Watts and the Big Important Things

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Posted 4th June 2020

Watts and the Big Important Things

Hilary Underwood, Curatorial Advisor

I want to write about Watts's painting Love and Death, and why it is important to me.

I'm Hilary Underwood, Curatorial Advisor to the Gallery, and I have worked here for more than thirty years. But my connection to the Gallery goes back much further than that. My Auntie Babs, who I loved very much, lived in Surrey and had a car. She brought me here for the first time one dark wet afternoon around 1975 when I was a teenager, whose interest in Victorian Art was just beginning. We were the only visitors, and as a special treat the Curator's Assistant, Richard Jefferies took us into the Sculpture Gallery, then used as a store room, where Physical Energy and Tennyson towered over old lawnmowers, picture frames and assorted lumber.

Roll forward to the late 1980s when I first worked here. The Tate had lent the Gallery Love and Death, to display in the main room. It's back with the Tate now, so I am showing one of our archival photographs of the picture. The image meant a lot to Watts and his contemporaries. He painted about fifteen versions of it and created the Tate version to give to the Nation. The idea for it grew in his mind through his friendship with two of his portrait sitters, Lady Constance Lothian, and her husband William, the 8th Marquess of Lothian. William was suffering from a progressive disease. Despite the fact he had the best medical attention money could buy, and despite all the loving care of his family and friends, every time Watts saw him, he was slipping closer to death. He finally passed away in July 1870. Most Victorian painters moved by the situation, would have turned it into a story-telling picture. (Check out Luke Fildes's The Doctor on the Tate website for an example, and as a visual reminder of long traditions of selfless medical care.) Watts, however, wanted to do something different – to use abstract human figures to convey what the situation felt like.

So the artist painted Death stepping forwards towards the door of the house of Life, and withering its roses. Death isn't the traditional scary skeleton with a scythe (preparatory drawings show that Watts did initially included a scythe, but later abandoned it). Death isn't shown as terrifying, but as powerful and inexorable. Look at that muscular arm and the pale angular drapery. Death is represented as something unknown and unknowable. We see the figure from the back, face bowed and hidden. And Love struggles against Death, all living flesh colours and iridescent wings and complex, radiating compositional curves. It is Love that we can see and empathise with, even though we know how the struggle will end. Watts, remember, was no stranger to death – he had lost his mother when he was about ten years old.

Soon after I came to Watts Gallery, my Auntie Babs was diagnosed with late stage cancer. Every morning I was free, I would walk the three miles from my flat at the Gallery to Guildford station (there was no convenient bus), catch the train to Esher, walk to the hospice to spend time with her and set off on the return journey to start work at the Gallery at 2pm. The Gallery then had strange, rather Victorian opening hours, and a staff of one-and-a-half. I was the half, and responsible for being in the Gallery when it was open – but it used to be so quiet that even on those sunny spring afternoons I was often alone with the pictures.

And that's when I really began to understand what Watts meant by Love and Death. The picture was a tremendous comfort to me, because I realised that Watts had been where I was. He knew. I wasn't alone.

At the beginning of April this year I lost my brother to Coronavirus in his care home. Although I couldn't be with him in his last illness, I had come to know the staff over my previous months of visiting and I know how lovingly they cared for him in his last days. And I was reminded again of how Watts's art can still speak across the years to me now about the Big Important Things. About Death, about the power of Love and the full meaning of being human.

I am writing this because Watts Gallery is temporarily closed. The virus that took away my brother's life has affected us all. I know that some of you reading this will be grieving like me. I have said what I have said to remind you – and myself – how important art is in difficult times. Whether it is painting, music or poetry, search and you will find something that speaks to you, to comfort and sustain.