By the 1860s, when he was in his own forties, Watts was already painting portraits which were works of art, and not mere likenesses; the best of them take us from the personal to the universal. Henry James called him the best portrait painter of his day, and it's easy to believe that's true. He'd always been capable of capturing a likeness, and even his very early portraits picked out the inner nature of the subject. At sixteen he painted an astonishingly mature picture of his father's inner ugliness, the cruelty of his mouth and eyes that would make you wary of meeting him.
Portraits were his mainstay, probably his main source of income (he charged between one hundred and five hundred guineas as his reputation grew) though he also painted fifty of the most notable men of his day at his own expense. He called them his Hall of Fame and said he wanted to paint 'the nobilities of the subject', though what is revealed is often rather less than noble. His portrait in the National Portrait Gallery of Ceil Rhodes, the empire builder, makes him look like an overweight publican, even though Rhodes had ordered him to 'put in the eyes of the Sphinx looking over the desert into eternity, only in my case for empire and the race that I believe is the best.' Swinburne looks distinctly odd, if not deranged, more like a giggling comic actor than a serious poet. William Morris, aged thirty-six, looks loud and not very nice — a rugby playing schoolmaster, perhaps, or a successful factory owner (which in a way he was). Cardinal Manning, more like a torturer than a prelate, complained that Watts had made his face too red: 'he has made me a tippler, and I am a teetotaller.'
Watts also painted self-portraits, roughly one every ten years, but they are hard to read and it's not easy to gauge the man from them. But he was clubbable, a founder member of the Cosmopolitan Club, a member of the Fine Art Society, he had many friends, from Gladstone to Ruskin, and he was also attractive to women; yet in his portraits he gazes at us out of some deep inner solitude. His first self-portrait he painted when he was only seventeen. In it the boy looks every inch the artist, with loose clothing, large white collar, a kind of green cravat, and curling Keatsian back-lit hair. But already he is beginning to paint the invisible; in this case, single-mindedness, perhaps. This is a boy with a vision or a mission — to paint ideas. If a rebel, he is already a rebel with a cause.
Self Portrait. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]
His working life was neatly book-ended by self-portraits. The last he painted in 1904, when he was eighty-seven, his final year of life. It is in vivid red (blood red? Madder lake? Crimson?) The eyes are either downcast or closed; we can't tell which. The ear is mangled, adding to a sense of incompleted-ness or corruption of the flesh. We are looking at neither resignation, serenity, nor the promise of salvation. What is painted here is not an aged man but old age itself, disembodied senescence.
His best work is of people he either liked or loved (he was very choosy about whom he'd paint: money alone wouldn't induce him if he felt no affinity with the would-be sitter). Yet, having said all that, there had to be something profound in the subject which could be raised from the particular to the general. When he was forty-seven (1864) he married the seventeen year old Ellen Terry (on VW). although she became a great Shakespearean actress, she was a plain woman, as later photographs show. Watts endows her with a certain prettiness without distorting her likeness, but since she was after all only seventeen there is little of character or depth in her face. In her portraits (Watts painted three altogether) she also seems to be acting a part, and a very Victorian one at that. You wonder what Watts's true feelings were towards her, and whether he was projecting his own wishes. (The marriage broke up the following year.)
Miss Virginia Julian Dalrymple (Mrs Francis Champneys). [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]
We can also compare portraits of two sisters, Virginia and Sara Pattle (Ruskin called them 'the Elgin marbles with dark eyes'). They were Anglo-Indian (though their mother was French); exotic, unconventional, with a taste for eastern jewellery and not-quite-Victorian clothes. Watts clearly loved Virginia Pattle and in 1849 he made this pencil drawing of her which he never exhibited but always kept for himself. We see a self-possessed young woman in her twenties; self-confident and a little distant, who knows what she wants from life, calm, brightly intelligent with a penetrating and coolly appraising look. She wears what a later century called a snood (a kind of hair net); English women, she complained, were dowdy and badly dressed. Yet in the end we see nothing universal here, merely a good looking upper class Victorian woman on the make — she married money and a title.
Watts was so distraught by her marriage that he had to be nursed by her older sister, Sara. Fifteen years later, when Sara was forty-eight, Watts painted this tremendous picture of her. She was married to a much older man, a high ranking official in the Bengal Civil Service. Watts lived in their house for nearly a quarter of a century — and in fact took Ellen Terry to live with them also. (Sara may well have been instrumental in their break up.) The dark blue background and the brown and ochre dress are roughly done in a very un-Pre-Raphaelite way, perhaps making sure that all we really see is the torment on the face of a beautiful and mature woman. We also see disembodied sadness and a longing which might also be love for the man who was looking at her from behind his easel; a love of course which in the Victorian age would have had to remain hidden and unfulfilled. We can also read it as a portrayal of the tragedy inherent in the linearity and briefness of our lives; the often near impossibility of undoing what we did when too young to know better. Are these verifiable facts? I suggest they don't matter; a work of art — as this undoubtedly is — embodies its own truth.
Sara's home — in the grounds of Holland House on what was then the outskirts of London — was a salon for writers and artists of the day. Watts met the Pre-Raphaelites there, as well as the Tennysons with whom he remained friends for life. In 1859 Tennyson had just begun The Idylls of the King and Watts painted this astonishing picture of him. It's tempting to look ahead thirty years to the time the Idylls are finally all written. Arthur has fought his last great battle in the west; an age of chivalry and courtesy, and the faith which alone can sustain it, has passed away. Arthur's body is being taken to the Apple Isle of Avalon, somewhere in the magic west. Watts's portrait of his friend brings all of this to mind, for what is painted here is not so much a man as greatness, and sorrow at its loss. Perhaps it is also a painting of possibility — the possibility of greatness which we can never quite achieve. Fanciful? Maybe, but once again Watts has given us a work of art, and art makes us a little bit bigger than we were before seeing it. Ruskin, who mentions this painting in a letter, might (I hope) have agreed.
Three years later, Watts painted Emily Tennyson. The canvas, we are told, is coarse and rough (the painting was done on the Isle of Wight and may have been all that was locally available). She wears a blue dress, with a veil tied under the chin as a head scarf. When she saw the painting she called Watts 'a subtle alchemist, a great magician'. So what has been transmuted into gold here? It's a very English face. Not too long ago you'd have seen many middle aged ladies just like her in villages or tea shops — often called Ye Olde Copper Kettle — in small county towns in the south of England (only the south; northern faces were different). There'd have been laced doilies, multi-tiered cake stands, and china pots of loose-leafed tea. Englishness, gentleness, wistfulness and sadness, are all painted here. For some of us it is now also a picture of something lost, something unique and of value. But we also sense something words will always be too clumsy to convey. If all art aspires to the quality of music, as Pater maintained, then Watts has written a musical score in this painting of Emily Tennyson, the poet's quiet wife. Like great music it ultimately carries no meaning, just pure life-enhancing emotion.
- Concepts and Compassion: the Idea-Paintings of George Frederic Watts
- Painting the Invisible: the Landscapes of George Frederic Watts
- The National Portrait Gallery, London.
Bryant, Barbara. G. F. Watts Portraits London: National Portrait Gallery, 2004.
Last modified 16 October 2006