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date: 01 March 2021

Hole, William Fergusson Brasseyfree

  • Elizabeth S. Cumming

Hole, William Fergusson Brassey (1846–1917), painter and etcher, was born in the close, Salisbury, Wiltshire, on 7 November 1846, the only child of Richard Brassey Hole (1818/19–1849), a physician, originally from Devon, who had studied in Edinburgh, where he married Anne Burn, née Fergusson (1819/20–1891). Hole's maternal grandfather was William Fergusson, physician and governor of Sierra Leone. Baptized William Fergusson Hole, he added the name Brassey about 1873.

On his father's early death from cholera Hole moved with his mother to Edinburgh, settling at 34 London Street. He was educated at Edinburgh Academy (1858–62), where his circle included Walter Biggar Blaikie, who remembered him as the only boy at school to have made a steam engine. Both trained as engineers, Hole serving his apprenticeship locally with George Cunningham, and attending Fleeming Jenkin's classes at Edinburgh University, where he met Robert Louis Stevenson. His engineering works included an iron bridge over the Water of Leith near Warriston cemetery.

Hole was also attracted to the fine arts. At the age of nineteen he had a painting accepted by the Royal Scottish Academy, and, with a legacy of £30, set off on a European sketching tour. In Italy he met the Scottish artist Erskine Nicol, who encouraged him to take up art professionally. After returning to Edinburgh he attended art classes at the Trustees' Academy and the life school of the Royal Scottish Academy (where in 1870 he won the Stuart prize), and anatomy classes at the university. Between 1871 and 1876 he took studios at 57 India Place, 27 Hamilton Place, 51 York Place, and 18 Picardy Place, sending landscapes and historical subjects to the annual exhibitions of the Royal Scottish Academy.

On 18 July 1876 Hole married Elizabeth (Lizzie) Douglas Lindsay (1853–1930), daughter of James Lindsay, writer to the signet, and Janet (Jessie) Douglas. They had three daughters and three sons. At their home at 30 Saxe Coburg Place the Holes entertained Fleeming Jenkin, the writer W. E. Henley, the artist and critic R. A. M. Stevenson and Blaikie—both related to Robert Louis Stevenson—and another old schoolfriend, Robert Hamilton. Hole was also involved in city mission work and joined the Edinburgh Volunteers.

Hole's immediate social circle also provided his early commissions in etching, the field in which he made his name. He had first tried his hand at etching in 1880, with a print accepted for the third edition of P. G. Hamerton's Etching and Etchers. Blaikie, now proprietor of the university publisher T. and A. Constable, invited him to etch portraits of professors for Quasi cursores (1884), published to celebrate the tercentenary of Edinburgh University. A lawyer friend and amateur dog breeder, Charles Cook, asked for illustrations for his highly successful book The Dandie Dinmont Terrier (1885). That year Hole was elected to the Royal Society of Painter–Etchers and Engravers and the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour.

In 1887 Blaikie published Hole's etchings after modern French and Dutch pictures lent to the 1886 Edinburgh International Exhibition by Robert Hamilton (now Robert Hamilton Bruce), with an introduction by Henley. Shown that year at the academy, they raised Hole's professional profile as an art etcher, and were followed by illustrations to Burns, Scott, Stevenson, and Barrie for Edinburgh and London publishers. During the following decade he etched a range of popular art including paintings by Constable, Millet, Velasquez, and Rembrandt. His work was respected by Whistler, who invited him to Paris, reportedly finding in him 'the etcher he had been waiting for' (Hole, 72).

Hole was also a painter of popular pictures, such as If Thou Had'st Known (1885), a study of Christ on the Mount of Olives (also etched by him), The Canterbury Pilgrims (1888), and such scenes from Scottish history as End of the '45 (1879) and News of Flodden (1888). Throughout much of his career he exhibited oils annually at the academy and also sent work to the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts, the Walker Art Gallery, the Royal Society of Artists in Birmingham, Manchester City Art Gallery, and the Royal Hibernian Society. Additionally, between election as an associate member of the academy in 1878 and academician in 1889, he was involved in art education. At his studio in Picardy Place he ran a private art school, the Edinburgh Atelier, where he offered students additional life drawing. It also provided life classes for women.

In September 1892 the Holes' eldest daughter Janet died after a year of ill health. The family moved the following year to 27 Inverleith Row, Edinburgh, where they joined the nearby Episcopal church of St James the Less. Hole gave his art to the church, painting the walls of the chancel with a richly decorative Te Deum from 1896, a response to Robert Rowand Anderson's modern Gothic building and the mural movement then current in the city.

In 1897, on Anderson's recommendation, Hole was appointed by the board of trustees for fisheries, manufactures and improvements in Scotland to carry out the mural decoration of the central hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, on a theme illustrating Scottish history. It took Hole three years to complete the work; in preparation, he toured France and Italy with the chemist Sir Henry Roscoe to study the traditional technique of spirit fresco and modern European decoration. He painted a grand frieze of figures from the Stone Age to Carlyle proceeding to the seated figure of Caledonia, with, in the first floor ambulatory, large panels illustrating Scottish history from St Columba to James IV. Two more panels illustrated war and peace through the arts of music and poetry. Here the dramatic, illustrative style mixed decorative arts and crafts with the formality and colour range of Puvis de Chavannes. He also designed the zodiacal ceiling, reflecting his interests as a keen amateur astronomer. In 1900 his original proposal to continue the historical panels on the ground floor walls was dropped, but nine scenes were privately subscribed for the dining room of the Edinburgh city chambers between 1902 and 1910 and concluded the cycle of national art.

Hole's success as a muralist brought chapel commissions from the earl of Home and the marquess of Lothian, and he produced murals illustrating the Benedicite and the Te Deum for two churches, St Ninian's Church in Pollokshields (1901) and St John's Church in Forres, Moray (1906–07, 1911). In addition altarpieces were supplied to churches in the borders and Dundee and stained glass designed for the Episcopalian training college in Edinburgh. He used ground pigments suspended in spike oil of lavender, largely following Thomas Gambier Parry's principles of spirit fresco.

In the spring of 1901 Hole had spent some weeks in Palestine with paints and a Kodak camera, recording the places and people to create authentic settings and costumes for a series of illustrations of the life of Christ. Eighty watercolours had been completed by 1905, and were exhibited in 1906 at the Fine Art Society, which published them as The Life of Jesus of Nazareth. The work was a considerable success, and the copyright was acquired by Eyre and Spottiswoode, who in 1910 suggested a companion volume of Old Testament scenes. In February 1912 Hole left for a further three months in Egypt and Palestine. By 1916 he had completed seventy-six watercolours, and his accompanying commentary was under way. It was left incomplete. That July his youngest son, Arthur, was reported missing on the Somme, a blow from which Hole never recovered. His last art work was a roll of honour finely illuminated for a Glasgow congregation, a design he generously adapted and had lithographed for use by other congregations.

Hole underwent an operation for cancer of the colon in December 1916 and died on 22 October 1917 at 13 Inverleith Terrace, Edinburgh, his home since 1905. His funeral service took place at St James's Church, followed by interment at Grange cemetery on 25 October, and was attended by the principal of Edinburgh University and many of his fellow artists.


  • Memories of William Hole, R.S.A., by his wife, with an introduction by the Rev. John Kelman (1920)
  • , Edinburgh Academy Chronicle (Dec 1917), 34–6
  • ‘Portraits of celebrities: William Hole RSA’, Strand Magazine, 15 (April 1898), 411
  • ‘Art in Scotland’, Art Journal (1897), 24
  • Notes historical and descriptive on the mural decorations painted by William Hole, R. S. A., in the hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh (1902)
  • J. L. Caw, Scottish painting past and present, 1620–1908 (1908)
  • W. M. Gilbert, ‘The decoration of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’, Art Journal (1902), 55–9
  • G. B. Brown, ‘Mural paintings by W. B. Hole in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh’, Magazine of Art (1902), 214–18
  • Annual Report of the Council of the Royal Scottish Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, 90 (1918), 15–19
  • H. Smailes, A portrait gallery for Scotland: the foundation, architecture and mural decoration of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 1882–1906 (1985)
  • C. A. P. Willsdon, Mural painting in Britain, 1840–1940: image and meaning (2000)
  • J. Soden, ‘Tradition, evolution, opportunism: the role of the Royal Scottish Academy in art education, 1826–1910’, PhD diss., University of Aberdeen, 2006
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • census returns, 1891, 1901


  • U. Glas., James McNeill Whistler corresp.


  • J. Moffat, carte-de-visite, 1878, Royal Scot. Acad.
  • self-portrait, 1884, NPG, Macdonnell Collection
  • W. Crooke, photograph, 1897, NPG
  • J. Paterson, chalk, 1917, Scot. NPG
  • D. Hole, pencil, Scot. NPG
  • photograph, repro. in J. Webster, Northern painters: the Royal Scottish Academy of our day a pictorial representation of the work of living and recently deceased painter members and associates of the Royal Scottish Academy (1901), 33
  • portrait, repro. in Art Journal (1902), 58

Wealth at Death

£3177 10s. 5d.: confirmation, 19 April 1918, CCI

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh
National Portrait Gallery, London
University of Glasgow