February 24, 2012 9:00 pm

Fame and photographs

A Watts Gallery exhibition rethinks the relationship between photography and painting in Victorian Britain

The Watts Gallery, a few miles out of London near Guildford, is an unusual place to go for photographs. George Frederic Watts was a prolific artist, but not one of the many 19th-century painters openly to have taken up photography himself. Yet the gallery’s current exhibition, GF Watts: The Hall of Fame, carefully places a famous series of Watts’ portraits of celebrities next to photographs of the same people with interesting results. It turns out that Watts, like so many Victorian Englishmen, was much more aware of photography than we had perhaps realised.

Although Watts is best known as a painter of swirling, high-minded allegories, most of the paintings here are remarkable for their quiet control and simplicity – and were assembled for a very particular project: a series of portraits of his great contemporaries.

Watts approved of the great burst of museum openings that followed the Great Exhibition of 1851. As a successful (and cannily commercial) artist, he gave substantial collections to several national institutions, including many works that eventually found their way to that uniquely British institution, the National Portrait Gallery. Founded in 1856, the NPG represented a particular combination of piety, patriotism and patronage that suited Watts down to the ground, and he worked with a donation in mind for decades.

If he wanted to be sure that the nation could hardly forget him, he also felt himself to have a national duty. The notion of building a Hall of Fame had been with him for many years; he seems consciously to have tightened the style of painting appropriate to this great project as he went along.

Limiting himself to the head or the head and shoulders only, with almost no background indications at all, it is obvious to read the Hall of Fame paintings in the light of the photography of the day. In Victorian terms, they look like photographs with added sensibility, and there is some evidence that Watts thought of them in that way.

The Watts Gallery has recently taken possession of the former Maas collection of Victorian portraits, through the generosity of one of its trustees, Rob Dickins. It is a selection of these that are hung along with Watts’ painted portraits.

Photograph of John Everett Millais

Photograph of John Everett Millais

Many of them are modest cartes de visite or other portraits of celebrities for the mass market, but the qualities of even such straight-forward pieces are not to be underestimated. We can confidently follow the respect that the painter had for the photographs. Some of the painted portraits (such as that of the Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais) are so close to the photographs that Watts must have had them in front of him as he worked.

A portrait of Lord Leighton also falls into that category. The original is physically little, an albumen by the London Stereoscopic Company, but it holds its own against Watts’s oil with ease. In other countries with a long photographic heritage, they make a big deal of such things. Is the Stereoscopic Company’s Leighton comparable to a Nadar or a Carjat, great 19th-century photographic portraits from France? It is hard to see why not.

There is a splendid invitation here to rethink the relationship between photography and painting in Victorian Britain, and to give more credit to such commercial firms as the Stereoscopic Company, Maull & Polyblank, W & D Downey, Watkins and others. As this pleasing exhibition reminds us, a painter like Watts lived in daily contemplation of these masters of the new technology as his potential artistic and commercial allies or rivals.

To June 3, www.wattsgallery.org.uk

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