‘INTO this beautiful town Alfred Holt had come and played the part of a benevolent despot for half a century.’
While the words ‘benevolent’ and ‘despot’ are an unlikely pairing, it is an arguably apt description of Alfred Holt, as observed by a member of the Leamington’s Rotary Club back in the 1940s.
Much of Holt’s work for Leamington has been largely forgotten, but a new exhibition celebrating his life is set to remind people how much this ‘benevolent despot’ really did for the town.
Holt was a leading figure in Leamington from when he settled in the town in the mid-1890s to his death in 1943, and several of the projects he supported still benefit the town today.
Born in London, Holt made the move to the Midlands after marrying Warwickshire girl Florence Eliza Parkes. The couple moved into Oaklands, an imposing residence on the Kenilworth Road, and Holt quickly immersed himself in town life.
An extremely wealthy man, he used his money – and time – to benefit his new home town.
In 1906 Holt was elected to Leamington Town Council. The next year he became mayor, an office he went on to hold seven times, and was made an alderman (senior councillor) in 1909.
As mayor, Holt supported the work of the Leamington slum clearance society and represented the council when laying the foundation stone for a new estate at Lillington, which was named the Holt Estate in his honour.
With another local benefactor, he built a new town bandstand and pavilion in 1909. He also met the majority of the costs for two fountains in the ornamental lake in Jephson Gardens.
But the project Holt took the greatest pleasure in was Leamington Art Gallery. He and his wife, as mayor and mayoress, led the fundraising campaign and the gallery opened in December 1928.
Many of the exhibits were borrowed from other institutions or private collections, but Holt also supported the formation of a permanent collection.
He led by example, purchasing and donating a total of 109 pictures between 1928 and 1940, and laying the foundation for the collection that remains there to this day.
The Benevolent Despot: Alderman Alfred Holt (1858-1943) and the foundation of Leamington Art Gallery runs from September 29 to January 7.
The exhibition features a selection of pictures and objects donated by Alfred Holt to Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum, along with photographs, paintings and local history items presenting his life and work.