In the second half of the 19th century, an informal group of artists coalesced in the northwestern London neighborhood of Kensington. Known as the Holland Park Circle, they often had different styles and subject matter but were united by geography and benefited collectively from a growing status of artists in the Victorian era. Thanks to their prosperity they built a series of houses in the neighborhood that both reflected their status and gave them opportunities to mingle with the wealthy and well-connected members of Victorian society, many of whom served as patrons and subjects.
Caroline Dakers’s book about the group functions on a number of different levels. In part it serves as a group biography, tracing the lives of such members as George Frederick Watts, Frederic Leighton, Hamo Thornycroft, and others, all of whom were esteemed in their day for their work. In tracing their lives and associations, though, it also serves as a biography of the neighborhood in which they lived. Carved out of the grounds surrounding Holland House, the rapidly developing community served as a crossroads of high Victorian society, where the artists socialized with both titled lords and the newly emergent class of wealthy manufacturers and upper-class professionals. Yet throughout this Dakers never loses sight of the art itself, as she uses the lives and the setting as context for her description of the artists’ works and their reception by their audience. It’s a masterful work that highlights effectively the intersection between art, commerce, and society in the Victorian world, and is rewarding reading for anyone interested in the era.