From the Archive: G F Watts’s Sketchbooks

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Posted 29th May 2020

From the Archive: G F Watts's Sketchbooks

Dr Stacey Clapperton, Curatorial Trainee

Ask any member of the Curatorial team how they best like to while away the hours in the archive at Watts Gallery and they will tell you it is with a very special group of items: G F Watts's Sketchbooks.

With most measuring no bigger than your hand, we have more than 25 individual sketchbooks in the archive. Frequently used throughout Watts's career, the books range from his time in London – including an array of sketches made on visits to the British Museum and the Zoological Gardens – his 'Egyptian Honeymoon' sketchbook of 1887 and the 'Inverness-shire' sketchbook of 1899. One is branded in black ink with his nickname 'Signor' whilst another is professionally embossed in gold with the initials 'G.F.W.' These delicate artefacts reveal the skill and creative process of the artist whose 'pencil had been busy since childhood'. [1] But what did Watts choose to sketch you might ask?

Animals appear few and far between in Watts's paintings and sculpture. There is of course the horse of Physical Energy, the Wounded Heron and Tennyson's faithful companion Karenina, the Siberian wolfhound. But littered throughout the sketchbooks are sensitive and detailed studies of a whole menagerie of animals including lions and sheep.

During his brief studies at the Royal Academy of Arts Schools, Watts was taught that knowledge of anatomy and the human form was of primary importance and a key principle of drawing. The artist's obsession with representing limbs, joints and the way hands interlock with one another is a frequent theme documented in these pages. Female figures, most likely the Pattle sisters are drawn adopting a variety of poses, reclining with their heads and hands in one position and then in another, with elbows raised and then resting on their elbows. The original ideas of many painted compositions that followed can be found in these sketchbooks.

From his days as a young boy when he would sit and marvel at the Parthenon Sculptures at the British Museum, there are also countless observations of the way that drapery falls and folds. Watts 'believed drawing drapery was not just an exercise for beginners, but rather a habit that would continually improve an artist's visual perception for form'. [2]

In turn, the sketchbooks seem to have been used as a way for Watts to continually test his own practice but also as a teaching tool for others. We know that his drawing students included John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Brian Hatton and Val Prinsep. In fact, in one of the books a number of portrait heads signed by a young Prinsep appear amongst the sketches by Watts himself.

For Watts, sketching was also vital to his recuperation from ill health. Mary Watts detailed how, after one particularly bad bout of illness, 'the first welcome sign of convalescence was shown when he asked for paper and pencil, and began to make sketches'. [3] Whether he turned to them for personal pleasure, artistic experimentation, training, or convalescence, these sketchbooks proved fundamental to the artist's way of life. Each page acts like a window where, for a brief moment, we can step into the shoes of Watts himself and see what he saw.

[1] Mary Seton Watts, George Frederic Watts: Annals of an Artist's Life, vol. I (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1912), p. 24.

[2] Chloe Ward, The Drawings of G.F. Watts, (London: Watts Gallery in association with Philip Wilson Publishers, 2016), p. 71.

[3] Mary Seton Watts, George Frederic Watts: Annals of an Artist's Life, vol. II (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1912), p. 144.