A few of us might argue that Sheffield has never been at the forefront of cultural excitement. This was never more apparent when, over a century ago, Alwyn Henry Holland put his money into the Howard Gallery.
His determination to give us an alternative exhibition space came at a cost and ended with the collapse of the family business.
Holland’s far-sightedness didn’t resonate with the public, and the only reminder of his folly is a stone relief set in a small portico above a doorway on Chapel Walk.
For many years, Alwyn Henry Holland (1862-1935), was the Hon. Sec. and member of the Council of the Sheffield Society of Artists, and probably the most enthusiastic artist in the city at the time. He was also a lay member of the Society of Architects, and Hon. Sec. and trustee of the Croft House Settlement.
He was born in Sheffield, the son of Alwin Hibbard Holland, provisions merchant, and was brought up as an architect.
The family home was at 11 Broomgrove Crescent, and he was educated principally at Brampton Schools, Wath. He then became a pupil, and afterwards assistant, with architect John Dodsley Webster.
On the death of his father in 1883, however, he succeeded to the business of A.H. Holland, at No. 9 Fargate.
In its day, A.H. Holland, was one of Sheffield’s finest grocery stores, famous for its high-class goods at low prices, and awarded three prize medals at London exhibitions.
He ran the business with his mother, Eliza, and, with Thomas Flockton, designed new shop premises as part of the Fargate widening scheme in 1889.
Like many Victorian businessmen, Holland dipped into the property market, and when land became available adjacent to No. 9 Fargate, on Chapel Walk, he designed and built eight single shops in English Renaissance style.
At the time of construction in 1897, Henry Fitzalan Howard, 15th Duke of Norfolk, was Mayor, and later Lord Mayor, of Sheffield, and the inspiration for naming the new art gallery that Holland built above the shops.
The gallery comprised two exhibition spaces, both 60ft in length, separated by a staircase, with light supplied by a lantern roof above. The main entrance was on Chapel Walk, with a separate carriage entrance around the back on Black Swan Walk.
The inclusion of the art gallery satisfied Holland’s notions as a watercolour painter, providing more suitable environs to display artwork, rather than on the walls of the shop that had previously been the case.
The Howard Gallery never intended to be a showcase for his own work but was to be used for rotating exhibitions of works by other artists.
Holland’s plans were extravagant, seeing it as a northern rival to the big London galleries. There were those who mocked his plans, but even the fiercest critics were astonished when the Howard Gallery announced its opening exhibition in April 1898.
William Marchant, manager of the Goupil Gallery in Regent Street, was persuaded to bring a collection of pictures and drawings to Sheffield – and the samples of work seem inconceivable today.
“The exhibition contains examples of Gainsborough, Constable, David Cox, Turner, Landseer, Corot, Guardi, J. Maris, Mauve, Israels, Whistler, and J.M. Swan,” wrote the Sheffield Daily Telegraph.
Public opinion was favourable, the critics silenced, but William Marchant struck a note of caution that pinpointed what lay ahead:
“I must say that when I decided to take this collection to Sheffield, I was fully aware of the fact that I was not catering for the popular taste, and I may add that several people who witnessed my preparations laughed and predicted total failure. I cannot say that much of Sheffield’s gold has found its way into our coffers, and the visitors have been, if select, very few, but I must own that I never expected to meet with so publicly expressed an appreciation.”
Despite the lacklustre support the Goupil Exhibition was extended past its May closing date, with several works removed and replaced with new works by Peter Graham, John Syer, Henry Dawson, Niemann and E.M. Wimperis. Several local artists were also represented including Austin Winterbottom, James Moore, Frank Saltfleet, and Jean Mitchell.
In June 1898, Thomas Agnew and Sons, fine art dealers, brought an exhibition to Sheffield, including Gethsemane ‘Jesus In the Garden’, painted by Tom Mostyn, and the engravings from the canvases of Landseer, Peter Graham, and Rosa Bonheur.
The Howard Gallery hired glass cases for its next exhibition of artistic book-bindings, obtained on loan from the Ruskin Museum Library, and which had rarely been seen.
And so, there followed a cycle of short-lived seasonal exhibitions – Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter – all of which cost a lot of money and poor return.
In June 1899, Holland closed the East Gallery claiming that previous exhibitions had been too large for art lovers to properly view, but finances were diminishing and, apart from the annual Sheffield Society of Artists’ Exhibition, the major showings dwindled away. But the local press remained optimistic:
“There had been sneers at the Howard Gallery as a mere commercial speculation, but they only exhibit a complete ignorance of the motives with which it was founded, and their absurdity is as patent as their injustice,” wrote ‘Le Flaneur’ in the Sheffield Independent.
Holland launched a Winter Exhibition in December 1901, using the West and East Gallery, which had been used as a restaurant, and showing nearly 250 oils and watercolours, but, apart from a Frank Saltfleet exhibition in January 1903, the galleries were advertised as being available to hire for dances and evening entertainments.
Music recitals became a mainstay of the gallery, a popular home for the Sheffield Chamber Music Society, as well as for meetings including those of the Alliance Francais.
The principal use, from 1903, was for the Sheffield Gentlemen’s Club during the rebuilding of their premises on Norfolk Street. It occurred to Holland that the comforts and conveniences of the club might be appreciated by the public, so, with necessary alterations and additions, the Howard Gallery, and adjoining Rutland Institute (above No.9 Fargate) were transformed into a café and restaurant.
Holland auctioned his collection of paintings, pewter, and pottery, as well as fixtures and fittings, and the gallery became The Meerah Café in December 1904.
Once again, the undertaking received support from the local press:
“Mr Holland is an architect of considerable repute, and in the extensive range of rooms has given free play to his artistic ideas. The place is full of artistic surprises. They seem to meet you at every turn. The old-fashioned windows he has so daintily worked into his scheme, the many snug retreats, the originality displayed in the lighting and the decorations, all breathe art. The very atmosphere seems artistic. Even the furniture has all been studied with an artist’s care. The late William Morris designed some of the most comfortable of the chairs which will be found in the gentlemen’s quarters; but Mr Holland has designed the remainder of the furniture. The tables of solid old oak, also breathe of art. The names of the rooms sound artistic. There are the York Room, the Howard Room, the Wharncliffe Room, and the Rutland Room. Music is provided by Charles Callum.”
The café and restaurant fared marginally better than the Howard Gallery, but the overindulgences of the exhibition space and subsequent conversion, played heavily on the finances of A.H. Holland.
Alwyn and Eliza invited shareholders into the business, and it became Hollands Ltd in 1906, but the company went into voluntary liquidation three years later.
The shop and café were closed, and the contents auctioned to help pay off the creditors.
The last hurrah appeared in the Sheffield Independent:
“’It is a tragedy, that is the only word for it,’ said an old customer. The Wharncliffe Room of Holland’s Café was half filled with buyers, and about a dozen men hung about waiting for jobs to remove the purchases. A couple of dogs, which had strayed into the room, surveyed the scene, and made a faint effort to wag their tails. The firm, business-like tones of the auctioneer rang out, and soon the artistic fittings, pictures, crockery, and cutlery, were auctioned off.
“Hollands was well known for the original designs of the interior of the premises, Mr Holland being quite ambitious in this direction. The shop was regarded as an example of the art doctrines of Ruskin and Morris. Indeed, Holland made a special effort to introduce art into ordinary matter-of-fact business. Unfortunately, the effort failed.”
Afterwards, Alwyn Henry Holland faded into obscurity, no doubt chastened by his experience, and spent time walking, playing tennis and golf, and sketching.
His legacy is forgotten, his work little-known.
Some of his work hangs at the Cutlers’ Hall which had commissioned him to paint views of the banqueting halls as well as its exterior. Perhaps his most famous painting is Sheffield from above the Midland Station, included in the Sheffield Museum collection.
Holland died in 1935 at Patrington, near Hull, aged 73.
The Howard Gallery returned in name only, used by British Westinghouse and the Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Company as showrooms, and part of it used by Thomas Monkman and later H.C. Hibbert as a billiards hall.
In the time since, the gallery space has been sub-divided, but the Howard Gallery carving remains, as does the long glass roof, visible only from above.
© 2020 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.