George Frederic Watts (1817-1904)

In his own lifetime George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), was widely considered to be the greatest painter of the Victorian age, enjoying an unparalleled reputation. His ceaseless experimentation embodied the most pressing themes and ideas of the time. A complex figure, Watts was the finest and most penetrating portraitist of his age, a sculptor, landscape painter and symbolist which earned him the title ‘England’s Michelangelo.’

His fame and renown was not limited to Britain and in 1884 he was the first living artist to have a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, a show so enormously successful that it led to a longer run and a gift of his great work, Love and Life to the American people. His works also found great favour in Europe winning gold medals at the Paris Universal Exhibitions in 1878 and 1889. His influence among symbolists was profound and can be seen in the works of Gustave Moreau and Fernand Knopff.

The work of G F Watts is of seminal importance in understanding the Victorian period because he was one of its most notable artistic innovators. Watts’s own refusal to become part of any painting movement coupled with the reaction of early twentieth century critics to all things Victorian left his reputation a little tarnished. Ironically, that outspoken critic of Victorian painting, Roger Fry, considered Watts an exception. Fry recognized his great importance within the British School, as shown by his visits with his students to the Watts Picture Gallery. Until the late 1930s, the Tate Gallery had a Watts room which exclusively showed the work of the artist. The legacy of his Hall of Fame portraits form a major part of the National Portrait Gallery’s nineteenth century holdings and the Tate Gallery’s huge collection are a tribute to his importance.

Early Life and Career

George Frederic Watts was born on 23 February 1817 at 52 Queen Street, Bryanston Square, London. His father George Watts (1775-1845) was a pianoforte maker and tuner. His mother Harriet Ann (1786/7-1826) was his father’s second wife and died when Watts was just nine, his three younger brothers having died three years earlier in a measles epidemic. Watts himself suffered from ill health, which meant a strict religious home education augmented by the Iliad and the novels of Walter Scott. His early talent for drawing was encouraged by his father, and in 1827 he entered the studio of the sculptor William Behnes (1794-1865) in Dean Street, Soho. This gave Watts access to the ‘Elgin marbles’, works that would influence him throughout his career.

Watts entered the Royal Academy of Schools on 30 April 1835 but found the relaxed attitude to teaching unhelpful, attending at first intermittently before ceasing to go at all. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1837, when his works included A Wounded Heron and two portraits. Portraiture was both the bread and butter of a burgeoning artist and the opportunity to secure important patrons. His natural ability for portraiture ensured early patronage including many of those of the Ionides family.

In 1842 the Royal fine Arts Commission announced a competition to decorate the new Palaces of Westminster through the submission of large-scale drawings (cartoons). The 140 entries were exhibited a year later and included Watts’s Caractacus Led in Triumph through the Streets of Rome (fragments at the V&A) which won the artists the highest premium of £300.

Mark Bills

Travel and Italy 1843-7

In 1843, aged twenty-six, Watts set off for Europe with his prize money from the inaugural Houses of Parliament competition. He had never travelled abroad before. After six weeks in Paris he went on to Chalon-sur-Saone, down the Rhone to Avignon, onto Marseilles, then to Italy via Leghorn (Livorno) and Pisa. He ended his journey in Florence in the early autumn of 1843 where he intended to study fresco painting and its techniques. Urged to visit the 4th Baron Holland, the English minister, the young artist arrived at the Hollands’ palatial town house, the Casa Feroni on the via dei Serragli, and shortly after moved in at their invitation.

Watts enjoyed a close friendship with Lord Holland and particularly his wife Mary Augusta, the daughter of the 8th Earl of Coventry. The Hollands often retreated to their country villa at Careggi in the hills outside Florence. Here and in town Watts spent much of his time painting and drawing his hosts and their cosmopolitan circle of friends. His thriving social life included the Café Doney, a coffeehouse where an international set of artists met. He relaxed by painting landscapes in the area around the Medici villa at Careggi. With Lord Holland, he even made a quick visit back to London in 1845. They both toured the Riviera coast to Marseilles. In Italy they visited Milan, Rome, Perugia and Naples, where Augusta’s family had the Villa Roccella. Seeing Pompeii and climbing up Vesuvius, as well as the experience of Rome, further encouraged his love of the antique. Steeped in Italian art and culture, he changed his outlook completely.

When the Hollands left Florence in 1846, Watts stayed on at Careggi. He encouraged his patron Alexander Ionides back in London to commission a historical painting on an ambitious scale. He planned to enter another competition for the decorations of the new Palace of Westminster. Watts’s high ideals consolidated as he began to see himself as part of the great traditions of old master painting, evident in his self-portrait.

Barbara Bryant

Return to London and the Late 1840s

Watts returned to London from Italy in 1847 with his Alfred Inciting the Saxons, which was awarded first premium of £500 and purchased for a further £200 by the Royal Fine Arts Commission for the Palaces of Westminster. He lodged at the less than salubrious 48 Cambridge Street, off the Edgware Road, for two years and encountered a changed artistic climate. The great hero of history painting, B.R. Haydon, had committed suicide around the corner from Cambridge Street in 1846, and the press was becoming increasing hostile towards the high art with which Watts was involved.

A move to the more fashionable 30 Charles Street, Berkeley Square, gave rise to new associations and a change in fortunes for the artist, who was facing a difficult time. Watts was also disturbed by the increasing poverty in London and Ireland, which he expressed in four paintings from this period, Found Drowned, The Seamstress or The Song of the Shirt, The Irish Famine and Under a Dry Arch. These paintings were unique to this period, and The Good Samaritan was a turning point, as social concerns were expressed in a symbolic manner rather than through realism, which the artist later rejected.

Mark Bills

The 1850s: Little Holland House, Travel, Murals

For his new friends, Sara (nee Pattle) and Thoby Prinsep, Watts interceded with Lady Holland to grant them a twenty-one-year lease on Holland House, the dower house on the Holland Estate from December 1850. He also moved into Little Holland House himself as a resident artistic luminary, becoming the central attraction of Sara’s bohemian salon. The Anglo-Indian Pattle sisterhood, dubbed ‘Pattledom’, had an impact on his art and life. He fell in love with Virginia, who, however, married into the aristocracy in 1850. Other sisters, including Julia Margaret Cameron and Sophia Dalrymple and their children, served as models for Watts. Sophia, his special friend, called him ‘Signor’, a name that alluded to his years in Italy. In 1853 he made a long-awaited, if brief, return to Italy, visitng Venice for the first time.

Watts’s former studio on Charles Street became the meeting place for the Cosmopolitan Club, a group of writers, politicians and artists. Watts’s friend Tom Taylor invited him, as a noted advocate of ‘high art’, to contribute to a biography of Haydon published in 1853, in which Watts promoted the values of mural painting. He also painted some murals in private homes, including Little Holland House, and had major projects under way at the Houses of Parliament and Lincoln’s Inn.

Travel allowed Watts to advance his art in new ways. At the behest of the Hollands, he spent the winter of 1855-6 in Paris painting portraits in a sophisticated continental style. In 1856 classicist and archaeologist Charles Newton invited Watts to join an expedition to Asia Minor to excavate the site of ancient Halicarnassus. Back at Little Holland House from 1857 onwards, Watts enjoyed a cosseted lifestyle with the Prinseps, whose salon now included Ruskin, Tennyson and the young Pre-Raphaelites. He continued to build his reputation outside the Royal Academy, channelling his ambitions into murals and portraits, which he now pursued as more ‘elaborate performances’.

Barbara Bryant

The 1860s

The 1860s proved to be a decade of change for Watts: he came into the public eye, received universally good critical notices and set an example for the rising younger generation of artists in the circle of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Patronage improved with an introduction through Tom Taylor to Charles Hilditch Rickards, a philanthropist from Manchester. The artist’s finances were now on a better footing and he could paint to sell without commissions. He also devoted more time to sculpture both as an aid to composing and in its own right.

Watts cultivated a distinctive line in portraits and decorative studies of women in a new poetic spirit. His friend, dramatist and critic Tom Taylor, introduced two young actresses to Little Holland House, Kate Terry (1844-1924) and her younger siter Ellen (1847-1928). Enamoured of Ellen’s looks and considering her potential as a stimulus to his art, Watts planned initially to adopt her, but then decided to marry her, even though he was considerably older. Still very young and impressionable, Ellen noted in her memoirs that ‘the stage seemed a poor place compared with the wonderful studio’. They married on 20 February 1864 around the time of both their birthdays, with Watts turning forty-seven and Ellen believing she was about to turn sixteen, but in fact nearly seventeen. A series of remarkable paintings displayed her inherent dramatic abilities. The ill-fated marriage broke down in less than a year, and after a legal separation instigated by Watts, Ellen was sent back to her parents. Her impact on his art lasted longer, as he returned to unfinished paintings of her for years after.

At this point, aged in his mid-forties and with imperfect health, Watts decided not to pursue mural projects ( which had occupied him continuously in the 1850s) and instead direct his attention to what he came to call his ‘symbolical’ works, in essence ‘poems painted on canvas’. His distinctive persona is conveyed in Julia Margaret Cameron’s photograph, The Whisper of the Muse. Still outside the bounds of the Royal Academy, he was elected an Associate when its rules changed in 1867, and later that year a full Academician, a uniquely rapid elevation.

Barbara Bryant

The 1870s

During the 1870s Watts consolidated his position in the art world; he exhibited regularly, attracted new patronage and had the continuing support of Charles Rickards who bought many works from the artist. He submitted his diploma piece to the Academy, a large multi-figure composition, The Denunciation of Cain (RA 1872), making him as a painter of serious subjects.

Watts foresaw a departure from Little Holland House as the widowed Lady Holland began to sell sections of the estate. In late 1871 he bought property on the Isle of Wight, where his friends Julia Margaret Cameron and Tennyson already had homes. In 1873 Watts had The Briary built at Freshwater for the Prinseps and spent much time there himself. As the younger Prinseps, such as May to whom he was close, married and went their own way, he adopted another young relation, Blanche Clogstoun. To create a home for himself in London, he bought land on the new Melbury Road, backing onto Leigthon’s property in Holland Park Road, in an area of Kensington that had become an artists’ district. Watts commissioned the architect C.R. Cockerell to build a new home and studio, ready by February 1876. New Little Holland House remained his London residence until his death. A neighbour and amateur artist, Mrs Barrington, made herself indispensable to Watts. In the late 1870s he discovered that Ellen Terry, now back in the theatre world, had some years before set up home with the architect William Goodwin and had two children by him. Watts petitioned for divorce (perhaps at Ellen’s instigation) and a decree nisi was awarded in March 1877.

In May 1877 the inaugural exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery on New Bond Street opened as the venue par excellence of the Aesthetic era, where one could see Watts’s painting in conjunction with the works of Burne-Jones, whistler and Albert Moore. The triumphant appearance of the prime large-scale version of Love and Death revealed for the first time Watts’s ‘symbolical’ paintings to the elite of the art world. He sent works to exhibitions in Paris in 1878 and 1880. In 1879, along with Leighton and Millais, Watts painted a Self-Portrait (RA 1880) at the request of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, signalling his international stature.

Barbara Bryant

The 1880s

In the 1880s Watts had the benefits of a reputation that was secure, and he was able to explore grand themes in his allegorical paintings or, a he described them, ‘poems painted on canvas’ His artistic career was celebrated at the highest level, first with a retrospective exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1881-2 and thena solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1884-5. His honours were equalled at home with a Doctor of Laws (LLD) from Cambridge and a Doctor of civil Law (DCL) from Oxford, the robes of which he familiarly wore in later life.

He built a gallery extension onto his studio home at Little Holland House and opened it to the public from two to six pm every weekend. His belief that art should be accessible to all was reflected in this project and in his support of schemes that took art into the poor areas of London through exhibition and the creation of new galleries. In the 1880s Watts painted some of his most memorable and iconic images, including Hope, which inspired artists and thinkers internationally, and Mammon, his great protest against the destructive motivating force of greed that was prevalent in society.

On 20 November 1886 he married Mary Seton Fraser-Tytler (1849-1938) in Epsom, Surrey. Their extended honeymoon between 1886 and 1887 took them to Egypt, Constantinople, Athens and Messina, and many of his great landscapes, including A Sea Ghost, were inspired by the visit.

Mark Bills

The Grand Old Man at Compton

In 1890 Watts leased land at Compton and had a house built by Ernest George named Limnerslease. Around this time Watts and his wife were introduced to an orphan named Lilian Mackintosh (later Mrs Michael Chapman) whom they adopted and who became heir to part of their personal estate. In 1903 Watts created a purpose-built gallery and moved all his paintings from Little Holland House Gallery to the Compton gallery, which opened to the public on 1 April 1904.

Watts’s reputation was consolidated both nationally and internationally with exhibitions in Paris and Munich, and in Britain he was a household name. Images of the grand old man of painting with his Titianesque cap and robes were familiar throughout the country. Furthermore, Watts developed a working relationship with the photographer Frederick Hollyer (1838-1933) in order to record his output and circulate his paintings to a wide audience. He also instigated a memorial garden of ‘everyday heroes’ in the form of a 50-foot-long open gallery situated in public gardens on the site of the former churchyard of St Botolph, Aldersgate, and called Postman’s Park. Along the walls of the gallery Watts placed tablets, each describing acts of bravery that resulted in the loss of the hero or heroine’s life. Despite his age and increasingly longer periods away from London, Watts remained remarkably active and a ceaseless experimenter, producing the remarkable and almost abstract painting, Sower of the Systems, exhibited at the New Gallery in 1903.

Watts died on 1 July 1904 after he had seen the Watts Gallery open in Compton and major bequests to the National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery of British Art (now Tate). International obituaries followed; tributes were published in books; the composer Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) wrote music for his funeral and dedicated his Symphony No.6 to the artist; and a touring Watts Memorial Exhibition travelled to the Royal Academy, London, and to Newcastle, Edinburgh, Manchester and Dublin between 1905 and 1906. The Compton collection of Watts’s paintings, which was inherited by Mrs Chapman, was divided on her death in 1972 and works previously in the collection went into private hands.

Mark Bills

The above passages are excerpts from G.F.Watts - Victorian Visionary by Mark Bills and Barbara Bryant, Yale Publishing.

Source: Watts Gallery


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