Posted 11th December 2019
Object of the Month:
G F Watts, Walter Crane,
1891, oil on canvas
Dr Stacey Clapperton, Early Career Research Fellow - Portraiture
At first glance Watts's portrait of the influential designer, illustrator and painter Walter Crane, which is currently exhibited at Watts Gallery – Artists' Village alongside three other portraits from the 'Hall of Fame' series, appears dark, dreary and colourless. But it is a portrait that demands closer inspection and one that rewards its viewers for doing so.
In the summer of 1891 Watts invited his friend to sit for him at his studio at Little Holland House, London. Crane arrived at 11am on Wednesday the 19th August and sat for two hours. Although the accounts differ as to how many times Crane sat for his portrait (Mary documents six sittings in her diary, whereas Crane states that there were eight sittings), Crane was invited for a final short sitting on Tuesday 6th October.
Mary, as a frequent observer in her husband's studio, explains how a very 'fine' portrait quickly emerged. Yet, on 27th September she despaired that:
The sorrows of the artist's wife are upon me. Yesterday Walter Crane's portrait was entrancing […] a work of genius. Today Signor worked on it. The glory of it is dead! The soul blown out like a light. It is nothing more than an ordinary portrait. Will it ever come again?
Mary's language here is particularly interesting. She refers to Watts' portrait painting as a spiritual and otherworldly act. Her lament in this instance was a result of Watts overworking the portrait and losing the 'spirit of the face' which was so often captured in the eyes. In his portraits, Watts always aspired to depict more than just a straightforward, outward likeness of the sitter and the eyes became integral as the gateway to the soul and the sitter's inner self.
Fortunately, Signor was able to restore the 'spirit of the face' in Crane's final sitting and it is no coincidence that the face is the brightest part of the painting. This is where Watts wants the viewer's attention and focus to be.
As with all the 'Hall of Fame' series, it is a head and shoulder portrait, in 3/4 profile with Crane looking off to one side. He is set against a dark and indistinguishable background. This is at odds with his earlier private portrait commissions in which classical columns and balustrades, detailed luscious landscapes, or the art historical trope of the swooping, red velvet curtain regularly acted as backdrops.
Furthermore, Watts's 'Hall of Fame' sitters often appear in conservative dress, with plain white shirt collars and large black overcoats. As with the backgrounds, the dress of his sitters was executed so as not to cause distraction from the main event – the faces themselves. In many of the works, the men's rank, profession and status is difficult to determine. All men are treated equally.
Yet, Crane's portrait is an exception to this rule. His golden necktie and pearl pin offset the silk pocket square that appears out of his plush, velvet jacket. His bohemian and artistic personality is maintained and the reasons behind this are unknown. Perhaps Watts, after more than 30 years of painting portraits for this series desired a subtle change of direction, or maybe it is a result of one artist's respect for a fellow artist and valued friend.
What we do know is that the portrait was considered a great success by both Watts's peers and the critics when it was first exhibited. Championed as 'one of his finest portraits' the work travelled throughout the country before being exhibited overseas in Europe and America. For an artist who continuously declared that he was 'not a good portrait painter' and that 'nature did not intend me for a portrait painter', the Crane portrait with its fine detailing, superbly subtle colour rendering, and sensitive handling obliterates these self-effacing protestations.