England's Michelangelo

In 1842 the Royal Fine Arts Commission announced a competition to decorate the new Palaces of Westminster through the submission of large-scale drawings (cartoons). The 140 entries were exhibited a year later and included Watts's Caractacus Led in Triumph through the Streets of Rome (fragments at the V&A) which won the artist the highest premium of £300.

Watts used this prize money to travel to Europe, taking in the art scene in Paris before travelling south through France and Italy. His journey ended in Florence where he intended to study fresco painting and its techniques.

Whilst in Italy, Watts worked on landscapes inspired by great masterpieces, such as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. This period of travel and discovery was hugely influential on Watts; steeped in antiquity and Italian art and culture, he changed his outlook completely. His love of Italy earned him the nickname 'Signor', which stayed with him into old age, and Watts's high ideals consolidated as he began to see himself as part of the great traditions of Old Master painting.

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