Watercolour Study for the fresco Justice: A Hemicycle of Lawgivers

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Posted 20th December 2019

Watercolour Study for the fresco Justice: A Hemicycle of Lawgivers

Jill Armitage and Tom Sawyer

We are delighted to have been able to sponsor Watts' watercolour study for his important fresco at Lincoln's Inn. We saw the fresco itself some years back on a visit organised by Watts Gallery and were impressed by what is one of the country's largest and best-preserved surviving frescoes from this period. However, it was also of additional interest to us as it contains the portrait of my relative the artist Edward Armitage, who was a friend of Watts.

Armitage and Watts were of a similar age (both born in 1817) but came from very different backgrounds. Armitage was well-travelled, he enjoyed a glass or two of wine and was a heavy smoker, whereas Watts disapproved of both alcohol and cigarettes, viewing the latter as 'the handmaid of idleness'. However, they held similar views on art. Both were devotees of enormous paintings done in the 'Grand Manner' and both were passionate advocates of fresco, providing each other with much mutual support and encouragement throughout the earlier part of their careers.

They first met when, as unknown artists, they entered a Government competition to find suitable designs for frescoes with which to decorate the newly rebuilt Houses of Parliament at Westminster and both won first prizes. Watts decided to use his prize money to travel to Italy, stopping in Paris en route, where Armitage was studying at the École des Beaux Arts as a pupil of the history painter Delaroche. For some six weeks Watts stayed with Armitage, who introduced him to French teaching methods and took him to the Louvre. At that time Armitage was one of four students chosen by Delaroche to assist him with a massive mural painting, L'Hémicycle. This was on the wall of the amphitheatre at the École des Beaux-Arts, a room intended to be used for the annual distribution of student prizes. The whole mural contained 74 portraits of renowned artists from the past, arranged in groups on either side of a central elevation of white marble steps on which are seated the creators of the Parthenon sitting in judgement. Armitage would certainly have taken Watts to see L'Hémicycle and in his biography of Watts Wilfrid Blunt goes as far as suggesting that it was clearly in emulation of this that Watts would paint Justice: A Hemicycle of Lawgivers, which he completed in 1859.

It was in 1852, whilst Watts and Armitage were working on their frescoes at Westminster, that Watts offered to paint a fresco at Lincoln's Inn which would contain a record of civilisation. The fresco required detailed preparation and numerous preparatory sketches. The watercolour study that we have been able to sponsor is dated 1853. It shows a group of legislators from Moses to Edward I, many of whom were modelled by Watts' friends, including Armitage, who posed as the Earl of Pembroke, one of the barons present at King John's sealing of Magna Carta. He is shown lower right, wearing chain mail and holding the Great Charter itself. Other models included artists Holman Hunt (King Ina), Burne-Jones (King of Sparta) and Valentine Prinsep (the Roman King Servius), the Poet Laureate Lord Tennyson (Minos, King of Crete), and Charles Newton, Keeper of Greek Antiquities at the British Museum (King Edward I). Watts' Justice is therefore of particular interest in that not only does it contain important legislators from the past, but it also includes important contemporary figures from the arts.

Shortly after Armitage posed for Watts' fresco, Armitage used Watts as a model for his fresco Christ and the Twelve Apostles in the church of St John the Evangelist in Islington, when Watts posed as St Thaddeus. There is an untraced preparatory sketch of the head of Watts reproduced in the 1898 Pictures and Drawings portfolio of Armitage's work, along with an image of St Simon and St Thaddeus shown full length. Sadly, the entire fresco was painted over in 1962.

We can't remember what year we first visited Watts Gallery, although we do remember the buckets that were strategically placed to catch water entering through the leaking roof! Since then, it has been exciting to watch the transformation of Watts Gallery - Artists' Village as it grows and goes from strength to strength. It is a privilege now to be able to be part of this through your Adopt a Painting scheme and a source of great pleasure to us that 'our' watercolour demonstrates something of the little-acknowledged friendship between Watts and Armitage.

Click here to find out more about the Adopt a Watts scheme.