John Mcewen com­ments on Por­trait of the Painter at the Age of Sev­en­teen

Country Life Every Week - - My Week -

GE­ORGE FRED­ER­ICK WATTS was born the son of a Lon­don pi­anoforte maker. His mother died when he was nine; three younger broth­ers had died ear­lier from measles. Watts’s own sick­li­ness meant a strict Evan­gel­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion at home, aug­mented by The Iliad and Scott’s nov­els. His tal­ent for draw­ing was en­cour­aged and, from 10, he trained in Soho un­der the sculp­tor Wil­liam Behnes (1795– 1864). The ‘Elgin mar­bles’ at the nearby Bri­tish Mu­seum proved a life­long in­spi­ra­tion.

Ex­hibit­ing por­traits at the RA’S 1837 Sum­mer Ex­hi­bi­tion was a fi­nan­cial turn­ing point and, in 1842, he won a com­pe­ti­tion propos­ing mu­rals for the new Houses of Par­lia­ment. He spent the prize money on travel and, in Rome, formed a prof­itable friend­ship with the English min­is­ter Lord Hol­land. His Par­lia­ment mu­rals were re­alised in the 1850s. In 1864, he mar­ried the ac­tress Ellen Terry, aged 16. They parted within a year.

Watts gained a rep­u­ta­tion for Sym­bol­ist pic­tures, of­ten de­nun­ci­a­tions of so­cial ills in the spirit of the Bib­li­cal prophets. To es­cape Lon­don’s win­ter smog, he and his sec­ond wife, the artist Mary Se­ton Watts, moved to Sur­rey, where they had a house and gallery built at Comp­ton near Guild­ford. The year he died, 1904—the grand old man of English art and the first to re­ceive an Om—the Watts Gallery opened, still the only pur­pose-built mu­seum of an artist’s work in Bri­tain.

Watts’s now-un­fash­ion­able Sym­bol­ism has eclipsed his pic­to­rial achieve­ments and sculp­ture. Richard Dor­ment helped re­vive his legacy by cham­pi­oning the re­cent ren­o­va­tion of the Watts Gallery. This por­trait, one of Watts’s ear­li­est paint­ings, demon­strates his youth­ful ro­man­ti­cism and pre­co­cious tal­ent. It can be seen in ‘Eng­land’s Michelan­gelo’ at the Watts Gallery un­til Novem­ber 26.

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