Charles Mackay and Holst

The Victorian journalist and author Charles Mackay (1814-1889) is best remembered today for his Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841). Two years before his death he published his autobiography Through the Long Day and in it appears the only chapter devoted to Holst in 19th Century literature.

I only discovered this gem after publication of the 2010 Holst catalogue, which is a pity since it offers further considerable and accurate illumination on the life of the artist and his circle, as can be seen in the above pages illustrated from volume 1.

Like another prominent Victorian journalist/editor/publisher, Samuel Carter Hall, Mackay was a friend to artists and to some degree in reciprocal relationships; with works and published recognition fueling each other in turn. The book's frontispiece is a photograph of Alexander Munro's relief medallion of the author dated 1852. There is also a chapter devoted to the Scottish sculptor and friend of Holst, Patric Park who was Munro's brother-in-law as was Mackay to Charles Dickens.

The Salamandrine; or, Love and Immortality was an epic poem begun by Mackay in 1839, after he had returned from the 'backlash of chivalry' event of the age, The Eglington Tournament. Unsurprisingly the result is a sort of pastiche medieval romance in a similar vein to the teutonic marchen of the German romantics such as Undine by Baron de la Motte Fouque. As one might expect Holst took to this romantic anglo manna immediately he was shown it, as Mackay describes above on the first page to his Holst chapter. By a happy coincidence one of the small finished paintings, The Forest Walk, appeared a few years ago at auction in the USA and is reproduced below. It is probably one of the two Salamandrine paintings owned by Mackay (on the back is an old label mentioning its companion, The Watch Fire, with a brief note of the artist). About the same time, in 2011, Mackay's original manuscript for the Salamandrine appeared at auction which somewhat reinforces this assertion of provenance. In 1842 Holst exhibited a small painting illustrating the Salamandrine at the British Institution exhibition, which must be from the series, and which predates publication of the poem a few months later by How and Parsons of Fleet Street. Thus, contrary to Mackay's account, Holst had access to the poem prior to its publication and probably via the mutual friendship with Patric Park.

Other highly important Holst insights covered in Mackay's chapter concern the artist's wife, Amelia, the nature of their marriage and a previously unknown apect of patronage with 'his friend and commercial agent', the extraordinary John Ovenstone to whom considerable anecdotal space is given before revealing his unfortunate trial and certification as insane after shooting a hated creditor with a pistol in 1847. It appears Ovenstone dealt in 'pot-boilers' from Holst, one of which was exchanged for the silver-rimmed human skull Holst used as a punch-bowl. Such works were sometimes of a libidinous continental taste Mackay explains by reference to collections in Paris and Naples.

Amelia Symmes-Villard appeared to be Holst's perfect model, 'as exquisite as Aphrodite herself when she rose from the sea foam in immortal loveliness'. She modelled to him in the nude for 18 pence an hour and Holst often referred to her as the 'Mother-of-Pearl Lady'. After they were married she refused to continue this trade and would only model for character studies such as tragedy queens striking dramatic poses. The marriage, concurs Mackay, was not a happy one. However we can see the result of this angst in the later female portraits by Holst such as The Bride and The Wish which were ironically his most popular works. It is paintings such as these and that above which formed the basis of the later admiration by the Pre-Raphaelite circle and Holst's influence on them.

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