The Collection of paintings was to provide an essential element for the fulfilment of Holloway's ideal of a first-rate educational establishment. The importance he placed on the Collection illustrates a typically Victorian belief in art as the ultimate civilizing influence. Like literature, art could teach; not only in the obvious sense of portraying a moral lesson, or illustrating an edifying text; but, in its own unique and inimitable way, through the medium of visual beauty. A picture collection of the first quality would add the ultimate refinement to a programme of education for young ladies.
Heedless of cost, and using the only criterion he understood — his own judgement — Holloway made his selection, with the aid of his brother-in-law George Martin, almost exclusively from Christie's sales' catalogues.
All but five of the pictures were acquired in this way, and only once is Holloway known to have been outbid. A considerable furore arose in the press in protest against the artificially high prices which his methods stimulated, and against the fact that it was the dealer rather than the artist who benefited. But like other self-made Victorian collectors of little education, Holloway was wary when purchasing pictures. A sound provenance was crucial to him; and he felt that this was more likely to be provided by the major dealers and auctioneers than by private vendors.
Among the scenes of contemporary Victorian life, Holloway was fortunate enough to acquire several of the most important ever produced. Frith's Railway Station (1862), a fitting successor to his Derby Day, now in the Tate, is the most potent and revealing image ever painted of mid-Victorian urban life. Like Holloway a self-made man, Frith proudly included himself in the centre of the picture as the typical Victorian paterfamilias, surrounded by his family and other varied groups, representing every class of society from the criminal to the aristocratic young bride. This entertaining panorama provides a stark contrast with two of the most significant works by a group of artists known as `Social Realists'.
Luke Fildes' Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1874) remains the most savage indictment of poverty and homelessness produced by any Victorian artist; and Frank Holl's Newgate: Committed for Trial (1878) demonstrates the tenuous hold of the poor on respectability and the means of survival, both instantly under threat when the breadwinner takes to crime.
Another class of pictures illustrates the popularity of subjects taken from history. Edwin Long's Babylonian Marriage Market (1875), inspired by Herodotus, fetched a record price for a painting by a living artist when Holloway paid 6,615 pounds for it in 1882. The largest work in the Collection, it provides a meticulous reconstruction of the customs, architecture, decor and costume of a past civilisation.
Maclise's portrayal of Peter the Great at Deptford Dockyard (1857), an episode from 1698–99, shows the Emperor in characteristically vigorous attitude, acquiring the techniques which will enable him to build his own fleet on his return to Russia. He contrasts amusingly with the somewhat effete figures of King William III and his retinue.
Perhaps best known of all the history paintings here is Millais' Princes in the Tower (1878), familiar to generations of school children through their history books. Here, Millais expresses the inevitability of their tragic fate through the apprehensive faces and the attitudes of the vulnerable, boyish figures without resorting to distracting detail.
Two of the greatest animal painters of the Victorian era are well represented: Landseer by his dramatic Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864) , and Briton Riviere by his Sympathy (1877) and An Anxious Moment (1878). Based on the real incident of the loss of Sir John Franklin's expedition to find a North-West Passage, in 1845, Landseer's painting illustrates the futility of human effort in the face of the destructive forces of nature. Two polar bears, their fierce and brutal natures uncompromisingly portrayed, tear up the remnants of the expedition. There is no hint here of the kind of sentiment and humour which characterize Riviere's examples. Sympathy, showing a pretty girl consoled by her dog, remains one of the most persistently popular and frequently reproduced pictures of the era. Here there is no great seriousness of purpose; but pictures of this sort were intended to appeal to the sentiments; to arouse the gentler feelings; and, thus, in their own small way, to exert that refining influence which the Victorians expected of their art.
Landscapes, townscapes and travel scenes, which form an impressive portion of the collection, include examples from Linnell, Leader, Stanfield, McWhirter, and David Roberts, whose Pilgrims Approaching Jerusalem (1841) is one of his most successful in this vein. The landscapes exhibit a wide variety of mood and technique, from the crystalline precision of John Brett's Carthillon Cliffs (1878), to the more impressionistic technique of Peter Graham's Highland Croft (1873) where a broader technique convincingly suggests the atmosphere and texture of a rough modern terrain.