Object in Focus: G F Watts, Miss May Prinsep, 1867-69

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Posted 8th July 2020

Object in Focus: G F Watts, Miss May Prinsep, 1867-69

Hilary Underwood, Curatorial Advisor


What do you do when the person whose portrait you are painting suddenly turns up with a whole new hairdo?

If you look very carefully at G F Watts's portrait of May Prinsep, you can see that this happened to Watts AND how he coped with it.

When Watts painted May, he was staying long term with Henry Thoby Prinsep and his wife Sara in little Holland House in Kensington, part tenant, part cherished friend and guest. When Sara Prinsep said 'He came to stay three days, he stayed thirty years…' she wasn't far wrong. May wasn't their biological daughter, she was Henry's orphaned niece, but the couple brought her up as a their own. She grew up beautiful, with strong regular features, but although the Prinseps knew many artists including Leighton, Millais and Rossetti, Sara only let her model for three people: her own son, Valentine Cameron Prinsep (guess which date his birthday was); her sister, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron; and G F Watts.

Therefore Watts, the artist, and May, his sitter, were living in the same house, and this may have caused the problem. With his model to hand, Watts probably fitted in sittings for the portrait among other commitments, because he began it around 1867 and eventually showed it in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1869, over two years later!

This was a time when fashion was changing rapidly. The sweeping lines of the crinoline were being replaced by the puffs and draperies of the bustle, and ladies stopped dressing their long hair in smooth chignons over the napes of their necks, and started to pile it elaborately on the tops of their heads. May must have been changing too. She was 14 in 1867 and 16 in 1869, growing up and more aware of fashion.

Oil paint becomes more transparent with age. If you look at the back of May's neck, you can see the ghost of her original low chignon. She had probably just started to 'put her hair up' when the portrait was begun, an important Victorian rite of passage between girlhood and womanhood. Then as the picture was brought to completion, this was painted over and Watts substituted a new, high, fashionable hairdo.

Its nice to see that Watts accepted May's changing self-image as a fashionable young lady rather than insisting on his original idea for the portrait. Indeed, the two became life-long friends. Watts's home Limnerslease and Watts Gallery itself are in Compton, because May and her husband Andrew Hichens had already made their home locally.

But I would still have liked to have been a fly on the studio wall on the day that May came in and said 'What do you think of my new hairstyle?'.