pic: Watts Gallery/Richard Bryant/arcaidimages.com

The Grand Old Man of English Art

26th August 2011

George Frederic Watts was a Victorian artist of the highest standing. The re-opening of the newly refurbished Watts Gallery in Guildford provides a fine opportunity for a new generation to acquaint themselves with his life and works, says Jack Watkins

In his advancing years, George Frederic Watts was frequently photographed wearing a skull-cap and a long, flowing gown. With his white hair and beard and his introspective demeanour, it created an impression of monkish serenity, although it was apparently a conscious effort to ape the dress of his inspirational hero, Titian. Whatever the motivation, it caught the public imagination at a time when painters were well-recognised mainstream figures. The photographs of Watts were endlessly reproduced, and by the time he died in 1904, aged 87, he was most assuredly the Grand Old Man of English art.

This was not merely good image-making or PR, however. Public adoration of Watts stemmed from respect for a career dedicated to fine art of the highest quality. Perhaps no man better embodied the high-minded ideals of the Victorian age than he, with his stated aim being to raise the ‘noble art’ of painting in this country ‘to the level it attained in the great days of Greece’. Steering clear of the Pre-Raphaelite influence, he believed that art could ennoble and enrich the lives of ordinary people. Having come from a lowly background himself, his words were not merely patronising fluff, and they would be borne out by his actions.

For a while, his paintings addressed social concerns in works such as Found Drowned and Under a Dry Arch and when he became dissatisfied at the results, he moved on to allegorical themes such as The Recording Angel, Death Crowning Innocence and Hope. He was also a portrait painter of note, and his Hall of Fame series caught the likenesses of great figures of the day, from Tennyson to Gladstone. Over fifty of these portraits can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery. His magnificent sculpture of a horse, Physical Energy, still stands in Kensington Gardens.

When what is now Tate Britain first opened in 1897, Watts was the only artist to have galleries dedicated exclusively to him – all the other painters’ works being mixed in together. In 1907, Charles Holroyd, then keeper of the gallery’s collections, described the Watts section as like ‘entering a holy place… all the pictures seem to express such a high spirit of endeavour after the best things’. Others referred to its ‘Egyptian solemnity’ and to the impact his canvases had upon the people who passed before them. ‘They don’t laugh and pass by his works in a distracted apathy,’ said a visiting German professor in 1903. ‘They stand for a long time before them. Then they sit down and think.’

By the 1930s, however, with Modern art in the ascendancy, Watts was looking dated. When his widow Mary – 32 years his junior, who had worked tirelessly to ensure the message of his work lived on – died in 1938, the collection was disassembled. It was even possible to pick up some of the artist’s lesser works for under £10.

Watts has yet to regain his former standing, despite featuring in major exhibitions, but nor has he slid into oblivion – not least because of the existence of the Watts Gallery, at Compton, near Guildford. It opened around the time of his death to provide a permanent exhibition of his work, and is the only such example of its type in the country. Watts moved here permanently in 1891 with Mary, having initially been attracted to the Surrey countryside as a retreat from London life. Watts’ purpose built studio-house Limnerslease – now in private ownership – with a pottery, the gallery and the remarkable Arts & Crafts chapel designed by Mary, formed a considerable complex. By the early 21st century, though, the gallery was showing such signs of age that is was deemed by English Heritage to be ‘at risk’.

Tamsin Williams, a London PR agent who moved into the area with her family a few years ago and, like many others, was drawn to helping out the cash-strapped gallery in a voluntary capacity, describes the situation then as ‘rain pouring through the roof tiles, and buckets everywhere’. The now restored crimson wallpaper was a mushroom beige, and areas were divided off by partition walls. The Gallery featured in the BBC’s Restoration series and came heartbreakingly close to winning. The team pressed on regardless, however, raising £11m, including £4.9m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which enabled the refurbished gallery, with much improved lighting and hanging conditions and overall visitor facilities, to reopen to the public this June.

The Isabel Goldsmith Patino Gallery

I walked round the gallery with Tamsin recently and we tried to account for Watts’ decline in popularity – and his enduring appeal. It’s a fact that many people find him a difficult artist;

Tamsin cited the example of a critic, outspoken in his dislike, and who spent an entire day in the company of the curatorial staff at Compton, in an attempt to get a handle on his works.

“Watts featured in the V&A’s recent Cult of Beauty exhibition, and he looked completely at home there,” says Tamsin. “But one of the things that may account for the decline of his reputation is that fact that he was constantly experimenting. This does make him difficult to pin down.”

His range is apparent in the Compton rooms, with subjects spanning nature – the strikingly composed A Wounded Heron (his first work to be exhibited at the Royal Academy), Green Summer and A Parasite, bearing the unmistakeable hues of the nearby Surrey Hills – plus landscapes and the symbolism of The Sower of the Systems where form dissolves into near abstraction. Some paintings, such as A Sea Ghost, the ship vaporising in the fog, draw easy comparisons with Turner, but the pale, sepulchral figures in the allegorical works, though often hazy in depiction, have a curiously sculptural quality. Never looking out at the viewer, they exist in dream worlds. The portrait paintings, by contrast, are entirely conventional.

It should be added that the Watts Gallery complex provides a visitor experience beyond the paintings. When George and Mary Watts came to Compton in the late 1880s, this was an agricultural village, the skills of locals lying in farm labouring, at a time when mechanisation was putting many out of work. Watts, great man as he was, came from humble origins and knew hardship. Mary, an artist in her own right, had run clay-modelling classes for shoe-black boys in the East End. So they set up a pottery cooperative here, employing retrained villagers, which supplied products to Liberty and took commissions from architects such as Edwin Lutyens. The pottery remained operational into the mid-1950s. Mary also trained over seventy villagers in terracotta modeling, and the results can be seen in the Watts cemetery chapel, with its interior decorative panels influenced by early Christian and Byzantine art.

The entire ensemble, set in achingly beautiful countryside close to the North Downs’ Pilgrim’s Way, offers a fascinating insight into a life dedicated to art – and its potential social benefits. Equally, there is no doubt that having a large collection of the works of a single artist in one place makes for a very moving experience. Watts is not a painter whose art shouts at you from across the floor. He repays the contemplative soul. Like that German professor all those years ago, I find myself wanting to linger in front of them for a long time – and then to sit down and think.

More details www.wattsgallery.org.uk

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