Moulding Men: An Artist’s Hands

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Posted 11th July 2022

MA student Esme Wright explores the significance of hands and the ghosts of sculptural process in Watts’s work.

Tucked in the upper rooms of Limnerlease, amidst the Compton pottery, you will find a cast of George and Mary Watts’s clasped hands, captured forever. There is something especially poignant about this piece, and not just because it symbolises their devotion to one another. These hands have created every artwork on display at Watts Gallery - Artists’ Village, they are accustomed to clutching pencils and paintbrushes, smoothing away the mistakes of student-artists and moulding great works in gesso grosso. The whole space is indebted to the legacy of the hands we see in front of us. George and Mary made this cast because the work of their hands, their dexterity and tactility, were at the absolute heart of their practice, and their way of life.

With the Wattses’ hands in mind, visiting the rest of the Gallery becomes a venture of examining the traces of touch left upon his artworks. Using our eyes, we can feel the rough surface of his paintings and the increased tangibility of his coarse-textured sculptures (his preferred artform in the later years of his career).

I was particularly struck by the Monument to Lord Tennyson. Standing before the massive figure is to feel like a child again. It is all too easy to become lost in the weighty folds of his cape, a texture made more intriguing by the finish of the sculpture itself. Dips, crevices, small hills and grooves, become like an expansive mountain range upon close inspection. You cannot help but imagine Watts himself, even days before his death, moulding, carving and texturising his sculptures, imprinting them with the marks of his labour.

The hands of the sculpted Tennyson also partake in this devotion to touch. The ‘plucked’ flower of Tennyson’s poem lies limp in the expanse of his left hand. Palm open to the sky, he looks down into it as if gazing into the depths of a pool, and in doing so draws our attention to the same point. This is a poet’s hand, which writes and rewrites, by contemplating the beauty and tragedy of life. Both the sculptor and the sculpture itself invite us to contemplate the manual work of the creative: be they artist or poet.

Research firm Dscout discovered that the average phone user touches their phone 2617 times a day. It is evident that we hold close what is precious to us. Thinking back to the cast of the Watts’ hands and the artistic retirement of the paintbrush in favour of the more tactile practice of sculpting, it seems that on some level, Watts knew this to be true. His artworks, particularly his sculptures, challenge us to reflect upon the significance and symbolism of touch. Of course, there is beauty in the ‘finished’ bronze casts of Monument to Lord Tennyson. But it is the original gesso grosso version which everywhere bears the devoted marks of Watts’s hands, and there is something uniquely beautiful about that.

his artwork has been adopted by Lis Butcher.