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John Pettie, A State Secret, 1874, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Royal Holloway, University of London

NEW HAVEN, CT.- In the last years of his life, Thomas Holloway (1800-1883), a self-made millionaire, dedicated himself to creating a world-class collection of “modern” paintings. This collection formed the crowning gift to his generous endowment of a college for women (now known as Royal Holloway, University of London), which he founded in 1879 and which was opened by Queen Victoria in 1886. Between 1881 and 1883 Holloway amassed a diverse range of works that exemplify a variety of themes in mid-Victorian art. This remarkable collection is touring the United States for the first time and will be on view at the Yale Center for British Art from May 7 to July 26, 2009. Paintings from the Reign of Victoria: The Royal Holloway Collection, London will showcase sixty extraordinary works by artists including David Roberts, Sir Edwin Landseer, William Powell Frith, and Sir John Everett Millais.

Today the Holloway collection not only demonstrates the astute taste of a late Victorian collector, but highlights some of the greatest achievements in the figurative and landscape art of the nineteenth century, encompassing scenes of contemporary life, historical events, landscapes, and animal studies. As a collection designed specifically for female viewers, it illustrates the Victorian belief in art as the ultimate civilizing influence. Holloway’s purchases—sometimes at record-breaking prices—were cause for great excitement in the art world. The collection was widely discussed in the press and attracted large numbers of visitors from its first days. Although individual paintings in the Holloway collection have appeared in major exhibitions in Europe and the United States, many of them have never been exhibited outside England.

Holloway founded the college in 1879 after initiating a public debate as to “How best to spend a quarter of a million or more.” It was his wife, Jane Driver Holloway, who suggested a college for women as the means by which Holloway’s money might achieve “the greatest public good.” Holloway spent more than $90 million in today’s dollars on the college and the collection of paintings that has made it world-famous. As Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art at Yale, observes in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue, the Holloway collection is a “Babel of narratives, of colors and textures, each competing for the viewer’s attention in a clamorous marketplace of the visual.”

While the scale of some works in the exhibition is epic, all require close scrutiny. Among the most notable works are Frith’s Dickensian social panorama The Railway Station (1862), Edwin Longsden Long’s Babylonian Marriage Market (1875), and Millais’s iconic history lesson, The Princes in the Tower (1878). The Landseer painting Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864) will open the exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art. The work depicts polar bears devouring the remains of Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition, begun in 1845, to discover the Northwest Passage. Even today, it inspires superstition among Royal Holloway’s students, and as a result the painting is concealed during College examinations.

Royal Holloway was the first college established in Great Britain to provide higher education for women. It was founded by two Victorian visionaries, Elizabeth Jesser Reid and Thomas Holloway. Both played a crucial role in the development of equality in education through the creation of two colleges for women: Bedford College in central London, and Royal Holloway College in Surrey, nineteen miles west of London.

These two pioneering colleges became part of the University of London in 1900 and were the first institutions in the United Kingdom to award degrees to women. They later began admitting male students and merged to become one multi-faculty college in the 1980s.

Largely inspired by the Château de Chambord in the Loire Valley in France, the magnificent Founder’s Building was opened by Queen Victoria in 1886. More than 120 years later, the Royal Holloway remains an innovative and influential university, currently ranked in the top ten for research among UK universities and known for its teaching across the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences. More than 8,000 students from 130 countries attend Royal Holloway and there are nearly 60,000 alumni worldwide.