The Resourceful Mr Holmes? The Life and Art of Charles Holmes (1868-1936)

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Co-editor of the Burlington from January 1904 to September 1909, Charles Holmes was integral to the early success of the magazine. As Roger Fry admitted in 1911: ‘without the unusual combination of artistic sensitivity and business method which [Holmes] possesses it could not have met successfully the difficulties of the early years’.[1] The Burlington was, in fact, Holmes’s second rescue job – in the late 1890s he had saved The Vale Press from Charles Ricketts’s bad business sense.[2] Holmes’s notable professional qualities would soon be appreciated at the highest level: in 1904 he was elected Slade Professor at Oxford, in 1909 he succeeded Lionel Cust as Director of the National Portrait Gallery and, in 1916, was appointed Director of the National Gallery, where he stayed until 1928. He was knighted in 1921.

Holmes was clearly a level-headed man: the kind of character that does not jump out of any accounts of the period – including his own.[3] As a young man visiting The Vale – home of Ricketts and Shannon – Holmes overheard Oscar Wilde referring to him as ‘quite nice, but SO dull’.[4] Other comments suggest that he was a man who got the job done, but little more. William Rothenstein, for instance, would refer to Holmes as ‘a resourceful writer on art’ – hardly the most glowing response to the hundreds of articles and handful of books that Holmes produced over the course of his career.[5] Surrounded by such critics as Fry, Laurence Binyon and D. S. MacColl, it is fair to say that Holmes sometimes struggled to hold his own. By comparison with these great critics, his countless articles on Constable and Rembrandt – two of his major passions – seem perfectly proficient, but hardly extraordinary.[6]

Taken in its totality, nonetheless, his criticism covers a remarkable range of material in a thoughtful, engaging and occasionally eccentric manner. Who else but Holmes could have written The Tarn and the Lake (1913), probably the only book to make distinct analogies between the behavior of fish (Holmes was a keen angler) and the Italian Renaissance? Holmes was also important in introducing Japanese art to Britain: indeed, his very first published work was on Hokusai and Hiroshige, subjects to which he would return in the pages of the Burlington.[7] Also significant are his technical studies, including Notes on the Science of Picture-Making (1909), which remind us that Holmes’s criticism was grounded in his knowledge of the practical aspects of art. When Holmes wrote about etching, or the composition of an oil painting, or draughtsmanship – all subjects he covered for the Burlington – he did so not only from close study of objects themselves, but from personal experience as an artist.

The artist-critic was a prominent feature of the 1900s (a decade of multi-tasking if there ever was one). Fellow exhibitors at the Carfax Gallery and the New English Art Club – where Holmes regularly showed his work – included the critics Roger Fry and D. S. MacColl. I think it can be argued, however, that Holmes was the most intriguing artist of these three. Though he never attended art school, he was a dedicated practitioner of his craft, who approached art as far more than a hobby. Holmes learned to etch first in the 1890s, overseen by Ricketts and Shannon, and by the innovative and prolific printmaker William Strang. In time he also became a keen draughtsman and painter, with a penchant for landscapes. Early works show the obvious influence of Rembrandt and Constable, and suggest little of the path Holmes was to take in the later 1900s. As a later critic would put it: ‘it must have been difficult for one who knew so much about the old masters, and who had peered so closely into the permanent recipes of art, to retain that innocence of the eye that makes for originality’.[8] There is at this stage no sense of an individual style or driving vision.

I think it was Holmes’s exposure to Whistler and Japanese art – principally Hokusai, Hiroshige and Korin – that laid the foundations for his best (and most original) work, which falls into two clear categories. On the one hand, you have his dramatic country landscapes, featuring mostly mountainous backdrops. The Lake District was the primary inspiration here, though Holmes occasionally worked abroad, almost always seeking out a vista conducive to strong design. His sworn enemy was the ‘vignette’: he sought something deeper than this, something simultaneously simpler and yet more meaningful.[9] As he wrote in 1909: ‘the true painter’s emotion visualizes and embodies his experience in terms of design, as the poet sums up his experience in terms of rhythm. It seizes on the points of the subject that are essential to pictorial expression, and rejects all others’. [10] This comment found glorious resolution in works such as Saddleback from the South-East (1911), Holmes’s magisterial meditation on Blencathra.

It also fuelled his second major interest of the period: the representation of industrial landscapes – a subject in which he was, I believe, a true pioneer. The number and range of Holmes’s industrial landscapes has never been fully appreciated: from 1900 to 1936 Holmes completed over thirty paintings of industrial scenes, and over four hundred sketches.[11] It is likely that he was prompted by Whistler’s views of Battersea, and by a period of his childhood in which he played on the factory roofs of Preston.[12] Looking through his sketchbooks it is clear that Holmes was obsessed by the pictorial possibilities thrown up by smoking chimneys, colossal warehouses and the heavy, barren landscapes in which they existed. Although Holmes’s fascination with factories took on almost Lowry-like proportions, he did not share Lowry’s interest in the social life of the various towns and cities which he depicted.[13] Nor, like many nineteenth-century artists, was he interested in over-emphasizing the hellish drama of the scene.[14] Holmes (not surprisingly, perhaps, considering his middle-class background) was more interested in the buildings than the people who worked in them. He appears to have delighted in the endless variety of angles, the crisscross of tall towers with long wide buildings, the mingling of smoke and cloud, and the glorious mess of machinery scattered about the landscape. There was, in short, an abstract beauty in the industrial landscape which the artist found irresistible. Here, amongst the chimneys of Preston and Sheffield, Holmes settled on a subject that he made his own.

Holmes being Holmes, however, he seems to have kept his passion largely to himself. Though he held several exhibitions of his industrials – which were, incidentally, well received by contemporary critics – he never wrote about this subject at any length.[15] His 1936 memoir, the wonderfully titled Self and Partners (Mostly Self), contains far more about his fishing trips than it does about his own art. His articles for the Burlington, similarly, do not give up their secrets easily. With this in mind, it is very easy to dismiss Holmes as a safe pair of hands: a capable and wide-ranging connoisseur possessed of a solid creative talent. His fence-sitting response to Fry’s 1910 exhibition of Post-Impressionist Art would seem to confirm this.[16]  Holmes was not the type of writer to put his neck on the line – that much is evident. In his quiet way, nevertheless, he achieved much more than he is ever given credit for. Resourceful, yes, but by no means uninspired.

Samuel Shaw, February 2014

NB: This entry is an excerpt from Samuel Shaw’s longer, forthcoming essay on Charles Holmes and the industrial landscape.

Illustration: Two pages from Holmes’s sketchbooks, in the British Museum collection. [Image taken from the following article: A. M. Hind ‘The Sketch-books of Sir Charles Holmes’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol 77, No. 449 (1940).]

Photograph: Sir Charles John Holmes, by Walter Stoneman, for James Russell & Sons
bromide print, circa 1916, National Portrait Gallery, London

NPG Ax39189; Sir Charles John Holmes by Walter Stoneman, for  James Russell & Sons


[1] R. Fry and L. Cust, ‘Number One Hundred’, The Burlington Magazine, 19 (July 1911) pp.185-66. For more on the early years of the Burlington see C. Elam, ‘ “More and more important work”: Roger Fry and the Burlington Magazine, CXLV (March 2003) pp.142-152. This period is also well covered in Holmes’s memoirs: C. J. Holmes, Self and Partners (Mostly Self), (London 1936).

[2] For more on the relationship between Holmes and Ricketts see Delaney, J G P. Charles Ricketts, A Biography (Oxford 1990)

[3] Holmes’s memoirs, though useful source material, are not the most exciting of their kind. See C. J. Holmes, Self and Partners (Mostly Self), (London 1936)

[4] Ibid. p.167.

[5] William Rothenstein, Men and Memories, Volume One, (London 1930), p. 175. The Burlington Index lists one hundred and thirty eight articles by Holmes.

[6] Holmes contributed a volume on Constable to Laurence Binyon’s ‘Artist’s Library’ series in 1901, which he followed up with Constable and his Influence on Landscape Painting (London 1902). His work on Rembrandt was collected in Notes on the Art of Rembrandt (1911). Both artists appear frequently in his criticism for the Burlington.

[7] See ‘Hiroshige’, The Dome;  ‘Hokusai’, The Dome, Hokusai, both 1899. See also ‘The Use of Japanese Art to Europe’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol 8, No.31, 1905, pp.2-11, ‘The Fisherwomen: A Colour-Print by Hokusai’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol 11, No. 4, 1907, pp28-29. Holmes also wrote at length on Chinese bronzes.

[8] ‘Sir Charles Holmes: A Memorial Exhibition’, The Manchester Guardian, February 4th 1937, p.5.

[9] See Hokusai, (London 1899) p.44 for Holmes’s views on the ‘vignette’.

[10] The Science of Picture-Making, p.11

[11] The paintings are dispersed in various collections, with an especially large group at Samlesbury Hall, near Blackburn. His sketchbooks were left to the British Museum. See A. M. Hind ‘The Sketch-books of Sir Charles Holmes’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol 77, No. 449 (1940) pp.44-52.

[12] C. J. Holmes, s and p, p.49

[13] Holmes, incidentally, has never formed part of the debate surrounding L. S. Lowry’s industrial landscapes. The recent exhibition of Lowry at the Tate preferred to overlook the rich tradition of painting the industrial scene in Britain in order to emphasize Lowry’s continental connections.

[14] There are exceptions to this rule, such as the 1918 painting The Two-Year Old Steel Works in Sheffield, a war-time commission, with which Holmes was never satisfied.

[15] Holmes exhibited at Carfax Gallery in 1909, 1911, 1913 and 1919. Industrial subjects featured in all four exhibitions.

[16] See C J Holmes, Notes on the Post-Impressionist Painters (London 1911)

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