Sunday, 13 April 2008

G F Watts. Who?

Last Thursday a friend of mine invited me on a jaunt to the countryside so that we might spend a few hours catching up on several years news and visit what the Daily Telegraph has described as 'one of the most beautiful small galleries in Europe'. This gallery being Watts Gallery.

G F Watts (1817-1904) was a celebrated artist and was considered to be the greatest painter of the Victorian age. I gather he lived and worked in London but had a country retreat in Compton near Guildford in Surrey. Watts Gallery first opened to the public on 1 April 1904 and apparently it is unique because it is the only purpose-built gallery to show a single artist's work. I find this fact alone surprising. Sir John Soane's museum at 13 Lincoln's Inn Field's is devoted to his own collection but I've just remembered that it includes work by Hogarth and Turner as well as Sir John Soane's architectural drawings and models and is well worth a visit.

Evidently G F Watts works have inspired many people over the last 100 years including Nelson Mandela who had a print of Hope on his cell wall and contemporary artists like Antony Gormley and Gilbert & George have expressed their admiration for his work. So I have to admit that I had never heard of him and also that I had high expectations of his paintings which were pretty much dashed when we entered the first gallery.

In my last post I was commenting on portraits that lack life can look wooden, superficial and uninteresting. This was borne out in Watts Gallery. My friend and I agreed that the paintings with titles such as Sympathy, Ophelia and Found Drowned fell into this category. But those paintings whose titles were real names such as Miss Rachel Gurney were highly accomplished, satisfying to look at and appeared to provide a real insight into the character of the sitter. We found it difficult to believe that all these paintings, and there are a lot of them, had been made by the same hand since the quality varied so much but they are all attributed to the same artist so who are we to comment.

Well so far, so mixed. Then my friend led me to the area set aside for the sculpture. The space appeared to be like a garage or more likely a carriage house so it wasn't that big. In it there were two enormous plaster models on display. One is of the poet Tennyson with his dog which was cast in bronze and is set outside Lincoln Cathedral. And the other plaster model is called Physical Energy and depicts a rider on a horse and unlike some his tedious paintings with pretentious titles this sculpture is both energetic and powerful. There were three bronzes cast from this plaster model and one of them is in Kensington Gardens. We were told that it faces west and is north of the Albert Memorial so I will go and check it out sometime and see what it looks like cast in bronze and out in the open air.

Watts Gallery is 100 years old and is a listed Arts & Crafts building which was one of the first to be built of solid concrete and is now in a sad state of disrepair. It will be closing at the end of August '08 for two years when it will undergo restoration and the collection will be conserved. From November '08 a major touring exhibition will show 60 works by G F Watts in London at the Guildhall Art Gallery so you can decide for yourself if his reputation as 'England's Michelangelo' was entirely deserved.


Jacqui said...

Well, I just had to check him out on the net. Seems he led a colourful life. "Ophelia" was actually a portrait of his young wife, Ellen Terry who he married when he 47 and she was 17. She left a year later.

He said of his own work:

"I paint ideas, not things. I paint primarily because I have something to say, and since the gift of eloquent language has been denied to me, I use painting; my intention is not so much to paint pictures which shall please the eye, as to suggest great thoughts which shall speak to the imagination and to the heart and arouse all that is best and noblest in humanity." (quote from ArtMagick),
so he was a bit of a big head like a lot artists.

As to the number of works and the variety, it could well do with the fact he had assistants plus he was self taught apparently.

Must admit went through a a Pre-Raphaelite period in my teens but bit too sickly sweet for my tastes now.

Heather said...

All I can think is his noble ideas were lost in translation but maybe Victorian viewers understood them better than I can.

I also went through a Pre-Raphaelite phase in my late teens. This was inspired by a series about them on tv. It was all about their affairs with their models and picturesque poverty. When I finally saw some of their work at the Tate (now Britain) I was quite overcome but I agree with you now they are too sickly sweet for my taste too.