Curatorial Team in Conversation: G F Watts, Self-Portrait Aged 24, c.1840

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Posted 1st July 2020

Curatorial Team in Conversation: G F Watts, Self-Portrait Aged 24, c.1840

Stacey Clapperton: Hi Emma, today I was hoping to ask you some questions about this rather unusual Self-Portrait of the young G F Watts, aged 24, that is currently in the stores at Watts Gallery. It is the smallest of his self-portraits that we have in the collection, measuring just 13 x 11 cm. Rather than being painted on a canvas or panel support, this portrait is quite unusual for Watts, as it is painted on copper.

Emma Coburn: Yes, it's the only one we have in the collection and the only one known oil on copper that Watts painted during his lifetime. How unusual is it as a painting support?

SC: Well, there is definitely an art historical precedence for painting portraits on copper. It was enthusiastically practiced in northern and southern Europe c.1600, with Peter Paul Rubens being perhaps the most well-known advocate. As a painting technique it emerged from the decorative practice of painting on enamel and it lends itself well to painting on a small scale.

EC: And did any of Watts's contemporaries paint on copper?

SC: Yes, they did. In the mid-1830s, Edwin Henry Landseer – who is perhaps best-known today for his paintings of animals – made a small portrait titled The Duchess of Abercorn and Child, which is now in the Tate collection. Also, at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford there is a portrait by the French artist Jules Bastien Lepage, Laura, Lady Alma-Tadema which was painted in the late 1870s. So, there were definitely flourishes of portraits on copper appearing in nineteenth century Britain, but it was far from being a dominant technique.

EC: And we know that Watts liked to experiment with his methods and materials when painting?

SC: Absolutely, Watts himself admitted that he used his self-portraits as a means to 'experiment in method or colour'. But what does this 'experiment' mean for you as a Collections Manager? Is it a particularly troublesome piece to look after?

EC: Well as a support, copper is, in some ways, more stable and at less risk of deterioration than traditional canvas supports. This is because as a metal it is less susceptible to changes in relative humidity and is not a food source for insect pests (unlike fabric canvases stretched over wood). As a metal, my concern would be corrosion, so stable relative humidity kept below 65% are the ideal storage conditions. In store, this framed portrait is kept flat in its own protective enclosure which provides full support. Copper is especially soft and malleable as a metal so handling must be done with care. You can see some light scratches on the surface of the painting, which shows just how vulnerable it is to damage.

SC: In the gallery we still use the historical hanging system, whereby Watts's paintings are hung on chains – as they would have been back when the gallery first opened – from the original, ceiling-height picture rails. With this portrait being so small in comparison, surely, it's not possible to exhibit it like his other paintings? How would you recommend that we display it?

EC: You are right Stacey, this self-portrait is 80 times smaller than the largest self-portrait on display, the so-called Self-Portrait as a Venetian Senator. The portrait on copper does have fixings attached, so it could hang on the wall. However, as you suggest, it would be somewhat overshadowed by the size and scale of the artworks currently on display. To re-frame, glaze and hang the portrait, in the traditional way, would mean the portrait would need significant handling and intervention, so I would try to avoid this as far as possible. Instead, I would potentially recommend that the portrait could be displayed within its own vitrine (or display case), in which we could create a secure and stable micro-climate to ensure appropriate environmental conditions. Supported on a bespoke mount, this would enable visitors to enjoy the portrait at a safe distance that still enables close looking, rather than behind barriers on the gallery wall. I would be very excited to see this on display.

SC: Me too! Hopefully in the not too distant future!