The Reverend William Holwell Carr (1758–1830) was the son of an Exeter apothecary. In 1797 he married Lady Charlotte Hay, eldest daughter of the 15th Earl of Erroll and his wife Isabella Carr. The following year Lady Charlotte inherited large Carr estates in Northumberland.
From about 1805, Holwell Carr was a ‘gentleman-dealer’ in paintings. As an amateur painter himself, he may also have touched up and restored pictures. He became one of the founding subscribers to the British Institution and lent generously to the Institution’s exhibitions of old masters.
His collection included Titian’s Holy Family and a Shepherd, Claude’s Landscape at the Cave of Adullam, Tintoretto’s Saint George and the Dragon and Rembrandt’s Woman bathing in a Stream. These were among the 35 paintings Holwell Carr bequeathed to the National Gallery six years after its foundation. He commissioned this portrait of himself when he was about 70 to be placed in the Gallery with his pictures.
William Holwell was born in 1758, the son of an Exeter apothecary. At Exeter College, Oxford, first as a student and then as a Fellow, he is said to have ‘employed much of his Time in Painting’. In 1781, aged 23, he went to Italy where he studied art and began to buy pictures.
An opportunity to acquire virtually effortless income presented itself in 1791. The rich Church of England benefice of Meheniot in Cornwall fell vacant and only Fellows of Exeter College were eligible to apply. Holwell hastily acquired a degree in Divinity and accepted the position. He drew £1134 per year for life but never actually resided at Meheniot, paying a curate £100 a year to perform his duties instead. He defended his absenteeism by claiming the climate was bad for his health. Such abuses were rife in the Church of England at that time.
In 1797 Holwell’s fortunes improved further when he married Lady Charlotte Hay, eldest daughter of the 15th Earl of Erroll and his wife Isabella Carr. Lady Charlotte inherited the Carr estates in Northumberland the following year – causing Holwell to add Carr to their name. She died in 1801 giving birth to their only son, who died aged five.
Holwell Carr acquired his most important pictures after his marriage and devoted his energies to refining his collection. The turmoil of the French Revolution provided him and other English collectors with unparalleled opportunities as an immense number of works of art came onto the market.
From about 1805, Holwell Carr was known as a ‘gentleman-dealer’ in paintings. As an amateur painter himself, he may also have touched up and restored pictures. He had a genuine eye for a good painting. He also became one of the founding subscribers to the British Institution, which was founded to ‘encourage and reward the talents of the artists of the United Kingdom’. Holwell Carr had no interest in British art but from 1815 he lent generously to the Institution’s exhibitions of old masters.
Over the next decade Holwell Carr added to his collection Titian’s Holy Family and a Shepherd and Claude’s Landscape at the Cave of Adullam, and in the following decade Tintoretto’s Saint George and the Dragon and Guercino’s The Dead Christ mourned by Two Angels. The final purchase he made, when 71, was Rembrandt’s A Woman bathing in a Stream. Of the 35 paintings Holwell Carr bequeathed to the National Gallery, 26 were by Italian masters and six were by French artists inspired by Italy – Poussin, Claude and Gaspard Dughet.
Holwell Carr’s associations with the art trade meant that he never became a Trustee of the National Gallery. It seems that he led a largely solitary life and was not generally liked. Obsessed with provenances and possessing the gift of total recall for past art sale prices, he appears to have had no small talk.
When he was about 70 Holwell Carr commissioned John Jackson to paint his portrait to be placed with the pictures he intended to bequeath to the nation. He died on 24 December 1830 and six months later his pictures (which were then valued at £20,000 – about the amount he'd received from Meheniot in his absence), were delivered to the National Gallery. To the poor of Meheniot he left £500.
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