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Posted 5th October 2017

The third key theme of G F Watts: England's Michelangelo is Celebrity. During his career, Watts became portraitist to the nation, painting his famous friends and contemporaries, many of whom he would include in his Hall of Fame. It was said that 'the world begged' to sit for Watts, and some of the most recognised representations of several Victorian celebrities were created by the artist, such as the three paintings profiled here.

Marie Fox (early 1870s, Private Collection)

Marie Fox was born illegitimately in 1850 and adopted by Watts's early patrons Lord and Lady Holland, who had no surviving children of their own. Raised in the cosmopolitan circles of Kensington, Fox married the Prince of Liechtenstein in 1872. This portrait is thought to date from the early 1870s, around the time of her marriage.

An accomplished author, she published an account of the Holland family home and its art treasures before her premature death in 1878 aged just twenty-eight. As he often did with his portraits of men, Watts keeps the background details to a minimum and employs a muted colour palette to highlight Marie's face as she gazes self-assuredly out at the viewer.

Ellen Terry (Choosing) (1864, National Portrait Gallery)

Watts married Ellen Terry, a vivacious teenage actress, in February 1864 when he was in his late forties and she was just sixteen. Watts shows Terry wearing her silk wedding dress, strikingly silhouetted against a leafy camellia bush, one flamboyant bloom clasped in her hand. Sweet-smelling violets lie, wilting, in the palm of her other hand. Their ill-fated marriage was over by the end of the year.

Terry went on to become the greatest Shakespearean actress of the Victorian period and a huge celebrity. Though she inspired many of Watts's most beautiful paintings, she declared this allegorical, poetic and subtly sensual portrait to be her favourite.

Frederic, Lord Leighton, PRA (1888, Royal Academy of Arts)

Watts and Frederic Leighton met in 1855, and the pair remained close friends for the next forty years. Mary Watts described the two as 'brothers in art', and Watts's involvement with the Royal Academy of Arts was largely dependant on Leighton's presidency. Watts terminated his membership shortly after Leighton's death in 1896.

In this portrait, Leighton is depicted in majestic scarlet doctoral robes, decorated with the Royal Academy Presidential Medal, embodying the extraordinary status achieved by the artist. In the background can be seen Leighton's famous sculpture An Athlete Wrestling with a Python.

G F Watts: England's Michelangelo runs at Watts Gallery until 26 November. Book admission tickets online now.