Thoughts on G F Watts by his Great-great-nephew

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Posted 30th March 2017

by Geoffrey Watts

Some thirty years elapsed between George Frederic Watts dying and my arrival on the scene, so there was no possibility of our meeting. There was an overlap with his second wife Mary but the distance of my home in Essex and my young age prevented our meeting. But from my very earliest age I was aware of the celebrity status that he enjoyed and the importance of his work as an artist.

By the time I had become sufficiently independent to take more interest in him, Victorian art had sunk to its lowest popularity, and yet as a child I think that nearly every one of my friends' houses had a copy of Hope hanging on their walls. But these were dark days in the run up to and beginning of WWII. The symbolism was lost on my 20th Century mind, but I understood the very meaning of the word hope living within three miles of a Battle of Britain airfield that was being constantly bombed.

It was as a student browsing the secondhand bookshops in Charing Cross Road that I saw three copies of The Annals of an Artist's Life by Mary Watts for sale. Being broke, like all students, I told my parents about it when I got home, and at the weekend they went along to see if they were still available. As luck would have it, they were, and so began my lifelong interest in the life and times of George Frederic or 'Uncle George', as I call him. Shortly after that I was in Guildford on business when again I went into a secondhand bookshop and came across a copy of The Laurel and the Thorn (inscribed on the flyleaf D Elwes, possibly the son of the artist Simon Elwes). Having read this very personal account of Uncle George's life, it made me determined to visit Watts Gallery.

My first visit was memorable because I was the only person there. The then-Curator was Wilfrid Blunt, who suddenly appeared and seemed somewhat surprised to find someone in there. When I made him aware of my relationship to Watts I was treated to a complete guided tour of the building, including the storage area where there seemed to be very many canvases standing in boxes in what must have been the worst possible manner to store paintings. He also showed the store of notes and letters, all packed into a storage box with no way of telling what it contained. However, it opened my eyes to the sheer volume of work Watts had produced during his lifetime. I was rather sad about the condition of the building and general lack of interest in the gallery. I went from there to the Chapel and was totally overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the decoration both inside and out, and it made me determined to return as soon as possible.

Over the next few years I made a number of visits and watched with great sadness the decline of the building, despite heroic efforts by then-Curator Richard Jefferies with his appalling shortage of money. Visits were made when I had to play dodgems around the bowls on the floor to catch the rainwater that poured through the ceiling and was very wary of the way that the parquet floor crackled and moved as you walked over it.

Now, how times have changed. Victorian art is once more being seen for what it really is: creative and well-executed paintings and often, as is the case of some of Watts's paintings, social comments on the inequalities of the times. Watts placed great emphasis on draughtsmanship, which is so clearly shown in his paintings and especially his drawings, which are sadly seldom seen. It is good to see this tradition carried on by artists such as Jennie Jewitt-Harris, a recent Artist in Residence at Watts Gallery - Artists' Village.

The resurrection of Watts Gallery over recent years is little short of miraculous with the restoration of the building to what would have certainly met with the approval of both George and Mary, with the colour scheme identical to that originally chosen by Watts himself and improved lighting showing his pictures to maximum advantage. Now the acquisition of Limnerslease is nothing short of a triumph as it brings together the chapel, gallery and the Wattses' house, which also includes Watts's great studio with many of his personal possessions on view along with more of his paintings, both large and small. It is these personal items in Watts Studios that I find so moving.

Watts Studios has allowed for the dream of both Mary and George to bring satisfaction to ordinary people seeing their own ideas develop through courses and training in artistic techniques offered by specialists and also with the addition of the most important conservation and restoration department. Truly the transformation has been miraculous and long may it prosper.

It is quite surprising how often you can come across G F Watts in London, for example his statue is on the outside of the V&A museum and also in Postman's Park. But imagine my surprise when, working in the pharmaceutical industry, I had occasion to visit a clinician at the old Westminster Hospital where I picked up a newsletter and it said that 17 February was a day to celebrate the birthday of George Frederic Watts as one of the wards was named after him.

It still amazes me that a person born in such straightened circumstances, losing his mother and three siblings in a very short time, and who did not enjoy the best of health throughout his life could, through his perceptive eye, create close likenesses of the great and good of his time and yet also produce symbolic masterpieces and social commentary which are as apposite today as they were in the 19th Century.

Today's artists have all but abandoned this type of creativity, which has been left to the photographer to draw attention to the plight of others which, although realistically portrayed, lacks that personal touch that was ably and personally portrayed by Watts, my great-great-uncle.