Born On This Day: G F Watts

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Posted 23rd February 2020

Born on this Day
The Life of G F Watts

On this day, 23 February, in 1817 George Frederic Watts was born in Marylebone London. The eldest son of a pianoforte maker and tuner Watts was named after George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), with whom he also shares a birthday.

Watts's 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. Watts became a member of the Royal Academy of Arts at eighteen and first exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1837, where his works included the much-praised A Wounded Heron.

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, 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 nickname 'Signor', which stayed with him into old age.

Watts returned to London in 1847 to find the city much changed. He was 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.

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. He also married the young actress Ellen Terry on 20 February 1864. A series of remarkable paintings by Watts display her dramatic abilities. The ill-fated marriage however 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.

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.'

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.

In 1886, at the age of 69, Watts second marriage to Scottish potter and designer Mary Seton Fraser-Tytler took place at Christ Church in Epsom Surrey. A few years later they leased land at Compton and commissioned Arts & Crafts architect Sir Ernest George to build their home Limnerslease.

During his last years Watts also turned to sculpture, completing his most famous work, Physical Energy, in 1902. The original gesso grosso model remains in the gallery today.

Watts Gallery was opened on 1 April 1904, exactly three months before Watts's death on 1 July 1904.

Want to find out more about the lives of the Wattses?
Click here to discover the tours we have on offer at Watts Gallery - Artists' Village.