ART MARKET / Victorian values, modern taste: Thomas Holloway, who made a mint from quack medicaments, endowed a college and filled it with paintings. Geraldine Norman reports on a controversial sale of his pictures

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QUEEN VICTORIA opened Royal Holloway College in Egham, Surrey, in 1886, a flattering accolade to its founder, Thomas Holloway, who started life as a baker and grocer in Penzance. Holloway himself had died in 1883 after making an enormous fortune from the manufacture of Holloway's Pills and Ointments. He spent a good deal of it on two major charitable endowments, the college and a sanatorium for mental patients three miles away at Virginia Water. For both these he devised spectacular architectural complexes.

In 1883 he purchased the three most important British pictures to come on the market that year to decorate his college. Their recent offer for sale has caused a storm of protest from the art establishment and turned Holloway's collection into a major 'heritage' issue. The history of the affair is a fascinating comedy of shifting mores.

The paintings that the fuss is all about are a Turner, a Gainsborough and a Constable. Turner's Van Tromp Going About to Please His Masters - a dramatic impressionistic seascape which Turner showed at the Royal Academy in the same year as his more famous Rain, Steam and Speed - has been sold to the Getty Museum in California for pounds 11m. Gainsborough's Peasants Going to Market, one of the charming landscapes that the great portraitist painted for his own delectation, was sold last month for pounds 3.5m to a mysteriously unnamed British collector who says he will lend it back for show at the college from time to time. Constable's 6ft preparatory sketch for his painting View on the Stour, near Dedham is still in the college collection, but the college authorities have let it be known that they are open to offers around the pounds 10m figure fetched by another six-footer, The Lock, at Sotheby's in 1990. Thomas Holloway had bought all three at Christie's in May and June 1883, paying pounds 3,675, pounds 2,835 and pounds 1,249 10s respectively.

Their present sale has called forth powerfully worded protests from senior figures in the art establishment, including Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, and Graham Greene, chairman of the Museums and Galleries Commission; not to mention the directors of the two great university museums at Oxford and Cambridge, Christopher White and Simon Jervis. Their protests have fallen on deaf ears: the Charity Commissioners have given the college permission to break its founder's deed of gift and sell the pictures; the Attorney General and the Ombudsman have declined to intervene.

The first questionable element in this history is the value of Thomas Holloway's medicaments. They were a money-making venture from the start; the ingredients were harmless but of no medicinal value. Holloway's marketing strategy was to keep the formula secret while extolling its efficacy for every possible complaint. He spent a fortune on advertising, using pamphlets in 15 languages, testimonials, posters, ballad song-sheets and illustrated general knowledge cards. The pills and ointments were particularly popular in India and other outposts of the Empire.

Holloway was in considerable doubt about what kind of charitable institution to endow; he published an anonymous request for ideas in a magazine called the Builder - under the title 'How best to spend a quarter of a million or more' - and got 700 replies. Finally, on the urging of his wife, he settled for a college that would 'afford the best education suitable for Women of the Middle and Upper Middle Classes'.

Amid all the furore over betraying the founder's intentions by selling the pictures, no one seems to have paused to think how far the college has already departed from his original intention. The lower orders, many of them men, stream through its gates, while fee-paying foreigners are greatly encouraged.

The fact that Holloway put his advertisement in the Builder suggests that he was much more interested in architecture than in education. He took immense pains over the design by his architect, W H Crossland, and ended up with an adaptation of the Loire Chateau de Chambord, which was built between 1519 and 1547. The magnificent, turreted, spired and chimneyed fantasy, embroidered in red brick and grey stone, is now a Grade I listed building.

The picture collection was almost an afterthought. Holloway's wife predeceased him and they had no children; over the last two years of his life, between May 1881 and June 1883, he amused himself by purchasing 77 paintings for the college, mostly at auction. According to his final deed, he bought them for 'the decoration of the buildings and the benefit of the persons entitled to reside there'.

Holloway's indiscriminate bidding and the huge prices he paid outraged the art establishment of the time. Even in its obituary the Art Journal could not forbear to criticise: 'We believe he never purchased a picture direct from the artist. Those who were fortunate enough to send to auction pictures he fancied benefited no doubt largely from his princely mode of procedure . . . and those whose productions he acquired may possibly have to regret the inflated prices which for the moment their works assumed.'

Broadly speaking, he bought works of two kinds - the improving subject pictures so beloved of the Victorians and pastoral landscapes by latter-day followers of Constable and Gainsborough. It has frequently been argued that the great pictures which are being sold do not fit in with the Victorian collection, but they seem to me to belong very clearly to the same taste.

Holloway paid most for his great theatrical machines. Landseer's Man Proposes, God Disposes - an 8ft depiction of two polar bears ripping the remains of a wreck on an ice floe - cost him 6,500 guineas in 1881, almost twice the price he paid for the Turner. Edwin Long's Babylonian Marriage Market set a new record for a living British painter at 6,300 guineas in 1882. In contrast, William Powell Frith's Railway Station, one of the most famous genre scenes of the Victorian era, was a snip at pounds 2,000 in 1883; its first owner, Louis Victor Flatow, had paid pounds 4,500 for it in 1860 and sold it, with copyright, for pounds 16,300 in 1863. In those days the rights to publish popular steel engravings after famous pictures were immensely valuable, which explains the high price. Most of the landscapes Thomas Holloway bought were cheaper than his Frith, but the big Thomas Creswick Trentside cost him pounds 2,100.

These prices underline how highly contemporary pictures were valued at the time - and how radically taste has shifted in the course of a century. Professor Norman Gowar, the present principal of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College (Holloway was merged with Bedford in 1985), virtuously assures me that the college has no intention of selling 'the great Victorian collection'. He points out that the college only requested permission from the Charity Commissioners to sell 'up to three' pictures, identifying the three as the Turner, the Constable and the Gainsborough. The proceeds, he says, are to be put into a fund whose income will be spent on the upkeep of Holloway's magnificent building.

The 'great Victorian collection' has, meanwhile, become virtually invisible. The pictures are hung in a vast room Thomas Holloway designed as a recreation hall for his middle-class girls. It is used once a year for exams - Landseer's polar bears are regularly covered by a Union flag after complaints that they brought the entrants bad luck - and occasionally for functions. At all other times it is securely locked - an iron grille has even been mounted in front of the entrance doors. It has been calculated that more British men and women will see the Turner in one week at the Getty Museum in California than would have seen it in five years at Egham.

Surely the crying shame of all this is that Thomas Holloway's purchase of the paintings has prevented the general public from seeing them for more than a century - not that three of them are now being sold.-

(Photographs omitted)