The Curious Case of G F Watts’s Double Portraits

Back to News

Posted 8th April 2020

The Curious Case of G.F. Watts's Double Portraits

Dr Stacey Clapperton, Curatorial Trainee

Painted during their honeymoon in 1887, Watts began his double portrait of Mrs G.F. Watts 'because his hand was wearied by idleness' and so he 'painted straight off, in four colours, on a single prime canvas'. [1] The reason for painting two portraits on a single canvas may have simply been due to the convenience of painting with limited materials whilst travelling.

Painting double portraits, however, was not unusual to Watts's practice at this stage in his career. At first glance his double portraits of Georgina Treherne, 1856-58, Mary 'Long Mary' Bartley, c.1860, and Mrs G.F. Watts, 1887 appear curious. Why did he paint them? Who were they for? And what do they tell us about his painting practice?

The first of these portraits is the most adventurous. In Georgina Treherne, two Georgina's appear to interact with one another and inhabit the same space. On the right-hand side, Georgina has fallen asleep.With her left hand resting on her chest and her head leaning back against a plush daybed, she is depicted in three-quarter profile, viewed from below. On the left-hand side, Georgina is depicted in profile and dressed in a silver coloured evening gown that exposes her shoulders and décolletage. In this portrait she is singing a lullaby, almost leaning over her other, sleeping self.

Not only is the finish of this portrait completed to a high degree, but the composition is more complex than Watts's next venture into double portraiture: Mary 'Long Mary' Bartley. In this portrait Bartley is captured in a full-frontal pose on the left-hand side and a three-quarter profile view on the right. The focus of Watts's attention is on the head, face and hair, which has been brushed back to fully expose her features. The background and Bartley's clothing appear as flat masses of colour, which demonstrates their insignificance to this study of the human head from multiple angles.

Whereas in Georgina Treherne, the two heads depicted from different angles are presented in a unified space, Watts purposely separates the two heads of Long Mary with a disruptive border line down the middle of the canvas. When we arrive at the portrait of his wife. More than twenty years later, Watts makes the separation of the double portrait more significant.

In the portraits of Mrs G.F. Watts she is wearing a plain black dress, with a high neck and white frill collar. Her hair is pulled back and she is viewed in a seated, three-quarter profile, facing her right. In the second portrait she is viewed from the back, with her long neck becoming as much the subject of the painting as her head. Similar to the Long Mary portrait, the background is roughly executed in a flat colour, with minimum detail.

The double portrait of Mrs G.F. Watts, however, was divided into two separate works at an unknown date and they were only reunited in 1946 when George and Mary's adopted daughter Lilian Chapman presented the back-view study to the Watts Gallery. [2] Today, the two works now hang next to each other in the Studios at Watts Gallery.

Using a single canvas for multiple studies is a practice Watts retained throughout his career. The fresco study Three Heads, 1845,(V&A, London) is an example from Watts's early career whereby he experimented with materials and composition on a single support.

Writing to art school students, Watts outlined his method of observing the head of a model from a variety of positions:

'If I had a school, I should make my pupils draw from the model a head in full face, and then without the model, and from knowledge alone, they should make a drawing of the three-quarter face'. [3]

These double portraits are visual records of this exercise and demonstrate the artist's interest in sculptural forms. By representing the same head, from various viewpoints, he was able to produce a study of their three dimensionalities on a two-dimensional surface.

Not unique to Watts's practice however, there is art historical precedence for presenting various viewpoints of the same figure on a single canvas, such as Van Dyck's Charles I in Three Positions, c.1635 (The Royal Collection, London) and Philippe de Champaigne's, Triple Portrait of Cardinal de Richelieu,c.1642 (National Gallery, London).

Ultimately, the portraits of Georgina Treherne, Mary 'Long Mary' Bartley and Mrs G.F. Watts, were never exhibited publicly during Watts's lifetime and were maintained in his personal collection. They were most likely used as private studies to improve and practice his technique as a portrait painter. Today they remain as testaments to his portrait practice whilst demonstrating his experimental approach to depicting 'the human form' which he described as the 'noblest and most interesting study for the artist'. [4]


Footnotes

[1] Desna Greenhow, ed., The Diary of Mary Watts: 1887-1904 (London: Lund Humphries in association with Watts Gallery, 2016), p.28.

[2] Marks Bills and Barbara Bryant, G.F. Watts: Victorian Visionary (New Haven and London: Yale University Press in association with Watts Gallery Compton, 2008), p.236.

[3] Mary Seton Watts, ed., George Frederic Watts: Annals of an Artist's Life: Writings on Art, vol. III (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1912), p.18.

[4] Mary Seton Watts, ed., George Frederic Watts: Annals of an Artist's Life: Writings on Art, vol. III (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1912), p.153.


Images:

G F Watts, Georgina Treherne, 1856-58

G F Watts, Mary 'Long Mary' Bartley, c.1860

G F Watts, Mrs G.F. Watts, 1887