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On this day in 1817 G F Watts was born

Posted 23rd February 2018
Watts Contemporary Gallery

G F Watts, 1817-1904

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, with whom he shares a birthday (23 February 1685).

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. This gave him access to the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, works that would influence him throughout his career.

Watts entered 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 (fragments at the Victoria and Albert Museum) 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, and Watts's high ideals consolidated as he began to see himself as part of the great traditions of Old Master painting.

Watts returned to London from Italy in 1847 to find the city much changed. He lodged at the less than salubrious 48 Cambridge Street, off the Edgware Road, for two years and encountered a challenging artistic climate. The great hero of history painting, B.R. Haydon, had committed suicide in 1846, and the press was becoming increasing hostile towards the high art in which Watts was involved.

A move to the more fashionable 30 Charles Street, Berkeley Square, gave rise to new associations and a change in fortunes for the artist, who was facing a difficult time. Watts was also 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. These paintings were unique to this period, and The Good Samaritan marks a turning point, as Watts expresses social concerns in a symbolic manner rather than through realism.

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.

The artist's finances were also on a better footing, meaning he could paint to sell without commissions. He began devoting more time to sculpture both as an aid to composing and in its own right.

Watts cultivated a distinctive line in portraits and decorative studies of women in a new poetic spirit. His friend, dramatist and critic Tom Taylor, introduced two young actresses to Watts: Kate Terry (1844-1924) and her younger sister Ellen (1847-1928). Enamoured of Ellen's looks and considering her potential as a stimulus to his art, Watts planned initially to adopt her, but then decided to marry her, even though he was considerably older. Still very young and impressionable, Ellen noted in her memoirs that 'the stage seemed a poor place compared with the wonderful studio.' They married on 20 February 1864, with Watts turning 47 and Ellen just 17. A series of remarkable paintings by Watts display her inherent dramatic abilities. The ill-fated marriage 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.' His artistic career was celebrated at the highest level, first with a retrospective exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1881-2 and then a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1884-5. His honours were equalled at home with a Doctor of Laws (LLD) from Cambridge and a Doctor of Civil Law (DCL) from Oxford, the robes of which he familiarly wore in later life.

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, and Mammon, his great protest against the destructive motivating force of greed that was prevalent in society.

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 also instigated a memorial garden of everyday heroes in the form of a 50 foot-long open gallery situated near St Paul's Cathedral in London called Postman's Park. It consists of a series of poignant tablets dedicated to individuals who lost their lives heroically attempting to save another.

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

G F Watts wished for his art to be seen by a wide audience and hoped for it to inspire and uplift. To achieve this, Watts gifted paintings to galleries across Britain, most importantly to three galleries that he felt were reflective of his grand vision.

To Tate, Watts gave his great allegorical works including The Court of Death (c. 1870-1902), which is now on long-term loan to the Artists' Village and can be seen in Watts Studios.

To the National Portrait Gallery, Watts gave his most masterful portraits, particularly those from his Hall of Fame series.

To his own Watts Gallery, Watts gifted the majority of his body of work, spanning his 70-year career. Major works in the Watts Gallery Trust collection include Paolo and Francesca (c. 1872-74), The Sower of the Systems (c. 1902) and the original model for Physical Energy (1884-1904).