Biography of George Frederick Watts

George Frederick Watts
George Frederick Watts

Artist. The great age of British art was past before Queen Victoria began her long and memorable reign. Reynolds and Gainsborough had died in the last years of the eighteenth century, Romney and Hoppner in the first decade of the nineteenth; Lawrence, the last of the Georgian portrait-painters, did not live beyond 1830. Of the landscapists Crome died in 1821 and Constable in 1837. Turner, the one survivor of the Giants, had done three-quarters of his work before 1837 and can hardly be reckoned as a Victorian worthy.

In the reign of Queen Victoria many thousands of trivial anecdotic pictures were bought and sold, were reproduced in Art Annuals and Christmas Numbers and won the favour of rich amateurs and provincial aldermen-so much so that Victorian art has been a favorite target for the shafts of critics formed in the school of Whistler and the later Impressionists. But however just some of their strictures may be, it is foolish to condemn an age wholesale or to shut our eyes to the great achievements of those artists who, rising above the general level, dignified the calling of the painter just when the painters were most rare. These men formed no single movement progressing in a uniform direction. The study of pure landscape is best seen in the water-color draughtsmen, Cotman, Cox, and de Wint; of landscape as a setting for the life of the people, in Fred Walker and George Mason. Among figure-painters the ‘Pre-Raphaelites’, Rossetti, Holman Hunt, and Millais, with their forerunner Madox Brown, are the first to win attention by their earnestness, their romantic imagination, and their intense feeling for beauty: in these qualities Burne-Jones carried on their work and retained the allegiance of a cultured few to the very end of the century. Two solitary figures are more difficult to class, Alfred Stevens and Watts. Each learnt fruitful lessons from prolonged study of the great art of the past; yet each preserves a marked originality in his work. More than any other artists of their age they realized the unity of art and the dependence of one branch upon another. Painting should go hand in hand with sculpture, and both minister to architecture. So the world might hope once more to see public buildings nobly planned and no less nobly decorated, as in the past it saw the completion of the Parthenon and the churches of mediaeval Italy. It was unfortunate that they received so little encouragement from the public, and that their example had so narrow an influence. St. Paul’s can show its Wellington monument, Lincoln’s Inn its fresco; but year after year subject-pictures continued to be painted on an ambitious scale, which after a few months’ exhibition on the walls of Burlington House passed to their tomb in provincial museums, or reappeared as ghosts in the sale-room only to fetch a derisory price and to illustrate the fickle vagaries in the public taste.

In the early life of George Frederick Watts, who was born in a quiet street in West Marylebone, there are few incidents to narrate; there is little brightness to enliven the tale. His father, a maker of musical instruments, was poor; his mother died early; his home-life was overshadowed by his own ill health and the uncertain moods of other members of the family. His education was casual and consisted mostly of reading books under the guidance of his father, who had little solid learning, but refined tastes and an inventive disposition. In his Sundays at home, where the Sabbatarian rule limited his reading, he became familiar with the stories of the Old Testament; he discovered for himself the Waverley Novels and Pope’s translation of the Iliad; and he began from early years to use his pencil with the eager and persistent enthusiasm which marks the artist born.

For a rich artistic nature it was a starved life, but he made the most of such chances as came in his way. He was barely ten years old when he found his way to the [199] studio of a sculptor named William Behnes, a man of Hanoverian extraction, an indifferent sculptor but possessed of a real talent for drawing; and from his more intellectual brother, Charles Behnes, he learnt to widen his interest in literature. In this halting and irregular process of education he received help, some years later, from another friend of foreign birth, Nicholas Wanostrocht, a Belgian, who under the assumed name of ‘Felix’ became a leading authority on the game of cricket. Wanostrocht was a cultivated man of very wide tastes, and it was largely through his encouragement that Watts gave to the study of the French and Italian languages, and to music, what little time he could spare from his professional work. London was to render him greater services than this. Thanks to his visits to the British Museum, he had, while still in his teens, come under a mightier spell. Though few Englishmen had yet learnt to value their treasures, the Elgin Marbles had been resting there for twenty years. But now, two years before Queen Victoria’s accession, there might be seen, standing rapt in admiration before the works of Phidias, a boy of slender figure with high forehead, delicately molded features, and disordered hair, one who, as we can see from the earliest portrait which Mrs. Watts has preserved in her biography, had something of the unearthly beauty of the young Shelley. He was physically frail, marked off from ordinary men by a grace that won its way quickly to the hearts of all who were susceptible to spiritual charm. Untaught though he was, he had the eye to see for himself the grandeur of these relics of Greece, and throughout his life they remained one of the guiding influences in his development, one of the standards which he set up before himself, though all too conscious that he could not hope to reach that height. We see their influence in his treatment of drapery, of horses, of the human figure, in his idealization of types, in the flowing lines of his compositions, and in the grouping of his masses. Compared to the hours, which he spent in the British Museum, the lessons in the Royal Academy schools seem unimportant. He attended classes there for some months in 1835, but the teaching was poor and its results disappointing. William Hilton, R.A., who then occupied the post of Keeper, gave him some kind words of encouragement, but in general he came and went unnoticed, and he soon returned to his solitary self-training in his own studio. If we know little of his teaching in art, we know still less of his personal life during the time when he was laying the foundations of his success by study and self-discipline. Early rising was an art which he acquired early, and maintained throughout life; long after he felt the spur of necessity, even after the age of 80, he could rise at four when there was work to be done; and, living as he did on the simplest diet, he often achieved his best results at an hour when other men were still finishing their slumbers. His shyness and sensitiveness, combined with precarious health and weak physique, would seem to equip him but poorly in the struggle for life; but his steady persistence, his high conception of duty, his faith in his art, joined to that power which he had of winning friends among the noblest men and women of his day, were to carry him triumphantly through to the end.

The career of Watts as a public man began in 1843 when he had reached the age of 26. The British Government, not often guilty of fostering art or literature, may claim at least the credit for having drawn him out of his seclusion at the very moment when his genius was ripening to bear fruit. In 1834 the Palace of Westminster, so long the home of the Houses of Parliament, had been burnt to the ground. The present buildings were begun by Sir Charles Barry in 1840, and, with a view to decorating them with wall-paintings, the Board of Works wisely offered prizes for cartoons, hoping thereby to attract the best talent of the country. In June 1843 they had to judge between 140 designs by various competitors, and to award prizes varying in value from £300 to £100. Of the three first prizes one fell to Watts, hitherto unknown beyond the narrow circle of his friends, for a design displaying ‘Caractacus led in triumph through the streets of Rome’. This cartoon, however, was not employed for its original purpose: it fell into the hands of an enterprising, if inartistic, dealer, who cut it up and sold such fragments as he judged to be of value in the state of the picture market at the time. What was far more important was the encouragement given to the artist by such a success at a critical time of his life, and the opportunity, which the money furnished him to travel abroad and enrich his experiences before his style, was formed. He had long wished to visit Italy; and, after spending a few weeks in France, he made his leisurely way (at a pace incredible to us to-day) to Florence and its picture galleries. On the steamer between Marseilles and Leghorn he was fortunate in making friends with a Colonel Ellice and his wife, and a few weeks later they introduced him to Lord Holland, the British Minister at Florence.

The story goes that Watts went to be the guest of Lord and Lady Holland for four days and remained there for four years-a story which is a tribute to the discernment of the latter and not a satire upon Watts, who was the last man in the world to take advantage of hospitality or to thrust himself into other people’s houses. No doubt it is not to be taken too literally, but at least it is so far true that he very quickly became intimate with his host and hostess and found a home where he could pursue his art under ideal conditions. The value and the danger of patronage have been often discussed. Democracy may provide a discipline for artists and men of letters which is often salutary in testing the sincerity of their devotion to art and literature; but, in such a stern school, men of genius may easily founder and miss their way.

However that may be, Watts found just the haven which was needed for a nature like his. So far he had known but little appreciation, and had lived with few who were his peers. Now he was cheered by the favour of men and women who had known the best and whose favour was well worth the winning. But he kept his independence of spirit. He lived in a palace, but his diet was as sparing as that of a hermit. He feasted his eyes on the great works of the Renaissance, but he preserved his originality, and continued to work, with fervor and enhanced enthusiasm, on the lines which he had already marked out for himself. He did not copy with the hand, but he drank in new lessons with the eyes and dreamed new dreams with the spirit.

The Hollands had two houses, one in the centre of the city, the other, the Villa Medicea di Careggi, lying on the edge of the hills some two or three miles to the north. This latter had been a favorite residence of the first Cosimo; here Lorenzo had died, turning his face to the wall, unshriven by Savonarola; and here Watts decorated an open loggia in fresco, to bear witness to its latest connexion with the patronage of Art. Between the two houses he passed laborious but tranquil days, studying, planning, training his hand to mastery, but enjoying in his leisure all that such a home could give him of varied entertainment. Music and dancing, literature and good company, all had their charms for him, though none of them could beguile him into neglecting his work. Fortune had tried him with her frowns and with her smiles; under temptations of both sorts he remained but more faithful to his calling.

His health gave cause for anxiety from time to time, but he delighted in the sunshine and the genial climate of the South, and in general he was well enough to enjoy what Florence could give him of beautiful form and color, and even to travel farther afield. One year he pushed as far as Naples, stopping on the way for a hurried glance at Rome. On this memorable day the Sistine chapel and its paintings were kept to the last; and Watts, high though his expectations were, was overwhelmed at what he saw. ‘Michelangelo’, he said, ‘stands for Italy, as Shakespeare does for England.’ So the four years went by till in 1847 this halcyon period came to an end. The Royal Commission of Fine Arts was offering prizes for fresco-painting, and Watts felt that he must put his growing powers to the test and utilize what he had learnt. This time he chose for his subject ‘Alfred inciting the English to resist the Danes by sea’. He was busy at work in the early months of 1847 making many sketches in pencil for the figures, and by April he was on his way home, bringing with him the ‘Alfred’ almost finished and five other canvases in various stages of completion. The picture was placed in Westminster Hall for competition in June, and soon after he was announced to be the winner of one of the three £500 prizes. When the Commissioners decided to purchase his picture for the nation, he refused to take more than £200 for it, though he might easily have obtained a far higher price. This is one of the earliest instances in which he displayed that signal generosity which marked his whole career.

During the next three years his life was rather desultory. He was hoping to return to Italy and did not find it easy to settle down in London. He changed his studio two or three times. He planned various works, but felt chilled at the absence of any clear encouragement from new patrons or from the general public. His success in 1847 had not been followed by any commissions for the sort of work he loved: interest in the decoration of public buildings was still spasmodic and too rare.

He made the acquaintance of Mr. Ruskin; but, friendly though they were in their personal relations, they did not see eye to eye in artistic matters. Ruskin seemed to lay too much emphasis on points of secondary importance, and to fail in judging the work of Michelangelo and the greatest masters. So Watts thought, and many years later, in conversation with Jowett, declared, chary though he was of criticizing his friends. To-day there is little doubt whose judgment was the truer, even had Ruskin not weakened his position by so often contradicting himself. Besides Ruskin, Watts was beginning to make other friends, and was a member of the Cosmopolitan Club, which counted among its members Sir Robert Morier, Sir Henry Layard, FitzGerald, Palgrave, and Spedding. The large painting of the ‘Story from Boccaccio’, which now hangs in the Watts room of the Tate Gallery, hung for many years on the walls of this club and was presented to the nation in 1902. How frequently Watts attended the club or other social gatherings at this time we do not know. His name figures little in the biographies and memoirs of Londoners, and he himself would not have wished the record of his daily life to be preserved. His modesty in all personal matters is uncontested, and even if his subsequent offer of his pictures to the nation smacks somewhat of presumption, his motive was something other than conceit. His portraits were an historical record of the worthiest men of his own time: his allegories were of value, so he felt, not for their technical accomplishments, but for the high moral lessons which they tried to convey. The artist himself was at ease only in retirement and privacy. Yet complete isolation was not good for him. Ill-health still dogged his steps, and the dejection which came over him in the years 1849 and 1850 is to be seen in the gloomiest pictures which he ever painted. Their titles and subjects alike recall the more tragic poems of Thomas Hood. But the eclipse was not to last for long, and in 1850 Watts owed his recovery to a happy chance encounter with friends who were to give him a new haven of refuge and gladden his life for thirty years to come.

A high Indian official, James Pattle, had been the father of five daughters who were famous for their beauty, and from their tastes and character were particularly fitted to be the friends of artists and poets. If Lady Somers was the most beautiful of the sisters and Mrs. Cameron the most artistic, their elder sister Mrs. Prinsep proved to be Watts’s surest friend. Her husband, Thoby Prinsep, was a member of the India Council in Whitehall, a large-hearted man, full of knowledge and full of kindliness. Mrs. Prinsep herself was mistress of the domestic arts in no common degree, from skilful cookery to the holding of a literary salon. She and her husband realized what friendship could do for a nature like that of Watts, and they provided him with an ideal home, where he was nursed back to health, relieved of care, and cheered by constant sympathy and affection. It was Watts who discovered this home for them in a quiet corner of London, that has not yet lost all its charm. Behind Holland House and adjoining its park was a smaller property with a rambling old-fashioned house, built in the days when London was still far away. At Little Holland House the Prinseps lived for a quarter of a century. Here the sisters came and went freely with their children who were growing up around them. Here were gatherings of their friends, among whom Tennyson, Thackeray, Rossetti, and Burne-Jones might be met from time to time; and here Watts remained a constant inmate, giving regular hours to his work, enjoying their society in his leisure, a special favorite with the children, who admitted him to their confidence and called him by pet names. There was no lionizing, no striving after brilliance; all work that was genuine and of high intention received due honor, and Watts could hope here to carry to fruition the noble visions which he had seen since the days of his youth.

These visions had little to do with the exhibitions of Burlington House, the winning of titles, or the acquisition of worldly wealth. Watts cherished the old Greek conception of willing service to the community. And he was alive to the special needs of an age when men were struggling for gain, and when ‘progress’ was measured by material riches. To him, if to few others, it seemed tragic that, in the wonderful development of industrial Britain, art, which had spoken so eloquently to citizens of Periclean Athens and to Florence in the Medicean age, should remain without expression or sign of life. For a moment our Government had seemed to hear the call, and the stimulus of the Westminster competitions had been of value; but the interest died away all too quickly, and the attention of the general public was never fully roused. If the latter could be won, Watts was only too willing to give the time and the knowledge, which he had acquired. The building of the great railway stations in London seemed to offer a chance, and Watts approached the directors of the North Western Company with a humble petition. All that he asked for was wall space and the payment of his expenses in material. Had his request been granted, Euston might have enjoyed pre-eminence among railway stations, and passengers for the north might have passed through, or waited in, a National Gallery of their own. But the Railway Director’s mind is slow to move; inventions leave him cold, and imagination is not to be weighed in the scale against dividends and quick returns. The Company declined the offer on the ground of expense, while their architect is[207] said to have been seriously alarmed at the idea of any one tampering with his building.

Another proposal met with a heartier response. The men of law proved more generous than the men of commerce. The new Hall at Lincoln’s Inn was being built by Mr. Philip Hardwick, in the Tudor style. Benchers and architect alike cordially welcomed Watts’s offer to decorate a blank wall with fresco. The work could only be carried on during the legal vacations, and it proved a long business owing to the difficulties of the process and to the interruptions caused by the artist’s ill-health. Watts planned it in 1852, began work in 1853, and did not put the finishing touch till 1859. The subject was a group of famous lawgivers, in which the chief figures were Moses, Mahomet, Justinian, Charlemagne, and Alfred, and it stands to-day as the chief witness to his powers as a designer on a grand scale.

Before this he had already dedicated to national service his gift of portrait painting. The head of Lord John Russell, painted in 1851, is one of the earliest portraits known to have been painted with this intention, though it is impossible to fix with accuracy the date when such a scheme took shape. In 1899, with the same patriotic intention, he was at work on a painting of Cecil Rhodes. In this half-century of activity he might have made large sums of money, if he had responded to the urgent demands of those men and women who were willing to pay high prices for the privilege of sitting to him; but few of them attained their object. His earlier achievements were limited to a few families from whom he had received help and encouragement when he was unknown. First among these to be remembered are the various generations of that family whose name is still preserved at South Kensington in the Ionides collection of pictures. Next came the Hollands, of whom he painted many portraits at Florence; and a third circle, naturally enough, was that of the Prinseps. In general he was most unwilling to undertake, as a mere matter of business, commissions from individuals unknown to him. He found portrait painting most exhausting in its demands upon him. He threw his whole soul into the work, straining to see and to reproduce all that was most noble in his sitters. His nervous temperament made him anxious at starting, while his high standard of excellence made him often dissatisfied with what he had accomplished. Even when he was painting Tennyson, a personal friend, he was miserable at the thought of the responsibility, which he had undertaken; and in 1879 he gave up a commission to paint Gladstone, feeling that he was not realizing his aim. So far as mere money was concerned, he would have preferred to leave this branch of his profession, the most lucrative of all, perhaps the most suited to his gifts, severely on one side, and to confine himself to the allegorical subjects which he felt to be independent of external claims.

In the years after 1850, when he was first living at Little Holland House, Watts formed some of the friendships with brother artists, which added so much pleasure to his life. Foremost among these friends was Frederic Leighton, the most famous President whom the Royal Academy has known since the days of Reynolds, a man of many accomplishments, linguist, orator, and organizer, as well as sculptor and painter, the very variety of whose gifts have perhaps prevented him from obtaining proper recognition for the things which he did really well. The worldly success, which he won, brought him under the fire of criticism as no other artist of the time; but, apart from his merits as a draughtsman and a sculptor he was a man of singularly generous temper, a staunch friend and a champion of good causes. These qualities, and his sincere admiration for all noble work, endeared him to Watts; and, at one time, Leighton paid daily visits to his studio to exchange views and to see his friend’s work in progress.

For a while Rossetti frequented the circle, but this wayward spirit drifted into other paths, and the chief service which he did to Watts was to introduce to him Edward Burne-Jones, most refined of artists and most lovable of men. The latter’s work commanded Watts’s highest admiration, and his friendship was valued to the end. To many lovers of painting these two remain the embodiment of all that is purest and loftiest in Victorian art; and though their treatment of classic subjects and of allegory were so different their pictures were often hung side by side in exhibitions and their names were coupled together in the current talk of the time. Burne-Jones was markedly Celtic in his love of beautiful pattern, in the ghostly refinement of his figures, in the elaborate fancifulness of his imagery. Watts had more of the full-blooded Englishman in his nature, and his art was simpler, grander, more universal. If we may compare them with the great men of the Renaissance, Burne-Jones recalled the grace of Botticelli, Watts the richness and power of Veronese or of Titian.

Those who went to Little Holland House and saw the circle of the Prinseps adorned by these artists, and by such writers as Tennyson, Henry Taylor, and Thackeray, had a singular impression of harmony between the men and their surroundings; and if they had been asked who best expressed the spirit of these gatherings, they would probably have pointed to the ‘Signor’, as Watts came to be called among his intimate friends-to the slight figure with the small delicately-shaped head, who seemed to recall the atmosphere of Florence in the Middle Ages, when art was at once a craft and a religion. But few who saw the grace and old-fashioned courtesy with which he moved among young and old would have guessed what fire and persistency were in him, that he would outlive all his generation, and be still wielding a vigorous brush in the early years of the century to come.

One interlude in this busy yet tranquil life came in 1856 when he was asked to accompany Sir Charles Newton’s party to the coast of Asia Minor. Newton was to explore the ruins of Halicarnassus on behalf of the British Government, and a man-of-war was placed at his disposal. The opportunity of seeing Grecian lands in this leisurely fashion was too good to be missed, and Watts spent eight happy months on board. He showed his power of adapting himself to a new situation, made friends with the sailors, and sang ‘Tom Bowling’ at their Christmas concert. Incidentally he visited Constantinople, as it was necessary to get a ‘firman’ from the Porte, was commended to the famous ambassador Lord Stratford de Redcliffe and painted two portraits of him, one of which is in the National Portrait Gallery today. He also enjoyed a cruise through the Greek Islands, where the scenery with its rich color and bold pure outlines was specially calculated to charm him. He painted few landscapes in his long career, but both in Italy and in Greece it was the distant views of mountain peaks that led him to give expression to his delight in the beauty of Nature.

A different kind of distraction was obtained after his return by occasional visits to Esher, where he was the guest of Mrs. Sanderson, sister of Mr. Prinsep, and where he spent many a happy day riding to hounds. For games he had no training, and little inclination, though he loved in his old age to watch and encourage the village cricket in Surrey; but riding gave him great pleasure. His love for the horse may in part be due to this pastime, in part to his early study of the Parthenon frieze with its famous procession of horsemen. Certainly this animal plays a notable part in his work. Two great equestrian statues occupied him for many years. ‘Hugh Lupus’, the ancestor of the Grosvenors, was cast in bronze in 1884 and set up at Eaton Hall in the Duke of Westminster’s park. ‘Physical Energy’ was the name given to a similar figure conceived on broader and more ideal lines. At this Watts continued to work till the year of his death, though he parted with the first version in response to Lord Grey’s appeal when it was wanted to adorn the monument to Cecil Rhodes. Its original destination was the tomb in the Matoppo hills; but it was proved impracticable to convey such a colossal work, without injury, over the rough country surrounding them; and it was set up at Cape Town. The statue has become better known to the English public since a second version has been set up in Kensington Gardens. The rider, bestriding a powerful horse, has flung himself back and is gazing eagerly into the distance, shading with uplifted hand his eyes against the fierce sunlight, which dazzles them. The allegory is not hard to interpret, though the tame landscape of a London park frames it less fitly than a wide stretch of wild and solitary veld.

Horses of many different kinds figure in his pictures. In one, whose subject is taken from the Apocalypse, we see the war-horse, his neck ‘clothed with thunder’; in another his head is bowed, the lines harmonizing with the mood of his master, Sir Galahad. ‘The Midday Rest’, unheroic in theme but grand in treatment, shows us two massive dray horses, which were lent to him as models by Messrs. Barclay and Perkins, while ‘A patient life of unrewarded toil’ renders sympathetically the weakness of the veteran discharged after years of service, waiting patiently for the end. One instance of a more imaginative kind shows us ‘Neptune’s Horses’ as the painter dimly discerned them, with arched necks and flowing manes, rising and leaping in the crest of the wave.

His portraits of great men generally took the form of half-lengths with the simplest backgrounds. His subjects were of all kinds-Tennyson and Browning, Rossetti and Burne-Jones, Gladstone, Mill, Motley, Joachim, Thiers, and Anthony Panizzi. His object was a national one, and the foreigners admitted to the company were usually closely connected with England. Sometimes the pose of the body and the hands helps the conception, as in Lord Lytton and Cardinal Manning; more often Watts trusts to the simple mass of the head or to the character revealed by the features in repose. No finer examples for contrast can be given than the portraits of the two friends, Burne-Jones and William Morris, painted in 1870. In the former we see the spirit of the dreamer, in the latter the splendid vitality and force of the craftsman, who was impetuous in action as he was rich in invention. The room at the National Portrait Gallery where this collection is hung speaks eloquently to us of the Victorian Age and the varied genius of its greatest men; and in some cases we have the additional interest of being able to compare portraits of the same men painted by Watts and by other artists. Well known is the contrast in the case of Carlyle. Millais has painted a picturesque old man whose talk might be racy and his temper uncertain; but the soul of the seer, tormented by conflicts and yet clinging to an inner faith, is revealed only by the hands of Watts. Again Millais gives us the noble features, the extravagant ‘hure’[35] of the Tennyson whom his contemporaries saw, alive, glowing with force; Watts has exalted this conception to[213] a higher level and has portrayed the thinker whom the world will honor many centuries hence. Some will perhaps prefer the more objective treatment; and it is certain that Watts’s ambition led him into difficult paths. Striving to represent the soul of his sitter, he was conscious at times that he failed-that he could not see or realize what he was searching for. More than once he abandoned a commission when he felt this uncertainty in himself. But when the accord between artist and sitter was perfect, he achieved a triumph of idealization, combined with a firm grasp on reality, such as few artists since Giorgione and the young Titian have been able to achieve.

Apart from portraits there was a rich variety in the subjects, which the painter handled, some drawn from Bible stories, some from Greek legends or mediaeval tales, some for which we can find no source save in his own imagination. He dealt with the myths in a way natural to a man who owed more to Greek art and to his own musings than to the close study of Greek literature. His pictures of the infancy of Jupiter, of the deserted Ariadne, of the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice, have no elaborate realism in detail. The Royal Academy walls showed, in those days, plenty of marble halls, theatres, temples, and classic groves, reproduced with soulless pedantry. Watts gave us heroic figures, with strong masses and flowing lines, simply grouped and charged with emotion-the yearning love of Diana for Endymion, the patient resignation of Ariadne, the passionate regret of Orpheus, the cruel bestiality of the Minotaur. Some will find a deeper interest, a grander style, in the designs, which he made for the story of our first parents in the Book of Genesis. Remorse has rarely been expressed so powerfully as in the averted figure of Eve after the Fall, or of Cain bowed under the curse, shut out from contact with all creation. In one of his masterpieces Watts drew his motive from the Gospel story. The picture entitled ‘For he had great possessions’ shows us the young ruler who has come to Christ and has failed in the supreme moment. His back, his bowed neck and averted head, with the gesture of indecision in his right hand, tell their tale with consummate eloquence.

In his more famous allegories the same is true; by simple means an impression of great power is conveyed. The popularity of ‘Love and Death’ and its companion picture shows how little the allegory needs explanation. These themes were first handled between 1860 and 1870; but the pictures roused such widespread admiration that the painter made several replicas of them. Versions are now to be found in the Dominions and in New York, as well as in London and Manchester. Photographs have extended their renown and they are so familiar today that there is no need to describe them. Another masterpiece dealing with the subject of Death is the ‘Sic transit’, where the shrouded figure of the dead warrior is impressive in its solemnity and stillness. ‘Dawn’ and ‘Hope’ show what different notes Watts could strike in his treatment of the female form. At the other extreme is ‘Mammon’, the sordid power that preys on life and crushes his victims with the weight of his relentless hand. The power of conscience is shown in a more mystic figure called ‘The Dweller in the Innermost’. Judgment figures in more than one notable design, the most familiar being that which now hangs in St. Paul’s Cathedral with the title of ‘Time, Death, and Judgment’. Its position there shows how little we can draw the line between the different classes of subjects as they were handled by Watts. A courtier like Rubens could, after painting with gusto a rout of Satyrs, put on a cloak of decorum to suit the pageantry of a court, or even simulate fervor to portray the ecstasy of a saint. He is clearly acting a part, but in Watts the character of the man is always seen. Whether his subjects are drawn from the Bible or from pagan myths, they are all treated in the same temper of reverence and purity.

It is impossible to avoid the question of didactic art in writing of these pictures, though such a wide question, debated for half a century, can receive no adequate treatment here. We must frankly allow that Watts was ‘preaching sermons in paint’, nor would he have repudiated the charge, however loud today are the protests of those who preach the doctrine of ‘art for art’s sake’. But the latter, while stating many principles of which the British public need to be reminded, seem to go beyond their rights. It is, of course, permissible for students of art to object to technical points of handling-Watts himself was among the first to deplore his own failures due to want of executive ability; it is open to them to debate the part which morality may have in art, and to express their preference for those artists who handle all subjects impartially and conceive all to be worthy of treatment, if truth of drawing or lighting be achieved. But when they make Watts’s ethical intention the reason for depreciating him as an artist they are on more uncertain ground. There is no final authority in these questions. Ruskin was too dogmatic in the middle years of his life and only provoked a more violent reaction. Twenty years later the admirers of Whistler and Manet were equally intolerant, and assumed doctrines, which may hold the field today but are certain to be questioned to-morrow.

Watts was most reluctant to enter into controversy and had no ambition to found a school; in fact so far was he from imposing his views on others, that he scarcely ever took pupils, and was content to urge young artists to follow their own line and to be sincere. But he could at times be drawn into putting some of his views on paper, and in 1893 he wrote down a statement of the relative importance which he attached to the qualities which make a painter. Among these Imagination stands first, Intellectual idea next to it. After this follow Dignity of form, Harmony of lines, and Color. Finally, in the sixth place comes Realism, the idol of so many of the end of the century, both in literature and art.

Some years earlier, in meeting criticism, Watts had said, ‘I admit my want of dexterity with the brush, in some cases a very serious defect,’ but at the same time he refused to accept the authority of those ‘who deny that art should have any intellectual intention’. In general, he pleaded that art has a very wide range over subject and treatment; but he did not set himself up as a reformer in art, nor inflict dogmas on the public gratuitously. He found that some of his more abstract themes needed handling in shadowy and suggestive fashion: if this gave the impression of fumbling, or displayed some weakness in technique, even so perhaps the conception reaches us in a way that could not be attained by dexterity of brushwork. As he himself said, ‘there were things that could only be done in art at the sacrifice of some other things’; but the points which Watts was ready to sacrifice are what the realists conceive to be indispensable, and his aims were not as theirs. But his life was very little troubled by controversy; and he would not have wished his own work to be a subject for it.

External circumstances also had little power to alter the even tenor of his way. Late in life, at the age of 69, he married Miss Fraser Tytler, a friend of some fifteen years’ standing, who was herself an artist, and who shared all his tastes. After the marriage he and his wife spent a long winter in the East, sailing up the Nile in leisurely fashion, enjoying the monuments of ancient Egypt and the colors of the desert. It was a time of great happiness, and was followed by seventeen years of a serene old age, divided between his London house in Melbury Road and his new home in Surrey. Staying with friends in Surrey, Watts had made acquaintance with the beautiful country lying south of the Hog’s Back; and in 1889 he chose a site at Compton, where he decided to build a house. To this he gave the name of Limnerslease. Thanks to the generosity of Mrs. Watts, who has built a gallery and hung some of his choicest pictures there, Compton has become one of the three shrines to which lovers of his work resort.

But for many years he met with little recognition from the world at large. It was only at the age of 50 that he received official honors from the Royal Academy, though the success of his cartoons had marked him out among his contemporaries twenty-five years earlier. About 1865 his pictures won the enthusiastic admiration of Mr. Charles Rickards, who continued to be the most constant of his patrons, and gave to his admiration the most practical form. Not only did he purchase from year to year such pictures as Watts was willing to sell, but twenty years later he organized an exhibition of Watts’s work at Manchester, which did much to spread his fame in the North. In London Watts came to his own more fully when the Grosvenor Gallery was opened in 1877. Here the Directors were at pains to attract the best painters of the day and to hang their pictures in such a way that their artistic qualities had full effect. No one gained more from this than Watts and Burne-Jones; and to a select but growing circle of admirers the interest of the annual exhibitions began and ended with the work of these two kindred spirits. The Directors also arranged in 1881 for a special exhibition devoted to the works of Watts alone, when, thanks to the generosity of lenders, 200 of his pictures did justice to his sixty years of unwearied effort. This winter established his fame, and England now recognized him as one of her greatest sons. But when his friends tried to organize a dinner to be held at the Gallery in his honor, he got wind of the plot, and with his usual fastidious reserve begged to be spared such an ordeal. The élite of London society, men famous in politics, literature, and other departments of public life, were only too anxious to honor him; but he could not endure to be the centre of public attention. To him art was everything, the artist nothing. Throughout his life he attended few banquets, mounted fewer platforms, and only wished to be left to enjoy his work, his leisure, and the society of his intimate friends.

His interest in the progress of his age was profound, though it did not often take shape in visible form. He believed that the world might be better, and was not minded to acquiesce in the established order of things. He sympathized with the Salvation Army; he was a strong supporter of women’s education; he was ardent for redressing the balance of riches and poverty, and for recognizing the heroism of those who, laboring under such grim disadvantages, yet played a heroic part in life. The latter he showed in practical form. In 1887 he had wished to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee by erecting a shrine in which to preserve the records of acts of self-sacrifice performed by the humblest members of the community. The scheme failed at the time to win support; but in 1899, largely through his help, a memorial building arose in the churchyard of St. Botolph, near Aldersgate, better known as the ‘Postmen’s Park’.

In private life his kindliness and courtesy won the hearts of all who came near him, young and old, rich and poor. He was tolerant towards those who differed from him in opinion: he steadily believed the best of other men in passing judgment on them. No mean thought, no [219] malicious word, no petty quarrel marred the purity of his life. He had lost his best friends: Leighton in 1896, Burne-Jones three years later; but he enjoyed the devotion of his wife and the tranquility of his home. Twice he refused the offer of a Baronetcy. The only honor which he accepted was the Order of Merit, which carried no title in society and was reserved for intellectual eminence and public service. At the age of 80 he presented to Eton College his picture of Sir Galahad, a fit emblem of his own lifelong quest. His last days of active work were spent on the second version of the great statue of ‘Physical Energy’, which had occupied him so long, and in which he ever found something new to express as he dreamed of the days to come and the future conquests of mankind. In 1904 his strength gradually failed him, and on July 1 he died in his Surrey home. Like his great exemplar Titian, whom he resembled in outward appearance and in much of the quality of his painting, he outlived his own generation and was yet learning, as one of the young, when death took him in the 88th year of his life.



MLA Source Citation:

Blore, George Henry. Victorian Worthies, Sixteen Biographies. Oxford University Press, England. 1920. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 1 September 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/genealogy/biography-of-george-frederick-watts.htm - Last updated on Feb 10th, 2013


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