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Edgar Holloway: Artist best known for his etched portraits

Edgar Holloway’s story is the stuff of which myths and artistic reputations are made.

Born in May 1914 in Mexborough, near Doncaster, the son of a Yorkshire miner-turned-pictureframer, he left school at 14 to travel the countryside in pursuit of subjects for watercolours and etchings. Within a year, he was etching and printing copper plates to sell through his father’s shop. His father went to extraordinary lengths to facilitate his success, procuring letters of introduction and moving his family to London. By the age of 20, Holloway had staged two critically acclaimed solo exhibitions in London; his sitters for portraits includedT. S. Eliot, Herbert Read and Stephen Spender, and his works were purchased by the British Museum, V&A and other leading collections.

When Holloway was 10, his father enrolled him on a correspondence course; later, he purchased an etching press and organised sketching trips.

With copper plates and needle, Holloway ventured into the countryside in search of commercial subjects: popular landmarks, cathedrals, castles and natural prospects. Back in the studio, he followed Ernest Lumsden’s seminal The Art of Etching (1924). In 1931, Lumsden purchased several etchings and invited the 17-year-old Holloway to become a member of the Society of Artist Printers in Edinburgh. Holloway’s work attracted the attention of influential curators such as Campbell Dodgson, MartinHardie and Malcolm Salaman, and the etchers Muirhead Bone, Francis Dodd, James McBey and Joseph Webb, with whom Holloway exchanged views on art and technique.

During the 1920s there had been an unprecedented demand for contemporary etchings, though Holloway arrived too late to enjoy the best of the market and prosper from the available opportunities. With little steady income, the family moved to Harrow then, in spring 1933, back to Doncaster.

Holloway returned to London in January 1934 and made his living selling watercolours and prints and seeking portrait commissions.

It is as an etcher of portraits that Holloway is best remembered, for nowhere is his keen observation and technical virtuosity more evident.

Aged 19, he drew T. S. Eliot seated at his desk in his office at Faber & Faber where he was a director. Other sitters included the poet Stephen Spender; A.W. Wheen, the first English translator of Remarque’s 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front; and the author, critic and Burlington Magazine editor Herbert Read.

In 1935, Holloway met the Scottish painter-printmaker William Wilson.

They became close friends, travelling together in England, Scotland and Europe. The following year they moved to Netteswell Common in Essex, where they lived and worked for six months. They bought an etching press and spent their days drawing, painting and printing.

Exempted from military service due to severe psoriasis, Holloway held wartime teaching posts in Shropshire and London, drawing views of the blitzed metropolis. In 1941 he converted toRoman Catholicism and became interested in the writings of Eric Gill.

He visited Capel-y-ffin in the Black Mountains, where Gill had lived in the 1920s. There, Holloway met Daisy Monica Hawkins, Gill’s model for Drawings from Life (1940). Holloway began a series of portraits. Six weeks later they married.

To support a growing young family, Holloway returned to Doncaster and worked as a signwriter. In 1949 he accepted an invitation from Philip Hagreen to join the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, a community of Catholic artists founded at Ditchling by Gill and Hilary Pepler in 1918. Gill’s views on the status of the artist within the community and the role of art shaped Holloway’s attitude towards craftsmanship. For the next 22 years, he was a graphic designer, undertaking commissions for lettering, cartography and dust jackets for Britain’s leading publishers. In 1957, not foreseeing that he would ever again take up etching, he sold all but 11 of his copper plates to a scrap-metal dealer.

In1969, Holloway returned to watercolours, his passion for etching undiminished.

Demonstrating an ease and facility born of maturity, his lyrical landscapes of the South Downs, Wales, Spain and France became larger and more expressionistic. Liberated from detailed observation, he became open to experimentation with etching processes. Between 1972 and 1975, Holloway was commissioned to make watercolours and etchings of the industrial heritage of Troy, in upstate New York. Nearly 100 of these works are to be exhibited in the US in 2009.

Daisy Monica died in September 1979. During long periods at home nursing his wife, Holloway took up line engraving, working under the influence of his friend Philip Hagreen. In May 1984, he married the artist Jennifer Boxall, whom he had met at an exhibition some years earlier; they bought Woodbarton, the first Guild house, designed by Gill. Holloway remained an active member of the Guild and was its last Chairman.

In 1979, Garton & Co. staged an exhibition of Holloway’s works in London, the first of many retrospectives to tour the UK since the 1980s. As new commissions followed, the revived interest in his early etching fuelled his desire to make prints. In 1991, almost 60 years after his first unsuccessful application at the age of 18, Holloway was finally elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers, and in 1996 Scolar Press published A Catalogue Raisonné of Etchings and Engravings by Edgar Holloway. It was a great privilege for me to compile the Catalogue, curate several exhibitions and to gain the friendship of this most gentle and humble artist.

During a lifetime of study and self analysis,Holloway made more etched self portraits than any other British printmaker. With a consistency and conviction comparable to that of Rembrandt, he drew himself in various guises, using bodily gesture and facial expression to suggest different aspects of his personality or state of mind, and over time responded to the aging process. His first self portrait was a drypoint of 1931, aged 16, and his most recent, TheFedora, his 33rd, was etched in 2002, at the age of 88.

While Holloway’s work stands apart from much contemporary art in the 20th century, he acknowledged and reinforced a sound art historical tradition.

He pursued that goal with little regard for passing trends and was fortunate to witness his prints once more in demand, attracting the public acclaim they deserved.

Robert Meyrick Edgar Holloway, painter-etcher: born Mexborough, near Doncaster 6 May 1914; married 1943 Daisy Monica Hawkins (deceased; four sons, one daughter), 1984 Jennifer Boxall; died Hayward’s Heath 9 November 2008.