex, was born at Leeds 9 April 1861. He was educated at Leeds grammar school and also, since he was intended for the career of a mining engineer, at the Yorkshire College of Science (afterwards Leeds University) until in 1880 he went to the Slade School of Fine Art at University College, London, where Alphonse Legros [q.v.] was then professor. William Strang [q.v.], slightly his senior, was his most distinguished contemporary at the school, and these were the two students on whom the style and teaching of Legros made the strongest impression. After winning many prizes and acting from 1885 to 1889 as an assistant teacher at the Slade School, Holroyd gained a travelling scholarship, and during two years spent in Italy (1889–1891) acquired an intimate knowledge of the art, architecture, scenery, and language of the country, for which he retained throughout his life the warmest affection. He made many etchings during his student days, but they were of little merit compared with his later work. He was elected a fellow of the Society of Painter-Etchers in 1885, and thereafter (except in 1890) was a regular exhibitor at the Society's gallery, contributing all his best work on copper or zinc to its annual exhibitions. He took the keenest interest in the affairs both of this society and of the Art Workers' Guild, of which he became a member in 1898 and master in 1905. In 1891 he married a former student of the Slade School, Fannie Fetherstonhaugh, daughter of the Hon. John Alexander Macpherson, of Melbourne, at one time premier of Victoria. Holroyd and his wife spent about three years (1894–1897) in Italy; from 1897 to 1903 they lived at Epsom.

Between 1885 and 1895 Holroyd exhibited seven pictures at the Royal Academy, and contributed to other exhibitions, such as that of the International Society of Painters and Gravers. He occasionally painted portraits, and an altar-piece by him, ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’, of which he made an etching in 1900, is in Aveley church. But he was not a good colourist, in spite of his warm appreciation of the Venetian school, nor a thorough master of the technique of oil-painting. Some of his water-colour sketches are in the Tate Gallery. His etched work, amounting to 286 numbers [Illustrated Catalogue by Campbell Dodgson in the Print Collector's Quarterly, October and December 1923], is by far his most considerable claim to recognition as an artist. He was uncertain, though often excellent, as a draughtsman, and his imagination was not always equal to the tasks that he essayed; but he had a fine, and in his day rare, ambition to attempt anew the great traditional themes, sacred and mythological, of renaissance art. Among his figure subjects, the ‘Icarus’ series, ‘The Flight into Egypt’, ‘The Prodigal Son’, ‘Prayer’, some monastic subjects in the manner of Legros, and the later ‘Nymphs by the Sea’ (1905), deserve special mention. After the year 1900 he tended to confine himself more and more to landscape. He etched many good plates of scenes on the Medway, in the New Forest, and, above all, in the English lake district, where many holidays were spent, for both he and his wife were good pedestrians and climbers. Many good etchings were done also on their frequent visits to Italy, of subjects from Rome (the small and large ‘Borghese Trees’ are among his best plates), Venice, Siena, and later, Belluno and Assisi. Of his portrait etchings, ‘Alphonse Legros’ and some idealized heads of his wife (especially ‘Night’, a dry-point) are the best. His excellent drawing of trees is exemplified by ‘A Yew on Glaramara’ (1903), ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ (1904), several of the Medway etchings, and ‘The Bent Beech’ (1916), one of the latest of all his plates. A fairly representative, but very incomplete, collection of his etchings is in the British Museum. The complete collection formed by the artist himself now belongs to his son, who also owns the plates, of which few have been destroyed. Another branch of art which he practised about 1900, again under the influence of Legros, was that of the medallist. He also contributed lithographs to two portfolios issued by the Art Workers' Guild in 1905 and 1907.

In his later years Holroyd's artistic work was much hampered by official duties, and etching tended to become merely a holiday recreation. In 1897 he was appointed the first keeper of the newly founded National Gallery of British Art at Millbank (Tate Gallery), a position which he held till 1906, when he succeeded Sir Edward John Poynter [q.v.] as director of the National Gallery. He was knighted in 1903. At the Tate Gallery he did much to bring into prominence some of the good, but neglected, British artists, especially Alfred Stevens [q.v.]. At the National Gallery he improved the catalogue, and the arrangement and decoration of the rooms, for the greater safety of which he initiated works of reconstruction. He had few opportunities, as director, of making great acquisitions for the Gallery, and some of his attempts to improve the representation of the French school are open to criticism; but it was in his time that the National Art-Collections Fund became powerful, and secured for the Gallery three important pictures by Velazquez, Holbein, and Mabuse, with his full approval and active help. By his tact and perseverance Holroyd overcame great difficulties in securing for the Gallery the bequest of pictures of Sir Austen Henry Layard [q.v.]. He had much to do with disinterring from the store-rooms of the National Gallery the forgotten, unfinished paintings by Turner, the beauties of which were revealed for the first time in the new Turner gallery at Millbank, to which most of Turner's pictures were transferred from Trafalgar Square during Holroyd's directorship.

Holroyd held the directorship of the National Gallery for two periods of five years, but resigned in June 1916 on account of failing health. Difficulties with the trustees, the aggressive and dangerous tactics of the suffragettes in 1913–1914, and then the outbreak of the European War, preyed upon his mind and undermined his health. From 1915 onwards he suffered from heart disease and was rarely able to leave Sturdie House, Weybridge, the house which he had built for himself in 1901–1903, and where he died 17 November 1917. He was survived by his wife (died 1924) and by their only son Michael, afterwards fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford.

Holroyd was a stalwart man of fine presence, courteous manners, and a generous heart, ever ready to befriend other artists, and to do all in his power for visitors and students at the National Gallery. He was not in all respects a learned critic or historian of art, his strong point being a thorough knowledge of the Italian school. He was the author of Michael Angelo Buonarrotti (1903; second edition, 1911), embodying a new translation of Condivi's life of that artist, and he contributed a life of Legros to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but wrote little else except occasional articles and introductions to official catalogues and guides. A portrait of Holroyd was etched by Legros in 1894.

[The Times, 19 November 1917; Daily Telegraph, 20 November 1917; Burlington Magazine, December 1917 and January 1918; Print Collector's Quarterly, October and December 1923; private information.]

C. D.