Highlights in the Royal Holloway Picture Gallery

The Royal Holloway Art Collections on display in the Picture Gallery include some of the 19th century’s most iconic works of art. Listed in The Telegraph’s “50 hidden gems”, the Picture Gallery is open to the public every Wednesday during term time from 10am-3pm.

Here are some of our highlights:

Babylonian Marriage Market, 1875 – Edwin Long (1829-1891)

This painting depicts women from ancient Babylon, whose families have not been able to afford a dowry, being auctioned off as wives.

In 1870 a new act had been passed allowing married women to retain some of their income and wealth. Before this, upon marriage, the property of the wife was surrendered to her husband and her legal identity ceased to exist.  In the 1870s, when this picture was painted, there was great public debate about married women’s rights. .

For the women who came to study at Royal Holloway these laws gave them new legal status if they married. By gaining a university education, the students were giving themselves the option of a career as an alternative to marriage. It seems likely that Thomas Holloway bought this painting to act as the stimulus for debate about the new role of women in society, their legal status and whether or not to marry and perhaps as a reminder that he was offering the women the chance not to enter the 19th–century marriage market.

Man Proposes, God Disposes, 1864 – Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873)

This painting of two polar bears savagely attacking human remains depicts an imagined episode in the mysterious tale of Sir John Franklin’s failed expedition to find the North-West passage in 1845. Finding this pass was extremely important to British merchants and sailors in the 19th century as it would link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, significantly cutting the length of voyages.

Franklin, an experienced explorer, set off in 1845 with two Royal Navy ships and 129 men. After 3 years, when no word had been heard, numerous search and rescue missions were sent out. Few found anything concrete until John Rae headed a mission in 1854. He spoke to the local Inuit community who had met some of the remaining crew after they had abandoned their ships, and who found the bodies of these men the following year. Most gruesome, however, was their discovery of bones belonging to members of the crew which showed the marks of cannibalism.

With such a macabre history, it is remarkable that Thomas Holloway bought the painting for his women’s College. It is certainly not the sweet, sentimental type of picture that many of his contemporaries would have deemed suitable for young women. However, he knew that he was creating a collection for enquiring minds who would want to investigate and discuss the issues highlighted by the painting, such as man versus nature and the notion of a civilized society.

Carthillon Cliffs, 1878 – John Brett (1831-1902)

This landscape shows the Cornish coast, near Lizard town, looking north-west towards Kynance Cove. By the 1870s Brett had settled into the rhythm of holidaying by the coast during the summer in order to make sketches of the landscape, and then working these up into oil paintings in his studio over the winter.

Brett painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style using bright, jewel-like colours and following their doctrine of studying nature attentively. The rocks and lichen are painted in minute detail, faithfully recording the geological and botanical features of the area. As well as an artist, Brett was a knowledgeable scientist, interested in geology, meteorology and astronomy.

Princess Elizabeth in Prison at St James’, 1879 John Everett Millais (1826-1896)

Following the outbreak of the civil war in 1642, Princess Elizabeth, second daughter of Charles 1 and Queen Henrietta Maria and her younger siblings were put under house arrest. The painting shows her in St James’ Palace, one of the locations in which she was confined.

She was noted for being an excellent scholar.  She learnt Hebrew and Greek and by the age of seven she is said to have also been proficient in Latin, French and Italian. Millais symbolises her extraordinary capacity to learn by adding books by the foot of her chair. She died whilst still under house arrest aged only 15.

The painting is a pendant to Millais’ now more famous painting The Princes in Tower which Holloway also bought for the College. Both used the subject of incarcerated royal children who died before adulthood.  Such subjects were popular with Millais’ Victorian audience who were moved by the idea of children becoming the innocent victims of political turmoil.