Watts Wednesday: Watts and Tennyson

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Posted 10th January 2018

Watts and Tennyson

If you are in Watts Gallery at noon on a Friday, look out for our free lunchtime picture talk. A member of the curatorial team will pick an artwork from the gallery, and spend between 10 and 15 minutes going into it in more depth than we can give in our captions, often with the sort of quirky details and stories which really bring the work to life.

One of the enjoyable things about giving the Friday talks is the questions you get asked afterwards. At the end of November this year, I was talking about the way Watts used gesso grosso in his big sculptures, Physical Energy and Tennyson. A member of the audience had spotted the little bronze sculpture of Watts in the showcase. (It was by Mary Watts's young pottery assistant, Louis Deuchars.) It is very like Tennyson – in fact for a while he thought it was a study for Watts's sculpture of Tennyson. So he asked whether Watts was trying to look like Tennyson. It was a good question and got me thinking…

Watts certainly admired Tennyson deeply. He had been the poet's friend since the 1850s. Watts's wife Mary noted that the news of his death in October 1892 made Watts ill with sorrow, and that he could never again hear these lines from Tennyson's poem Ulysses and remain unmoved;

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles
And see the great Achilles whom we knew

Watts painted Tennyson's portrait no less than six times between 1857 and 1892. One version is part of the Watts 'Hall of Fame' in the National Portrait Gallery. However we do not have any of those portraits here. We do have the huge gesso model Watts made between 1898 and 1904 which was cast in bronze as the county of Lincoln's memorial to Tennyson. Tennyson was a Lincolnshire man in origin and the bronze now stands on a tall plinth to the southwest of Lincoln cathedral. This was a very personal tribute to his friend. Watts was asked to advise on the choice of sculptor, but offered to make the sculpture himself, without fee, if the County paid for the bronze casting.

However, I think the similarities in Watts's and Tennyson's appearance are more to do with their closeness in age and social position, than an attempt by Watts's to emulate the poet. Tennyson was born in 1809, Watts in 1817. They were therefore both of the generation to follow the male fashion for ear-length hair in the 1830s and 1840s (which Dickens, born 1812, shared) and for Tennyson to hang onto it in later life when younger men preferred shorter hair. They both grew beards in the 1850s, when they were in their 40s, around the time when soldiers returning from the cold of the Crimean war (1853-6) made beards fashionable. It would be interesting to date their beards more precisely, to check whether they were following or preceding the fashion.

They are both shown in many images wearing an inverness coat with its built-in cape cape and with a broad brimmed, shallow crowned, wideawake hat. The inverness coat could be a dandyish, urban garment: think about the way that Jon Pertwee, third Dr Who in the 1970s wore his in Victorian revival style. But its cut also made it weatherproof. Tennyson, great nature poet, wore his to walk on the Freshwater Downs near his Farringford home on the Isle of Wight. It is an appropriate part of his image. And Watts, always delicate in health, was always careful not to expose himself to chills. The top hat, widely worn across classes in early 19th century Britain, became middle and upper class headgear in the later century, but it was not rural wear, and attracted increasingly establishment, conventional connotations. Victorian artists and writers did want to be respectable, but they were also seen – and wanted to be seen – as slightly outside bourgeois conventionality. So the board-brimmed hat became a sign of the independent minded artist or intellectual – as readable as the stereotyped 20th century artist's beret.

Hilary Underwood
Curatorial Advisor