George   Frederic   Watts

(London, 23 February 1817 - 1 July 1904, London)


Painter and sculptor, the son of a piano maker. Initially, he wanted to be a sculptor, and at the age of 10 apprenticed to William Behnes. However, in 1835, he went to the R.A. Schools, remaining for only a short period, and thereafter mainly self-taught. After he first exhibited "The Wounded Heron" at the Royal Academy, painting became his main preoccupation. When his picture "Caractacus" won a £300 prize, he used the money to finance a trip to Italy, where he stayed with friends in Florence. He did not return to England until 1847, when his painting "Alfred" won the first prize of £500 in a House of Lords competition.

In 1850, Watts visited the home of Valentine Prinsep's parents in Holland park, for a three-day visit, but instead he stayed until 1875, then he moved to the Isle of Wight. The Prinseps seem to have borne the situation cheerfully, and it no doubt gave them a certain cachet in the Bohemian circles in which they moved, which included such writers and painters as Thackeray, Dickens, Rossetti and Burne-Jones. Fortunately, Watts was a man of frugal habits. Although he had been depressed and unhappy when he had moved in with the Prinseps, Watts blossomed in this strange household, where notable writers and painters were treated with reverence. As a portrait artist, his gallery of eminent Victorians is unsurpassed: included among his sitters were the poets Tennyson, Swinburne and Browning, the artists Millais, Lord Leighton, Walter Crane and Burne-Jones; among others were Sir Richard Burton, John Stuart Mill and Garibaldi.


In 1864, Watts married the actress Ellen Terry, who was only 16, although the marriage was short-lived, and he remarried in 1886, when he moved to Limnerslease, near Guildford. His new wife was Mary Fraser-Tytler, thirty-two year his junior. She was of Scottish descent, growing up in a castle on the shores of Loch Ness, and was an artist in her own right.


Mrs. Watts, Mary Seton Fraser Tytler 1887


Watts was a modest, hard-working artist who twice refused a baronetcy and other honours, including an offer to become president of the Royal Academy, although he did accept the Order of Merit. His work as a sculptor exists in the Cecil Rhodes Memorial, Cape Town. His chief work as a sculptor is the heroic figure of a man on horseback known as Physical Energy, casts of which are on the Cecil Rhodes estate and in Kensington Gardens, London.

The critic G.K. Chesterton said of Watts: ".. more than any other modern man, and much more than politicians who thundered on platforms or financiers who captured continents, [Watts] has sought in the midst of his quiet and hidden life to mirror his age... In the whole range of Watts' symbolic art, there is scarcely a single example of the ordinary and arbitrary current symbol.... A primeval vagueness and archaism hangs over the all the canvases and cartoons, like frescoes from some prehistoric temple. There is nothing there but the eternal things, day and fire and the sea, and motherhood and the dead."



Another contemporary admirer, Hugh MacMillan, wrote that Watts "surrounds his ideal forms with a misty or cloudy atmosphere for the purpose of showing that they are visionary or ideal.... His colours, like the colour of the veils of the ancient tabernacle, like the hues of the jewelled walls of the New Jerusalem, are invested with a parabolic significance.... To the commonest hues he gives a tone beyond their ordinary power... Watts is essentially the seer. He thinks in pictures that come before the inward eye spontaneously and assume a definite form almost without any effort of consciousness."

Watts' declared aims were clear: to paint pictures that appealed 'to the intellect and refined emotions rather than the senses':
"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."

Since the revival of interest in Victorian painting, Watts may be regaining the recognition and respect he enjoyed in the 19th century. However, in terms of public recognition he is not as well-known as contemporaries like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones.


Time, Death, Judgement. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865, as Design for a Larger Picture. The appearance of the youthful figure of Time on the left and the heavy drapery of Death on the right; above them hovers the figure of Judgement, holding a set of scales.



"Watts, George F., R. A. First exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1837. Received a prize of £300 for a cartoon, "Caractacus," and £500 for his "Alfred inciting the Saxons to Maritime Enterprise," from the Commissioners for the Decoration of the Houses of Parliament in 1843. He painted also "St. George and the Dragon." at Westminster Palace, and a large fresco in the new Hall of Lincoln's Inn. Among his most successful portraits are those of:
Tennyson (1862)
Gladstone (1865)
Duke of Argyle (1860)
Dean of Westminster (1867)
J. E. Millais and
Frederick Leighton( 1871)
Rev. James Martineau and
John Stuart Mill (1874).

Among his ideal and mythological works may be mentioned:
"The Window-Seat" (1862) and
"Sir Galahad" at the Royal Academy (1862)
"Virginia" and
"Ariadne," (1863)
"Esau," (1865)
"Thetis," (1866)
"A Lamplight Study" 1867, when he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy,
"The Wife of Pygmalion" (1868), when he was raised to the rank of Academician and
"The Meeting of Jacob and Esau." (1868)
"The Return of the Dove" (1869)
"The Red Cross Knight and Una" (1869)
"Daphne" (1870)
"The Prodigal" (1873)
" Dedicated to all the Churches" (1875)
"By the Sea, -- a Study" (1876)
"The Dove" (1877)
"Britomart and her Nurse." 1878.

"He has contributed several portraits and ideal figures to the Grosvenor Gallery. His "Love and Death," "Esau," and a portrait of Heir Joachim and one of Robert Browning were at Paris in 1878.

"As a real master in tender coloring and admirable delicacy of touch, Mr. Watts does his gifts better justice in the beautiful girl's head named 'Choosing' [R. A., 1864]. Surely a work like this, with the many charming specimens in the same style which we have received from this artist, may be admitted as evidence in what direction his genius really lies; not force, thought, imagination, but refinement, grace, and fancy. It is his work in the latter manner which will at any rate be preferred by all the world to his attempts in the terribile via of life-size allegories." -- Palgrave's Essays on Art.

"But whether of distinguished men, or of men and women utterly unknown to the world, the portraits of Mr. Watts stand out in strong relief from the portraits of the painter's contemporaries, redeeming portrait-painting from the charge of decline in our day." -- Mrs. Tytler's Modern Painters.

"Mr. Watts has painted much, he has also thought much, and his works have come to be regarded as the exponents of a principle, and the expression of a conviction. As a painter, he has few followers, and no imitators, and yet the example he sets, if it have slight visible sign, is felt as a guiding power. It is well known that the use of fresco in domestic decoration, though still a novelty in England, finds abundant precedents in Rome, Florence, Bologna, and Genoa. Mr. Watts has perhaps done more than any other man to domesticate high art in the homes of England." -- J. B. Atkinson, in English Painters of the Present Day, 1871.

"Mr. Watts' portraits are all conscientious and subtle, and of great present interest, yet not realistic enough to last." -- Ruskin's Notes of the Academy, 1875.

Artists of the Nineteenth Century and their Works, by Clara Erskine Clement and Laurence Hutton, 1879.




View painter's art:
George Frederic Watts (1817-1904)