George Frederick Watts

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George Frederick Watts

English Symbolist, Olympian Classical Revivalist painter and sculptor

Born 1817 - Died 1904

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One of the most singular, and enigmatic figures in Victorian art, and perhaps the hardest to pigeon-hole, or classify in any way. He was born in London, the son of an ordinary family. Watts was serious-minded, lacked a sense of humour, and was politically a radical-on two occasions he refused a baronetcy. He was very sympathetic towards the dreadful living conditions of the urban poor. Watts regarded, as a great evil, the upper classes of the country taking vast sums of money they had not earned. He produced many allegorical pictures throughout his long life, and they vary greatly in their level of success. He also produced, at his own expense his �Hall of Fame,� pictures. Watts was really at his best as a portraitist. [ But his best portraits still could never inspire the way his finest theme paintings did, and continue to do, such as Hope. - Ed ] The likenesses of his portraits are excellent, and in many of them he really brought out the character of the sitter. They are, however, all painted in dark, muted colours, and collectively give a very sombre impression. There is an excellent display of them at Bodelwyddan Castle in North Wales, an outpost of the National Portrait Gallery.

In middle age, the serious minded and already aged painter, made a short lived and totally disastrous marriage to the teenaged Ellen Terry the great actress.

Relatively late in life Watts took up sculpture, and produced a relatively small number of outstanding works. These include the Clytie, Physical Energy, and the magisterial memorial statue of Tennyson [PIC], now placed outside Lincoln Cathedral. This highly original, rough hewn, and vast statue was created by the artist in extreme old age, a tribute to his vision, capacity for hard work, and indomitable character.

Watts married Mary Fraser-Tytler in 1886. She was thirty six years his junior, and devoted the rest of her life to the care of her genius, materially during his lifetime, and his reputation after his death. Mary Watts had the misfortune to live until 1938, when her geniuses reputation seemed in terminal decline. In 1891 Watts had a new house called Limnerslease (satirised as Dauber's Den by Burne-Jones), built at Compton near Guildford. Nearby in 1903-1904 the Watts Museum was built. It is well worth a visit, and will be featured on this site before long. Close to the Museum is The Watts Mortuary Chapel at Compton. This remarkable building was the work of Mary Watts, assisted by local villagers. It was built entirely to Mary Watts designs. George Frederic Watts is buried close to the chapel.

Contemporary Comment from The Pall Mall Gazette of 1892

There is nothing more satisfactory about the year's art than the evidence we find here that this veteran of English painting is renewing his youth in his seventies. His portrait of Mr Walter Crane, in the New Gallery, which justly holds the place of honour in the Central Room, is superb. For the skill of its texture-painting and the richness of its colour, as well as for its character, distinction, and strength, this little work could hardly be surpassed. The reserve and dignity of it are themselves a whole sermon to certain other portrait painters who may be seen in the same room. Indeed, this portrait sets a standard of excellence which may make us unwittingly do less than justice to other work which of its kind is quite admirable.

A second work of Mr Watts's entitled Afloat, and representing a very jolly Cupid on his back in the seas, with his bow and arrow floating by his side, is a glowing brilliant little picture quite Titianesque in its qualities. About the large Sic Transit, by the same painter, we are less positive. It represents a dead figure covered by a sheet lying on a bier which runs across the whole length of the canvas. In the left corner at the foot of the bier armour, musical instruments, and scattered flowers in a confused heap. On the curtain at the back of the bier we see inscribed: "What I spent I had. What I saved I lost. What I gave, I have." There is certain majesty about the lines of drapery which covers the dead figure, and a painter might enlarge upon its technique. But somehow it just fails to be either quite real or quite symbolical, and the fact that the artist has found it necessary to inscribe his moral upon his picture is a hint that he felt it not wholly equal to telling its own story.

Source:
  • Entry on the artist at Paul Ripley's Victorian Art in Britain.

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    20 June 2017 to 26 November 2017

    G F Watts: England's Michelangelo


    Down Ln, Guildford, England GU3


    Explore the major themes of Watts's art: colour, cosmos and celebrity. View the artist's most striking masterpieces, borrowed from public and private collections and showcased in his own historic picture gallery.

    July 2nd, 1875
    Little Holland House

    Dear Mrs. Davey
    I think it will be a great pity to leave the picture till next spring so I shall be prepared to commence on Sunday morning as early (after 9) as may be convenient & agreeable to Mr. Davey.

    I am very truly
    Geo F. Watts


    Image courtesy of Don Kurtz

    Image courtesy of Don Kurtz

    Image courtesy of Brian Yoder's Art Gallery