Sketch for At the Fountain, by Frederic Leighton, c. 1892.

In March 2018, Watts Gallery, in partnership with Hammersmith & Fulham Council, will present a landmark exhibition of newly conserved masterpieces from the Cecil French Bequest, a rarely seen collection of later Pre-Raphaelite paintings and drawings left to the Council in 1953 by the collector Cecil French (1879-1953).

Featuring important works by Frederic Leighton, Laurence Alma-Tadema, John William Waterhouse and Edward Burne-Jones, the exhibition celebrates a long-standing relationship between Watts Gallery and Cecil French. French was a great friend of Rowland Alston (1895-1958), Curator of Watts Gallery, and it was to Alston that Cecil French left instructions for the distribution of the collection following his death. This was to be at the discretion of Rowland Alston, the only stipulation being that the bequest should benefit British galleries.

The largest bequest came to Hammersmith & Fulham Council, as this was where French's favourite artist, Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) had lived for many years at The Grange on the North End Road. Accordingly, Burne-Jones will be the central figure in this new exhibition, which will provide a rare opportunity to see works on paper that show the great range of the artist as a draughtsman. There are richly coloured watercolours (Morgan le Fay, 1862), a sculptural study in white chalk of Two Seated Figures for The Lament (1865) as well as a little-known large drawing of Ulysses and the Ghosts. Finished major works by Burne-Jones include Cupid Delivering Psyche (1867) and a version of the great Wheel of Fortune (1875), painted for the radical politician Sir Charles Dilke who found his career ruined after a sex scandal. Conservation has revealed, for the first time, that the artist originally intended this painting to be significantly larger.

Marianne in the South, by John William Waterhouse, c. 1897, oil on canvas.

Paintings and drawings by other celebrated artists of this period including Frederic Leighton, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Albert Moore, John William Waterhouse and G. F. Watts, and by lesser-known but nonetheless important artists to Cecil French including Frederick Cayley Robinson (1862-1927), Charles Haslewood Shannon (1863-1937) and William Shackleton (1872-1933).

At the time of building the collection, these artists were considered unfashionable. In 1933, a Tate retrospective to mark the centenary of the birth of Burne-Jones was scarcely visited. Now, with growing interest in art of this period - evidenced both in the saleroom and in exhibitions, notably the return of Burne-Jones to Tate Britain this year (24 October-24 February 2019) — this exhibition will enable visitors to experience rarely seen works by major artists in the gallery created by a key figure of this period, George Frederic Watts OM RA (1817–1904).

Cllr Andrew Jones, H&F Council's Cabinet Member for Economic Development and Regeneration, said: "We've been working to restore and display the Cecil French collection since 2014 and we're extremely grateful for Watts Gallery's help with this. Having the collection on public view at Watts Gallery is an important first step towards permanently displaying it in Hammersmith & Fulham." Commenting, Dr Nick Tromans, Curator of Watts Gallery, said: "65 years have passed since my predecessor, Rowland Alston, oversaw the allocation of the Cecil French Bequest. Alston understandably favoured galleries connected to artists in the collection, and as such, Watts Gallery received several works by its founding artist.

"In addition, Alston directed a painting by Albert Moore and a painting by Burne-Jones to Watts Gallery Trust. When, in 2008, Watts Gallery was on the brink of collapse, its listed buildings on Historic England's 'At Risk' Register and the collection in desperate need of conservation, the difficult decision was taken to deaccession these two works which were extraneous to the core collection. With the agreement of the Museums' Association, the paintings were sold and funds raised used to establish a vital endowment fund to safeguard the Gallery's future." Nick Tromans adds: "This exhibition is the next chapter in Watts Gallery's longstanding relationship with Cecil French. The Bequest provided a lifeline for Watts Gallery Trust, and now we are delighted to have been able to conserve these important pictures and to give visitors a chance to see these seldom seen and fascinating works."

"A Pre-Raphaelite Collection Unveiled: The Cecil French Bequest" is curated at Watts Gallery by Dr Nicholas Tromans. It will be accompanied by a programme of talks and events. For further information: @WattsGallery Facebook/wattsgalleryartistsvillage. Press information available from Tamsin Williams: — 01483 563562 — 07939 651252

A Note of the Watts Gallery — Artists' Village

George Frederic Watts OM RA (1817-1904) was widely considered to be the greatest painter of the Victorian age. He became the first living artist to have a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the artist's donation of paintings made a significant contribution to the founding collections of Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery.

In 1890, with his second wife Mary Seton Watts (1849-1938), Watts moved to Compton, a hollow in the Surrey Hills located on the Pilgrims' Way. Together they commissioned a country home and winter studios, Limnerslease, from leading Arts and Crafts architect Ernest George, and from 1891 they resided there. What followed was the creation of a unique Artists' Village, starting with the Grade I-listed Watts Chapel, an Arts and Crafts masterpiece designed by Mary and realised through a community arts project in the last decade of the 19th century. This led to the formation of the Compton Potters' Art Guild, a social enterprise founded by Mary Watts that thrived in the village until the 1950s, selling at Liberty & Co and receiving commissions from eminent architects and designers. Finally, the Watts Gallery, the first purpose built art gallery in the UK dedicated to a single professional artist that opened its doors to the public in 1904. Together with Tate and the National Portrait Gallery, it provides a complete overview of G F Watts' art and aspirations.

Over the course of the 20th century, Watts Gallery — Artists' Village fell into disrepair and was placed on the English Heritage 'At Risk' Register. Thanks to support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and many generous donors, Watts Gallery — Artists' Village has been rescued and restored. Today the Gallery, Studios, Chapel and Pottery Buildings attract over 65,000 annual visitors.

A Note on Cecil French

Cecil French (1879-1953) was born in Dublin and came to England study at the Royal Academy, intending to become an artist. A passionate follower of the symbolist movement in British art, French admired Burne-Jones, who died in 1898, and the qualities of mystery coupled with careful figure-drawing that characterised much British art at this period. Although he did exhibit in London, French never became a professional artist. He wrote poetry, under the influence of his friend and fellow Irishman W. B. Yeats, as well as some art criticism. But neither did he become a recognised writer. Instead he lived quietly on Station Road in the London suburb of Barnes, slowly building up a very distinguished collection of the art he loved, by later Victorians, and those modern British artists who had maintained the values of their British predecessors, rather than being seduced by French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

Created 21 February 2018