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Watts & Victorian Literature

Posted 23rd March 2017
Watts Contemporary Gallery

The 21 March was World Poetry Day, and though G F Watts may not appear to have had many literary connections, his wider social circle included several poets and writers, several of whom he painted throughout his career.

Watts was good friends with the Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and he painted Tennyson's portrait six times. Watts regularly visited Tennyson at his home on the Isle of Wight and after the great poet's passing in 1892 Watts created a colossal statue in his memory, the bronze of which stands outside Lincoln Cathedral. The original gesso grosso model is part of Watts Gallery Trust's collection and can be seen in Watts Gallery.

Watts painted other famous Victorian poets including Robert Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne, whose engagement with taboo topics and grand themes such as Time and Death closely mirrored Watts's own fascinations. In 1867, when Swinburne was sitting for the Watts portrait which is now housed in the National Portrait Gallery, he told his friend George Powell that he was 'in the honourable agonies of portrait sitting to Watts . . . he won't let me crop my hair, whose curls the British public reviles aloud in the streets.'

Some of the most famous English literature comes from the Victorian period including the novels of Charles Dickens, whose works portrayed such a vivid image of the period that aspects are still referred to as Dickensian to this day, Lewis Carroll, the Bronte sisters, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy and George Eliot, whose novel Middlemarch has been called the 'greatest novel in the English language'. Musical theatre became popular with the advent of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas, and Oscar Wilde became a literary celebrity for his poetry, drama and fiction.

Well-known characters including Sherlock Holmes, Dracula and Edward Hyde made their first appearances on the page during the Victorian period, and these early works paved the way for contemporary detective and genre fiction.

The dark and fantastic themes of many popular Victorian novels reflected a public fascination with mortality and mystery, themes that Watts explored in his great Symbolist paintings and which have continued to influence poets, writers, filmmakers and artists to this day.