Fragments of a Sculptural Legacy

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Posted 2nd January 2019

Fragments of a Sculptural Legacy

Dr Cicely Robinson, Brice Curator

G F Watts (1817–1904) is best known as a painter - as the 'portraitist to the Nation' and as the creator of large-scale symbolist pictures. However, from the 1860s until his death in 1904, he began to dedicate substantial amounts of time to working on sculpture.

Inspired by the fascinating, if fragmentary, collection that we hold at Watts Gallery, I am re-examining the 40+ years that Watts spent engaging with and making sculpture. In September 2018 I was lucky enough to take up a Curatorial Scholarship at the Yale Centre for British Art. Within the architectural oasis of the Louis I. Kahn Building, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in the world of nineteenth-century British sculpture – an area of British art scholarship in which G F Watts tends to make little appearance.

Ultimately, this work will culminate in a redisplay of the Sculpture Gallery at Watts Gallery - Artists' Village. Specifically built to house and display Watts's sculpture collection, this space still contains a fascinating assortment of anatomical models, écorché and preparatory studies – all of which was saved from the artist's London and Surrey studios following his death. The two full-scale gesso models of Watts's most monumental projects, Physical Energy and Lord Tennyson, still dominate this space today. I have been exploring the ways in which these fragmentary remains record an evolving and increasingly experimental practice.

In her diaries, Mary Watts makes regular reference to G F making wax figures to aide his painting. She describes the benefits that he found in the 'change for eye and hand' moving from a painting to '[…] modelling, using either clay or wax'. We hold an extensive collection of these three-dimensional studies. They vary significantly in size and the level of finish, from small-scale models used for dense multi-figure compositions to larger, more developed studies for pared-down compositions such as Love and Life.

The collection also contains a number of rather unusual head studies, executed in a three-quarter format. Focusing on extreme states of emotion, in these works Watts is not just using sculpture as a means to finalise form or composition, but to articulate expression.

As photography in the archive collection demonstrates, Watts would also use his maquettes to study drapery. Swathing plater models in wet canvas, sometimes covered with wet plaster to give greater weight, Watts was able to create his desired effect. This process of working between two and three dimensions, the 'change for eye and hand' that Mary observes, allowed him to create the dynamic and sculptural drapery effects that his later paintings are often famed for.

Image above: Paul Taplin, Sculpture Gallery, 2015

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