Posted 20th January 2020
G F Watts and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters
'The Society cannot be without considerable influence upon portrait-painting' concluded one contributor to The Magazine of Art in 1891. Written in their inaugural year, the article forecasts the influence that the Royal Society of Portrait Painters (RP) continues to have upon the tradition of portraiture in the present day. Our latest Watts Contemporary exhibition, The Show Goes On: A Theatre of Portraits by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, evidences the diversity and virtuosity of the RP's current membership - through the choice of exhibition space, it also revives a link between today's RP and one of its earliest members.
The RP began as a rebellion: a group of twenty-four artists dissatisfied with the selection policies of the Royal Academy for its annual exhibition in London. Held at the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours, their first exhibition featured a contribution by G F Watts, listed in the catalogue, unidentifiably, as 'A Portrait'.
Watts became a member of the Society the next year in 1892, submitting The Dean's Daughter (Lillie Langtry), 1879-80, to their second exhibition. Just as The Show Goes On features many well-known faces from our time, Watts's contribution highlights the long-standing connection between portraiture and celebrity culture.
Lillie Langtry was a socialite and actress with an extraordinary public profile, inspiring new fashions and posing for portraits by John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones, Edward Poynter and many more. She was also the subject of Oscar Wilde's poem 'The New Helen', which was published in July 1879.
Watts depicts the famous beauty in profile on a green ground to enhance the tones of her flesh. She wears a small flat bonnet and a scarf tied in the shape of a figure eight around her neck, known as the 'Langtry knot'. Watts sent the portrait to the Royal Academy in 1880, with the public display of the piece further enhancing Langtry's 'cult status'. It is believed that Watts never intended to sell the painting, instead choosing to exhibit it widely, with the 'professional beauty' adding an aura of glamour to his collection of portraits.
The opening of The Show Goes On: A Theatre of Portraits by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters - which features an array of showmen, actors, comedians, musicians, dancers and playwrights – therefore feels incredibly apt. Including its own measures of glamour and celebrity, the exhibition highlights the enduring popularity of the tradition of portraiture - from G F Watts to today.
The Show Goes On: A Theatre of Portraits by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters is on display until 23 February in Watts Contemporary Gallery. Free admission.