Frank Holl was one of the most successful and fashionable portraitists of his age, numbering Millais, Gladstone and Pierpont Morgan amongst his sitters. Success bought him a studio house in Hampstead designed by Richard Norman Shaw, and another, Burrow's Cross, near Gomshall in Surrey, later owned by the artist Benjamin Williams Leader. However, pressure of work fatally undermined his health, and he died at the age of 43.
The present picture dates from early in his career, and was most probably a private commission, never exhibited. Having entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1860, Holl won the Gold Medal in 1863, and began to exhibit in 1864. In 1868 he scored his first success with The Lord Gave and the Lord hath Taken Away, for which he was awarded the Travelling Prize. He spent this in Italy in 1869, the year this portrait was painted.
Comparisons for our painting may be drawn with Holl's portraits of Robert and Mary Hutchinson of 1865 (private collection) where the latter is also dressed in white and seated in a dining room, and with The Convalescent, (formerly in the Edmund J and Suzanne McCormick Collection, and sold Sotheby's, New York, 28 February 1990, lot 150 ($95,000) a portrait of a girl in bed whose white sheets and counterpane are also strewn with primroses. The Convalescent was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1867, the same year as Millais's trio of 'symphonies in white', Waking, Sleeping, and The Minuet, and it is interesting to note how Whistler's explorations of tonal arrangements, first seen with his Symphony in White, no. 1: The White Girl at the Salon des Refusées in 1863 influenced the more advanced artists of the day. Perhaps Holl was also indebted to Millais in the extreme informality of the pose of the figures: Leisure Hours, exhibited by Millais in 1864, shows the Misses Pender seated with equal nonchalance to the girls in our picture, similarly surrounded with spring flowers.
Holl went on to produce works of dramatic social realism, many of which were reproduced in The Graphic. In later years his palette darkened, and he painted in strong blacks and browns with chiaroscuro influenced by the Dutch Old Masters. The present picture is a rare and charming example from the earliest period of this important artist.