The Watts Story

George Frederic Watts OM, RA (1817 – 1904) was widely considered to be the greatest painter of the Victorian era. A portraitist, sculptor, landscape painter and symbolist, Watts's work embodied the most pressing themes and ideas of the time, earning him the title "England's Michelangelo".

Early years

Born in London on 23 February 1817, Watts was the eldest son of a pianoforte maker and tuner. His early talent for drawing was encouraged by his father, and at the age of ten he entered the studio of sculptor William Behnes (1794 -1865) in Dean Street, Soho. This gave him access to the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, works that would influence him throughout his career. Watts entered the Royal Academy at eighteen, but found the relaxed attitude to teaching uninspiring, attending at first intermittently before ceasing to go at all. Watts first exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1837 where his works included the much-praised, A Wounded Heron.

England's Michelangelo

In 1842 the Royal Fine Arts Commission announced a competition to decorate the new Palaces of Westminster through the submission of large-scale drawings (cartoons). The 140 entries were exhibited a year later and included Watts's Caractacus Led in Triumph through the Streets of Rome (fragments at the V&A) which won the artist the highest premium of £300. Watts used this prize money to travel to Europe, taking in the art scene in Paris before travelling south through France and Italy. His journey ended in Florence where he intended to study fresco painting and its techniques. Whilst in Italy, Watts worked on landscapes inspired by great masterpieces, such as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. This period of travel and discovery was hugely influential on Watts; steeped in antiquity and Italian art and culture, he changed his outlook completely. His love of Italy earned him the name “Signor" which stayed with him into old age and Watts's high ideals consolidated as he began to see himself as part of the great traditions of old master painting, evident in his self-portrait aged 37.

“I paint ideas, not things"

Watts returned to London from Italy in 1847 to find the city much changed. He lodged at the less than salubrious 48 Cambridge Street, off the Edgware Road, for two years and encountered a challenging artistic climate. The great hero of history painting, B.R. Haydon, had committed suicide in 1846, and the press was becoming increasing hostile towards the high art in which Watts was involved.

A move to the more fashionable 30 Charles Street, Berkeley Square, gave rise to new associations and a change in fortunes for the artist, who was facing a difficult time. Watts was also disturbed by the increasing poverty in London and Ireland, which he expressed in four paintings from this period, Found Drowned, The Seamstress or The Song of the Shirt, The Irish Famine and Under a Dry Arch. These paintings were unique to this period, and The Good Samaritan marks a turning point, as Watts expresses social concerns in a symbolic manner rather than through realism.

Ellen Terry

The 1860s proved to be a decade of change for Watts: he came into the public eye, received universally good critical notices and set an example for the rising younger generation of artists in the circle of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The artist's finances were also on a better footing, meaning he could paint to sell without commissions. He began devoting more time to sculpture both as an aid to composing and in its own right.

Watts cultivated a distinctive line in portraits and decorative studies of women in a new poetic spirit. His friend, dramatist and critic Tom Taylor, introduced two young actresses to Watts: Kate Terry (1844-1924) and her younger sister Ellen (1847-1928). Enamoured of Ellen's looks and considering her potential as a stimulus to his art, Watts planned initially to adopt her, but then decided to marry her, even though he was considerably older. Still very young and impressionable, Ellen noted in her memoirs that "the stage seemed a poor place compared with the wonderful studio". They married on 20 February 1864, with Watts turning 47 and Ellen just 17. A series of remarkable paintings by Watts display her inherent dramatic abilities. The ill-fated marriage broke down in less than a year, and after a legal separation instigated by Watts, Ellen was sent back to her parents. Her impact on his art lasted longer, as he returned to unfinished paintings of her for years after.

“Poems painted on canvas"

In the 1880s Watts had the benefits of a reputation that was secure, and he was able to explore grand themes in his allegorical paintings or, as he described them, "poems painted on canvas". His artistic career was celebrated at the highest level, first with a retrospective exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1881-2 and then a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1884-5. His honours were equalled at home with a Doctor of Laws (LLD) from Cambridge and a Doctor of Civil Law (DCL) from Oxford, the robes of which he familiarly wore in later life.

Watts built a gallery extension onto his studio home at Little Holland House, Kensington, and opened it to the public from 2 to 6pm every weekend. His belief that art should be accessible to all was reflected in this project and in his support of schemes that took art into the poor areas of London through exhibitions and the creation of new galleries. During this time Watts painted some of his most memorable and iconic images, including Hope, which inspired artists and thinkers internationally, and Mammon, his great protest against the destructive motivating force of greed that was prevalent in society.

Mary Watts and Compton

In 1886, at the age of 69, Watts second marriage to Scottish potter and designer Mary Seton Fraser-Tytler took place in Epsom Surrey. A few years later they leased land at Compton and commissioned Arts & Crafts architect Sir Ernest George to build their house and studios, Limnerlease, which proved to be a tranquil haven for them both in their last years. Their marriage was very much a creative partnership melded by the shared ethos that art should reach all, transforming the lives that it touched.

In 1903 Watts created a purpose-built gallery and moved all his paintings from Little Holland House Gallery to the Compton Gallery (now known as Watts Gallery), which opened to the public on 1 April 1904.

Shortly before his death in 1904, Watts Gallery was opened to the public, by which time G F Watts was a household name, both nationally and internationally. Images of the grand old man of painting with his Titianesque cap and robes were familiar throughout the country. Mary had designed the nearby Watts Chapel, funded by Watts, who also painted a version of The All-Pervading for the altar only three months before he died.

Watts's final works

During his last years Watts also turned to sculpture, completing his most famous work, Physical Energy, in 1902. The original cast remains in the gallery today. Bronze casts are also replicated in Cape Town and in London's Kensington Gardens.

Watts also instigated a memorial garden of "everyday heroes" in the form of a 50 foot-long open gallery situated near St Paul's Cathedral in London called "Postman's Park". It consists of a series of poignant tablets dedicated to individuals who lost their lives heroically attempting to save another.

Further reading

G. F Watts: Victorian Visionary; Mark Bills and Barbara Bryant

The Making of Mary Seton Watts; Mary Mahon

G. F Watts Physical Energy, Sculpture & Site; Stephanie Brown

Postman's Park: G. F Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice

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