The Watts gallery which I visited yesterday with Dominic, a collector of Victorian painting, houses the work of George Frederick Watts (1817-1904), one of the most celebrated artists of his day.
Watts married first the actress Ellen Terry when she was just 16 and Mary Seton Fraser herself 42 years his junior. The second marriage proved more enduring and successful. The building in Compton Surrey, brainchild of Mary, which houses his paintings, was completed in 1904 only 3 months before his death. Watts was quite an eclectic painter. His works include biblical, pastoral and socially realistic paintings but he is chiefly known for his portraiture. There are pictures of the great and good of that epoch: Florence Nightingale, Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and Garibaldi. The reality painting ” Hope” of girl strumming the last note of a musical instrument against a blank, bleak , surreal backspace has echoes of Edvard Munch.
There are a number of criticisms that can be made of the gallery. It is not that easy to find. We began in the cemetery and chapel, confusing this for the entrance to the house. The pictures are not well hung: the portraits were either too high or low and the lighting was poor. My friend and I agreed that, whilst Watts was a competent artist, he was not a great one . Some of the work was too florid.
Like many artists, then and now, he clearly had a talent for self- promotion. He wore a skull cap, which at first made me wonder if he was Jewish, but in fact reflected his admiration of Titian. With his elegant silvery beard , burgundy skull cap and thoughtful expression, he looked very much the Great Artist. He also had access to the highest social circles. Artists then were anything but anti-establishment and the Royal Academy was a cosy somewhat elitist club. Thus Victorian art came to be denigrated by a more radical generation, which is not totally fair but, as Dominic says, at least favours those who want to acquire it.