Contemporary Comment

When, on the same day in 1878 as Robert Gibb, William Hole was elected an Associate of the Scottish Academy, he was known chiefly for what were described by a contemporary critic as ‘Ambitious efforts in the direction of high Art.’ He had painted ‘Medea in the Island of Circe,’ and several episodes in the Arthurian legend, and he was recognised by his fellows as a man of exceptional artistic appreciation ; but, it was not until a year or two later that he caught the public eye by his picturesque renderings of Jacobite story : ‘The End of the ’45,’ ‘A Straggler of the Chevalier’s Army,’ ‘Culloden,’ and ‘Prince Charlie’s Parliament,’ and still later before his etchings of pictures brought him the applause of the discriminating. But to pursue his development as a painter, in 1883 and 1884 he showed several excellent pictures of West-Coast fisher-life, and in ‘The Night’s Catch’ and ‘The fill of the two Boats’ attained the highest point he has reached as a picture painter. They bore the impress of personal impressions of Nature, and they were painted with vigour and directness.

To Hole, however, Art is more than Nature. He did not follow up his success in dealing with realities, and returned to myth and history. The work which he now did was often well conceived and carefully designed, but too often it lacked the smack of originality, which in art is worth all the scholarship in the world. Yet the gift of appreciation, which was hurtful, perhaps, to his personality as a painter, was meanwhile revealing itself in a series of wonderful reproductive etchings. Except the portraits in Quasi Cursores, published in connection with the Tercentenary of Edinburgh University (1884), I cannot recall any etched work of his before the appearance of W. E. Henley’s Memorial Catalogue of the French and Dutch Loan Collection in the Edinburgh Exhibition (Meadows) of 1886, but he must have been etching for some time. The plates in that volume are the work of a master. Brought together by the late Mr. R. T. Hamilton Bruce, who contributed many of the finest examples to that notable gathering, the collection contained some of the finest work of Millet and Corot, of Rousseau and Troyon, of Diaz and Monticelli and other leaders of the romantic movement in France, and of the Maris brothers, Israels, Bosboom, and Mauve among the modern Dutchmen who have carried on the tradition of that great school to our own day ; and Hole made reproductions of representative pictures by all these masters.

The method employed was etching, but not of the ordinary and orthodox style, for line was combined with something that looks uncommonly like mezzotint, and use was made of any means which would convey the surface and paint quality of the impasto. The results in these reproductive respects were wonderful, but even more admirable was the interpretative power displayed in seizing and rendering the spirit and individuality of conception of the different artists. And in two series of plates, the one from pictures in the National Gallery of Scotland (1888), the other of the landscapes by Thomson, of Duddingston (1889), which he made for the Society for the Promotion of Art in Scotland, he showed as great a flexibility of method and an even wider range of sympathy.

In addition to these and others on a comparatively small scale, he has executed a number of much larger plates, of which those after Millet’s ‘Wood Sawyers,’ Matthew Maris’s ‘He is coming,’ Constable’s ‘Jumping Horse,’ and Velasquez’s ‘Admiral Pareja,’ must be mentioned as particularly important. Of these it is difficult to speak too highly. They are perhaps the most wonderful translations of colour and handling, of design and conception and spirit, into another artistic medium ever made, and entitle their author to rank with creative artists of the highest class. Unfortunately, so at least those of us who prize his work of this kind think, this incomparable interpreter has since shown an inclination to abandon the field in which he has won such triumphs, and is again devoting his talents to more original, but no more honourable work.

For the most part this has not been easel picture-painting but mural decoration. Some of it has sprung from the religious instinct, which prompted him to paint ‘If thou hadst known’ — one of his most successful pictures — in 1885, and to produce, after a visit to Palestine, a series of watercolour drawings illustrative of ‘The Life of Christ ‘ marked by reverence and simplicity of feeling (published, with an introduction by Professor G. A. Smith, 1906). His most important decorations, however, deal with the earlier epochs of Scottish History, and are to be found in the Central Hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and in the Edinburgh Council Chambers. In these the artist has maintained a rather happy compromise between the rival claims of decoration and representation, and, if rather wanting in charm of colour, the Portrait Gallery cycle is one of the most notable essays in mural decoration ever accomplished in this country. If it were in a Continental capital, British visitors would make a point of seeing and of being duly impressed by it.

Mr. Hole, although brought up and trained in Scotland, and devoting much of his energies to Scottish national subjects and purposes, and to the illustration of Scottish literature in the novels of Stevenson and Barrie and in the ‘Centenary Burns,’ is an Englishman and an Episcopalian. Perhaps the student of racial characteristics in art may be able to detect the influence of these things in his work.

SOURCE:  Scottish Painting Past and Present 1620-1908 by James L. Caw (1908)

NOTES:  James Caw was Director of the National Galleries of Scotland and a respected author and art critic.  He retired from the National Galleries in 1930 and was knighted in 1931.


MR. HOLE has chosen to belong to a group of Scotsmen who have repeated, in spite of the centralisation of these days, the local honours of an older epoch. In the high times of the Edinburgh Review, when the Northern capital was a capital indeed, with literary and artistic traditions of her own, there was hardly a stronger national seal upon her work than has been set again in our own time by young men whose fame is imperial while their characteristics are Scottish. But Mr. Hole has improved upon the local spirit of those who, however Northern their genius may be, have sought publishers and purchasers, audiences and exhibitions, in London. He is comparatively a stranger at Burlington House, and the official honours he has accepted are from the Scottish namesake of our Royal Academy. Eminent, therefore, has he become in a group whose work shows the rare quality of inspiration as well as the now abundant quality of art.

Nevertheless, Mr. Hole is by paternal blood a Southron, a member of an old family of Devonshire squires. His father, a physician at Salisbury, died of cholera in the memorable plague of 1849, falling at the post of duty and in the midst of devoted labours to which, and to the love and respect in which his name was held, a monument in Salisbury Cathedral bears witness. The young physician’s widow went to her own family in Edinburgh, taking with her her son of three years old, and educated him there, chiefly at the Edinburgh Academy. And when the time came for choosing a profession, although the boy wished ardently to he an artist, the idea was scouted by the family adviser, a dry old Scotch lawyer, whose opinion of painters was contemptuous, and who was wont to lament the lapse of the present esteemed President of the Royal Scottish Academy from the honourable paths of business, in the words, “Douglas is just a stickit banker.” And the family adviser having influence in the absence of the father’s authority, William Hole was apprenticed to a firm of civil engineers, distinguished for turning out clever members of other professions. Here the future artist wasted five good years, noted slightly for the beauty of his drawings and for the general inaccuracy of his engineering, but learning a little of his profession and of many other things, from the late Fleeming Jenkin, the gifted and lamented Professor of Engineering in the Edinburgh University. During this time Mr. Hole took every opportunity afforded by holidays of copying in the National Gallery, and of sketching from Nature. He also achieved pictures which occasionally found their way into modest corners of the Royal Scottish Academy.

At the time when the unwilling and unprofitable apprenticeship was finished, a friend chanced to say to the happily emancipated apprentice that if ever he wished to go to Italy there was a passage in a trading vessel at his disposal. So before settling down to the work of life Mr. Hole, in 1869, sailed from Swansea with fifty pounds in his pocket, in a little trader, and, after an adventurous voyage, landed at the port of Genoa. Some six months were spent in Italy in wandering up and down, and sketching everything from morning till night. Nothing came amiss to the happy artist – children, cattle, peasants, landscape, monks, ruins, and churches. In Rome the wanderer made acquaintance with various artists, among others Mr. Keeley Halswelle, who gave his junior the practical advice of which a young man can make such good profit when his heart is in the matter, and of which no student surely had ever been so deprived as Mr. Hole. To Mr. Keeley Halswelle, indeed, he owed the sentence which changed his life. It was spoken in the course of a severe criticism on a drawing by Mr. Hole, who urged in deprecation that he was only an amateur. “Ah,” said the painter, “I had forgotten that.” The saying, so full of hope and suggestion and regret, gave to the future artist the idea that he need not be an amateur for ever. Returning to Scotland, he found that nothing turned up for him to do as an engineer. He began then a real course of study in art, entering the School of Design in Edinburgh, which has been the infant school of many an excellent painter, and worked diligently at drawing under Mr. Hodder. Nevertheless, engineering was not yet explicitly abandoned, and during a year longer, if anything in that profession had presented itself Mr. Hole would have accepted it, and Scotland would have lost a true artist. But there was nothing to do, and when Mr. Hole made explicit profession of his adoption of another career no one could reproach him with engineering opportunities thrown away. His drawings gained him admission into the Academy Life-school, and the beginning of the new work was marked with that sign of a serious career begun – a commission.

From this time the young painter went on gradually, studying and exhibiting, until, in 1878, he was elected an Associate of the Scottish Academy. At about this time, encouraged by the approval of Mr. Hamerton, he tried etching, which has ever since been an important part of his work. Mr. Hamerton has done good service to the stenographic art – the art which interprets so sensitively the artist’s mood, as well as his temperament, that it expresses a tremor in the drawing of his breath or an animation in his heartbeats; for not by his eloquent propaganda only, but by his incentive to young artists to etch, has Mr. Hamerton brought etching out of its long-lasting obscurity. Mr. Hole was elected in 1885 a member of the Painter Etchers’ Society, having joined the Scotch Society of Painters in Water-colours in the previous year. Of the subjects of Mr. Hole’s principal pictures some idea may be formed from the following list by those who do not know his sincere and strongly progressive work except through reproductions in the art magazines:- In 1875 appeared “Her Wedding Day,” a bride taking leave of her grandparents; in the following year “Taken Unawares,” in which Mr. Hole took the comic view of the cloister – always in the traditions of the British artist, who has been inclined to ignore the tenderness, patience, and renunciations of convent life in order to find out its probable or possible joke. How much a curious form of ingenious imagination can make of a monk’s relation to his companions may be seen in Mr. Browning’s “Spanish Cloister,” where the situation is satanically grotesque. No painting, as far as we know, has gone to the length of this literature, but Mr. Marks and Mr. Dendy Sadler are wont to make unsympathetic, though not malicious, use of the monk. In Mr. Hole’s picture the scene is the guard-room of a castle, where a friar, who has fallen asleep, is sketched by a jester, while the men-at-arms look on. “His Lordship” (1877) showed a village smithy to which a little boy has been wheeled in an invalid chair; and in the same year Mr. Hole began that phase of Civil War subjects to which most young painters are fated by the laws of their development. “A Wounded Enemy” – a Royalist officer tended by an old woman in the Covenanters’ camp – was followed by “The Alarm,” in which the scene is a besieged Royalist chapel; at the call of a messenger, all present are flying to arms. Next carne “The End of the ’45.” Here the painter, who shows us a string of Jacobite prisoners led through a Highland village, impresses us with a sense of the physical misery which overpowers the mental sorrow of despair for a lost cause. The wet, the wounds, the flapping of torn, drenched raiment on cold limbs, make this a bitter progress to captivity. The movement of the march is exceedingly well rendered. “A Straggler from the Chevalier’s Army,” painted in the following year (1880), is a singularly vivid incident of the past – a passage of life which the artist would almost seem to have witnessed, so much familiarity and activity is there in his conception of the accidents of the scene. A wounded Highlander is attacked by the tagrag of an English village, and turns at bay. Here, too, the quality of movement is remarkable.

“Queen Mary’s First Levee” is a passage of more repose. In the solemn-looking interior of the royal bedchamber stands a tall canopied bed where the baby Queen, lying on her mother’s arm, received the oath of allegiance of the Scottish nobility. “Prince Charlie’s Parliament” is again an interior – this time a Highland hut where the Pretender, in his adversity, sits in consultation with a few adherents. His own face is worn, and there is an undemonstrative sadness in the dignity of his action. A follower watches at the window, through which a glimpse is caught of the mountain landscape; the old cottage woman sits over the fire in the smoke-obscured background. In “The Night’s Catch,” the beautiful Northern dawn is breaking over a highland loch, and boats are coming homeward in the pure and chilly light. A crew just landed – they have toiled all the night and caught little – divide a small basketful of herrings. And another fishing subject was “The Fill of the Boats” – west highland fishing craft loaded to the gunwale, hoisting sail for home.

In 1885 Mr. Hole painted the picture which, for gravity and dignity, marked the highest point he had yet reached. “If Thou Hadst Known” is one of the few religious works seen within late years at the Royal Academy, even if the name of religious may be given to the subject merely, without any reference to the artist’s capacity. Mr. Hole’s work is religious in the painter’s intention and power, and in that artistic sincerity without which moral sincerity has no expression. The scene is conceived with the full realisation which the painter combines with nobility and quiet. The night landscape of the hill of Jerusalem shows the points of light of a great city of antiquity; a radiance reveals the forms and faces of temples; cressets shine out on terrace walls, and the soft specks of brilliance are sprinkled amongst the foliage of the fertile days of Jerusalem. The soft Oriental darkness is lost towards the west in lingering light, and large stars are overhead. There is a suggestion of multitudinous, but remote, human life in the city, and of deep solitude in the foreground hill with its seated figure. The Saviour’s attitude is meditative and composed rather than explicitly expressive. Mr. Hole’s picture in 1886 was a portrait of the Rev. Dr. Moody Stuart, in Geneva gown, descending the pulpit stairs.

Among upwards of a hundred published etchings the principal are a series of landscapes in illustration of an archaeological work; portraits of professors and officials of the Edinburgh University at the time of the tercentenary festival, for which the sketches were taken from the subjects unawares while they were lecturing or discussing, so that the characteristic living action has been felicitously caught; and six studies of celebrated Dandie Dininont terriers. Chief among the artist’s reproductive etchings are a plate of “If Thou Hadst Known,” and one of the portrait of Dr. Moody Stuart, while Mr. Hole is now engaged on etchings after Rousseau, Corot, Diaz, the Dutch brothers Maris, and other masters of modern landscape. His principal book illustrations are those to Mr. R. L. Stevenson’s “Kidnapped.”

SOURCE:  The Modern School of Art (Vol. 4) edited by Wilfrid Meynell (1897)