Like Doré and Fildes, Holl used to prowl around London in search of subjects. One day, at Bankside by the London docks, he saw a baby abandoned by its mother, and discovered by a policeman. In 1873 he made an engraving of the scene for The Graphic magazine, in which the commentary ran: ‘The wretched mother, evidently the woman leaning on the post, had left it carefully wrapped up, hoping that someone would find it and cherish it. As for herself, she had intended to end her earthly woes in the dark, sullen river, but the sight of her baby in the arms of the policeman re-arouses her motherly instincts.’ Holl often reworked some of his more successful illustrations into Royal Academy pictures. Deserted – A Foundling was exhibited there in 1874 and is now lost, but this oil sketch survives; it has a bravura of touch, a vivacity and a warmth of colour sometimes lacking in Holl’s finished paintings, for much of his work has a sooty blackness in the shadows which had been seized upon by critics. Deserted... may well have been a self-conscious attempt to remedy this.
Van Gogh was much taken with Holl’s engravings, and wrote: ‘When I was looking them over, all my memories of London ten years ago came back to me – when I saw them for the first time; they moved me so deeply that I have been thinking about them ever since, for instance Holl’s “The Foundling”...’ This is a very different attitude to English commentators, who read the image in narrative and moral terms. Having described the story, The Graphic drew from it a conventional message: ‘Those who from weakness, or passion, or a mistaken sense of what is due to an ardent lover yield to such utter ruin. The man, though generally the chief offender, frequently escapes, as far as his world is concerned, scot-free, while the burden of the sin falls on the feebler partner in his transgression.’ Holl’s policeman is a beneficent father figure, wrapping the infant in his cape and looking at his bundle, according to The Times, ‘with the eye of a man who has babies of his own’, while the woman with a basket looks on with sympathy. The mother writhes in shame and confusion, torn between desperation and frustrated motherliness. Thanks to Julian Treuherz (this painting was in his ground breaking Hard Times exhibition of 1988.)