Enjoy the legacy of ‘benevolent despot’ of Leamington art collection

John Terrick Williams

John Terrick Williams, Boats in Harbour, Mevagissey, oil on canvas, 1935-1936

The artistic legacy of a man who left his mark on Leamington Spa is explored at the town’s art gallery.

The Benevolent Despot – Alderman Alfred Holt (1858 – 1943) and the foundation of Leamington Art Gallery tells the story of the long-standing councillor and his contribution to the town he came to call home, and his huge input into the town’s art collection.

The independently-wealthy Holt was from London, but visited Leamington in 1893 and fell for its charms, settling in Oakwoods (a house which is no longer there) in Kenilworth Road with his wife Florence for the rest of his life. He half funded the bandstand and the fountains in Jephson Gardens, helped found the Leamington Cricket Club, and less attractively rode with the local hunt. He was elected to the council in 1906, and became engrossed by local leadership, being mayor seven times.

Holt also part funded the art gallery extension to the library in Avenue Road, and from 1928 until its temporary closure during the Second World War he was its biggest donor, giving 12 of the first 13 paintings to the collection, and 109 in total.

Many are on show in this fascinating exhibition. There are portraits, landscapes and social scenes. Holt was interested in travel and went abroad a lot, and some seem to reflect that interest too, including Francisco Hohenleiter’s Corral en Triana, an oil painting of people gathered around a well in a pretty, sun-lit courtyard.

Another strong work is Sarkis Katchadourian’s The Three Generations, showing three Muslim women in a market scene, two in white and one in a long black gown.

There is John Terrick Williams’s attractive Boats in Harbour, Mevagissey, from the 1930s, and two paintings of St Ives, Bernard Ninnes’s  Boat Builders Shop, St Ives, a large work with the harbour recognisable through the window,  and R Borlase Smart’s The Pilot’s Boat House, St Ives, a crowded scene showing a familiar building before the arrival of too much tourism. Old Oak, Stoneleigh Road by Thomas Baker shows a sturdy old tree nearer to home.

David Alison
David Alison (1882-1955), Portrait of Alderman Alfred Holt, 1930, oil on canvas

Alderman Holt, as Project Curator Jeff Watkins notes, donated works by some of the most celebrated artists of the era, including Christopher Nevinson, Dorothea Sharp and Stanley and Gilbert Spencer.

The exhibition includes The Chicken Boy by Gilbert Spencer, an oil on board showing a lot of chickens following the dull-looking boy – which features in a book of “1,000 paintings to see before you die”.  There is also Cookham Rise by Stanley Spencer, a view of some simple homes and newly-laid out gardens in a peaceful setting in his characteristic style.

Other portraits include Poverty by William Lee-Hanley, featuring an unhappy woman with two children, and Alan Hayward’s The Onion Man, showing a jaunty figure with a string of onion and a seaside scene in the background. Celia Frances Bedford’s Lady with Powder Puff shows a woman in a social setting looking at herself in a mirror, while a man looks at her.

Holt’s love of travel is shown in the donation of three large Maori shawls which he is believed to have brought back from a trip.

Holt’s name lives on in Holt Estate in Lillington, and in the gifting of a pendant for the Mayoress to wear but through the donation of 109 paintings and other works of art the ‘benevolent despot’ has left a gift of beauty for generations to enjoy.

*The exhibition at Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum continues until January 7.

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