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June 23, 2011 6:23 pm

The Watts Gallery, Compton, Surrey

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It’s easy to find ways of mocking George Frederic Watts. He was in the phrase of John Rothenstein a “militantly didactic” artist, who insisted that the job of painting was to represent the profundity of the human soul. It is hardly surprising that Lytton Strachey originally thought of placing Watts’ biography alongside those of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold and General Gordon in Eminent Victorians, his highbrow lampoon of the Victorian mentality. Watts’ brand of brooding symbolism was exactly what a certain type of High Victorian sensibility delighted in, and just what Strachey’s Bloomsbury derided.

These pictures can be seen in quantity at the now sensitively restored and reopened Watts Gallery, which the painter built in the leafy village of Compton, Surrey, to house and exemplify his work. The catalogue for a 1904 exhibition, mounted there just after the artist’s death, construed the works in language derived by his widow from her husband’s own explanations. In “Progress”, “the Spirit of Progress, symbolised by a Bowman upon a white horse, passes enveloped in golden glory along his path to the Divine ideal. Below, the seeker after knowledge pores over his book by the light of a burnt-out candle.” Art cannot get more high-minded than that.

Yet he was not at all a typical Victorian. His paintings are extremely odd, in a way that somehow recalls the self-invented mythologies of Blake and, at the same time, anticipates the enigmas of psychoanalysis and surrealism. His painting “Hope”, wildly successful in its day, returned to fame after Barack Obama claimed in his autobiography that the image of a blindfolded girl hunched over a broken-stringed lyre while perching on a half-submerged globe, inspired his own message of hope. But this imagery is so enigmatic that its message, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out, might just as easily be “Despair”.

George Frederic Watts OM RA (1817 – 1904). Time, Death and Judgement

George Frederic Watts OM RA (1817 – 1904). Time, Death and Judgement

Unconscious drives, of a kind Dalí liked to play with, are evident in “The Minotaur”. Here a muscle-bound, sexually voracious Cretan beast looks hungrily out to sea for a glimpse of the young virgins sent by Athens to be his next prey. A small bird is shown being crushed to death under his hairy mitt – apparently a reminiscence of an occasion in Watts’ boyhood, when he sadistically killed a sparrow. In the light of this guilty fragment of biography, it is hard to know what to make of the knowledge that Watts was ostensibly responding in horror to an account of child prostitution in The Pall Mall Gazette.

Before the appearance of Watts as a visionary symbolist, and continuing alongside it, there were a number of other Wattses. An early four-year stay in Italy produced a clutch of studies after Old Masters and a number of fresh, if fairly conventional, Italian landscapes. In mid-career, back in England, he produced realist paintings that reflected highly charged social issues of the time, such as famine in Ireland and poverty in London.

Then, in middle age, he began to sculpt in a big way, producing such monumental works as the bronzes “Physical Energy”, for Kensington Gardens in London, and a brooding “Lord Tennyson”, which stands outside Lincoln Cathedral and whose full-sized gesso model is preserved at the gallery. These are works that Rodin would have been proud of.

All this time, Watts was a prolific society portrait painter, doing work that provides a contrapuntal link between two peaks of glamorous portraiture, the High Regency and the suave late 19th-century excitements of John Singer Sargent. By contrast with both, there was nothing swaggering about Watts’ portraits. He believed that his job was to concentrate exclusively on the face, and to deduce from its architecture the sitter’s character. In this he developed an impressive acuity.

Much of Watts’ portraiture was for wealthy and influential clients who paid well. But from the 1860s he
also appointed himself as portrait painter to the great and good, creating a gallery of icons that he ultimately presented to the National Portrait Gallery.

Anne Purkiss

Daphne, c1879-1882, by Watts

It is surprising to find, in one so clever at catching the particularity of a face, that so many of Watts’ non-portrait works make a point of avoiding faces. Time and again, in the allegories and symbolist paintings, he shows the human face turned away, buried in arms and hands, or simply blurred, greyed-out and lifeless. Watts’s obsession in these works is with expressive dramaturgy, usually in dim light, and often using semi-comatose figures.

Bloomsburyites regarded these gloomy canvases, freighted with metaphysical self-importance, as furniture for what they most hated – the stultifying Victorian drawing-room. Strachey saw the struggle to reconcile dreams of the spirit with the hard tack of science as meat for satire. But Watts is more interesting than that and, in the end, Strachey dropped Watts from the book because he could not fit him into his polemic against overhyped bores and moral hypocrites.

Here, in the shrine Watts appointed for himself, his work is seen en masse, rather diluting the oddness of his visions. Yet, while it might be better to appreciate the sheer eccentricity of his imagination in a less congruent setting, the Watts Gallery is a fascinating place to visit and a hugely valuable resource.

www.wattsgallery.org.uk

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