New Acquisitions: Two Portraits by Watts

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Posted 16th October 2018

New Acquisitions

Two Portraits by Watts

Abbie Latham

Two recent acquisitions are now on display at Watts Gallery – Artists' Village: Margaret Elizabeth Hughes, nee Wilkinson (1858) and Walter Nassau Senior (1875). Acquired from direct descendants, these portraits depict the mother and son of Watts's close friend Jane, or 'Jeanie', Senior. These works have joined the collection thanks to the generous support of Art Fund and Arts Council England/Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund.

Suffering from poor health, Watts frequently visited the Worcestershire spa town, Malvern, to participate in the Victorian craze of hydrotherapy. It was during one of his visits that the artist first met Jeanie's mother, Margaret Elizabeth Hughes. The rural beauty of the Malvern Hills enhances Watts's portrait of Hughes which, although small in scale, is exceptionally detailed. At first glance, one might not instantly recognise the painting to be stylistically 'Watts'. The meticulous brushwork, in addition to the refined handling of both the figure and landscape, suggests that the artist was inspired by the Flemish tradition of Rubens and Van Dyck.

The portrait of Jeanie's mother does not have a standard 'Watts frame', gilt with a distinctive acanthus leaf moulding, but instead is left bare of gilding and decorated with a floriated relief and a sculptural bird roundel. Over the years a story has developed suggesting that Watts himself carved the frame, which although unlikely, enhances the sentimental notion that this portrait was a gift for his beloved friend.

Walter Nassau Senior, Jeanie's son, was in his mid-twenties when his portrait was executed; a young and relatively unknown figure. The artist hoped to also gift this work to Jeanie but, as Mary Watts later noted, 'a friend of hers had forestalled this pleasure'. Henrietta Synnot, Jeanie's assistant, wished to give the painting to Jeanie herself and sent Watts £100 for the portrait (equivalent to approximately £11,200 today). Refusing to personally accept the sum, it was eventually resolved that Watts would donate the money to various charities, including a scheme for a People's Play Ground. Watts and Walter's mother were both passionate philanthropists, with Watts's belief in the power of art to effect social change chiming with Jeanie's own values. An irrepressible voice for reform, Jeanie became Britain's first female civil servant.

Aged thirty-nine, Jeanie sadly passed away just nineteen months after the portrait of her son was completed. Reflecting on Jeanie's death, Mary Watts would later recall her husband's grief that 'a friendship very rare for 26 years' came to such a tragic end. These portraits, along with the artist's personal letters to Senior (held in the Watts Gallery archive), are a testament to the love, friendship and values that Watts and Jeanie shared throughout their devoted friendship.