Theodor Von Holst and the Pre-Raphaelites at Holst Birthplace Museum

By Richard Moss | 10 September 2010
a painting of a dark haired woman dealing cards
Theodor von Holst, The Wish 1841
Exhibition: Theodor von Holst - His Art and the Pre-Raphaelites at the Holst Birthplace Museum until December 11 2010.

The Holst Birthplace Museum is tracking the brief but fascinating career of Gustav Holst’s colourful great uncle, the artist Theodore Von Holst.

A literary painter whose choice of Gothic symbolism most closely recalls the Pre-Raphaelites and his Royal Academy tutor Henry Fuseli, Von Holst is an intriguing figure in the history of art – straddling as he does both the Regency and Victorian periods.

He burst onto the scene in the late 1820s as a precocious 17-year-old, winning plaudits from his contemporaries but never securing the widespread popularity he craved – and needed. Von Holst died in 1844 of what is said to be a combination of liver failure and disappointment.

Posthumous renown was to be his lot. As the first illustrator of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein his engraving for the novel’s frontispiece remains the most ubiquitous illustration of the story, and he is still one of the most prolific English illustrators of German Romantic literature – particularly Goethe’s Faust. 

a portrait of a man in a floppy felt hat and large silk collar
Theodor von Holst, Self-Portrait 1827
The Museum has chosen to present this arc of productivity across its period rooms – from the Regency sitting room for the larger oils to the Victorian bedroom where the smaller scale works sit in a more intimate setting. 

Among them are paintings by Fuseli and Von Holst’s great admirer Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The latter, a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who idealised the Von Holst paintings adorning the walls of the PRB’s notorious hangout, Campbell’s Restaurant in London’s West End.

Laura Kinnear, Curator of the Holst Birthplace Museum, is inviting the public and the experts to “come and see what turned the Pre-Raphaelites on” and the exhibition focuses on what are best described as Von Holst’s proto Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

The Bride, painted in 1842, casts the tragic heroine of Percy Shelley’s poem Ginerva as a kind of forerunner of the ‘Pre-Raphaelite stunner’, against a background of burnished gold. The shadowy maiden depicted in The Wish, is similarly captivating. Painted in 1841, it enthralled Rossetti so much he based his poem The Card Player on it.

Other little seen treasures include 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.

Visitors to this exhibition who are new to Von Holst may leave feeling they have discovered the missing link between the Gothic fantasy of the Regency period and the rich symbolism of the Pre-Raphaelites and those Victorian painters who followed them.
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