Developing his fascination with the supernatural and erotic, Theodor von Holst became the most prolific English painter-illustrator of German romance. Theodor von Holst was born in London on 3 September 1810, his parents having emigrated from Riga to flee the troubles created by the Napoleonic wars. The family was very musical, Holst’s father being a composer and professor of music (while his great-nephew was the composer, Gustav Holst).
Holst’s precocious artistic talents were recognised by 1820, when Sir Thomas Lawrence bought a drawing from him, and Henry Fuseli became a family friend. He soon proved Fuseli’s favourite disciple and, after copying from the antique at the British Museum, became his formal pupil at the Royal Academy Schools during 1824, the last year of Fuseli’s life. As a result of this experience, he befriended the artist – and infamous poisoner – Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, who was also a pupil of Fuseli. The influence of Fuseli remained with him throughout his short career, though his work tends to be more highly coloured.
Like Fuseli, Holst was inspired by bizarre and fantastic literary subjects, especially the tales of E T A Hoffmann, Le Motte Fouqué’s Undine and Goethe’s Faust.
He abandoned his plan to illustrate Faust, when he became aware of Eugène Delacroix’s intention to do the same. However, he did illustrate other key works, producing two designs for Frankenstein, in the edition of 1831, in which Mary Shelley was first identified as the author. He also exhibited works at the Royal Academy of Arts (1827-43) and the Society of British Artists (1838-40), in Liverpool (1837-41), and at the British Institution (where he was awarded a premium of 50 guineas for The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter in 1841).
Holst lived at 46 Upper Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square in the late 1830s and then at 19 Nassau Street, Middlesex Hospital. He died of liver disease on 14 February 1844 at his home at 2 Percy Street, Bedford Square.
Holst was an important influence on the Pre-Raphaelites, notably Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who called him ‘the Edgar Poe of painting’. The Pre-Raphaelites frequented Campbell’s Scotch Stores restaurant in Soho because it was hung with works by Holst.
His work is represented in the collections of the British Museum and the V&A; the Gustav Holst Birthplace Museum, Cheltenham; and Indiana University Art Museum.
Further reading: Max Browne, ‘Holst, Theodor Richard Edward von (1810-1844)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 27, pp 821-822 Max Browne, The Romantic Art of Theodor von Holst 1810-44, London: Lund Humphries, 1994 Gert Schiff, ‘Theodore Matthias von Holst’, Burlington Magazine, vol 105, 1963, pp 23-32