George Frederic Watts was born two centuries ago. Although not as popular or well-known as the Pre-Raphaelites, he was a major influence on British painting over the second half of the nineteenth century. His work – both paintings and sculpture – has also remained very accessible, largely because he gave many of his paintings to the Tate Gallery in London, when it was founded in 1897.
In this article and the next I will give a brief overview of his career, together with a small selection of his better-known paintings.
Watts was born in London to a relatively poor family, but was a precocious artist. He first started to learn sculpture with William Behnes, and quickly fell in love with the Elgin Marbles, in the British Museum. He enrolled in the Royal Academy Schools at the age of 18, and was soon painting portraits of his friends.
Ruth and Boaz (c 1835–7) is one of his earliest surviving paintings, which he started as he entered his training at the Royal Academy. It tells the gentle romance between a wealthy landowner and his poor, widowed relative Ruth, who comes to glean in his fields at harvest-time. Boaz shows her kindness, deliberately leaving grain for her to glean, and inviting her to eat with him and his workers. She eventually asks him to marry her, which he does.
Watts made friends with some who were to become artists and their patrons, and was commissioned to paint them in portraits such as his delightful The Family of Alexander Constantine Ionides (c 1840). The Ionides family, like the Spartalis and others in the Greek community in London at the time, had fled from oppression in the Ottoman Empire, and established successful trading companies in the city. As Alexander Ionides grew wealthy, he invested some of his money as a patron of the arts.
Watts’ first public success was the first prize in a competition to design new murals for the Palace of Westminster, in 1843, although he did not get particularly involved in the project. He used the prize money to travel to Italy, where he painted some landscapes and made some important friends, including the British ambassador at the time.
When in Florence, Italy, Watts painted A Story from Boccaccio (c 1844–7), which shows one of the hundred tales from Boccaccio’s Decameron, a popular Florentine book from around 1350. These had long been a source for narrative paintings, and proved popular subjects for those in the Pre-Raphaelite movement too.
He returned to London in 1847, where he started making grand, if not grandiose, history paintings for prominent buildings in the city. He joined the circle of bohemians centred on the Prinsep family, and spent time with them and Julia Margaret Cameron, a pioneering photographer of the era.
Orlando Pursuing the Fata Morgana (1846-48) is a composition which was to recur in Watts’ paintings, of an arcuate nude forming the letter C, with a man – here Orlando – reaching for her from the centre of the semi-circle. The Fata Morgana is a complex optical phenomenon like a mirage, whose name is derived from Morgan le Fay, an enchantress from Arthurian legend, and it is that which Watts seems to be referring to. She was to appear frequently in paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites in the coming years.
Life’s Illusions (1849) includes related graphical elements in the chain of nudes at the left. They are crossed by the arc of a rainbow, which is presumably one of those illusions.
In 1850, Watts moved into Little Holland House, living as a house-guest of the Prinsep family who leased it, and remaining at the centre of their artistic circle. He also took on a small number of pupils, including John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829–1908) and Valentine Cameron Prinsep (1838–1904).
This undated study for Una and the Red Cross was probably painted as one of the studies which Watts made for his commissioned painting for the Palace of Westminster, The Triumph of the Red Cross Knight (1852-53), based on Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. These are stories drawn from the first book, in which the Redcrosse Knight and his lady Una travel to meet a succession of challenges which prove their holiness. Such mediaeval stories were to become very popular during the last half of the century.
Immediately after he had completed that commission, Watts (accompanied by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope) returned to Italy for a short visit, then in 1856 they went to Halicarnassus, the ancient Greek city at Bodrum in Turkey, to take part in archaeological excavations there.
Watts also enjoyed a flourishing portraiture business, although the majority of his famous portraits are in London’s National Portrait Gallery, which sadly does not permit free reproduction here. Mrs George Augustus Frederick Cavendish-Bentinck and her Children (1860) shows the wife and young children of a barrister, politician, and cricketer, who lived from 1821-1891. The couple had married in 1850, and she died on Brownsea Island, in Poole Harbour, Dorset, in 1896.
Sir Galahad (1860-62) is another painting which draws on Arthurian legend, which by this time was very popular in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
Watts’ Portrait of Edith Villiers (1862) shows the 21 year-old who two years later married Robert Bulwer-Lytton, who became Viceroy of India in 1876, and retired in 1880 to become the first Earl of Lytton. Edith led the Indian Imperial court in her role as Vicereine of India. On her return to Britain she became lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, and eventually died in 1936, at the age of 94 or 95. This was painted in the Prinseps’ property, Little Holland House, where Watts continued to live as a guest.