G.F. Watts

I went to a dinner tonight to honour the bicentenary of Watts’s birth (he was born on 23 February 1817, the son of a pianoforte maker in Bryanston Square).   Hovering over the evening was the question why Watts, who was a pariah of the Bloomsbury Group, has enjoyed a recent reincarnation as a Grand Old Man of Victorian painting. Virginia Woolf described his memorial exhibition in 1905 (at the RA) as ‘atrocious‘ and lampooned him in her play Freshwater. He might have been included in Eminent Victorians if Lytton Strachey had regarded him as remotely interesting.   Part of the answer must lie in the Watts Gallery, which used to be seedily neglected, looked after as a sinecure by Wilfred Blunt, Anthony’s older brother.   Now it has been revivified by Perdita Hunt, a Trustee of the HLF, and Richard Ormond, who was chairman of trustees for a mere 32 years (I think he became a trustee in 1972).   Part of it may lie in the fact that Mary particularly was a good socialist, interested in the practice of pottery in the village.   And part of it is a matter of time – that someone who was such a big figure in his lifetime, the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, is definitely worthy of historical record, if not necessarily artistic admiration.


4 thoughts on “G.F. Watts

  1. I think you are unnecessarily harsh on Watts. Of course he rushed off far too many portraits that were often little more than likenesses but he was capable of good work. Look again at his history paintings in the Houses of Parliament, and at some of the canvasses at the NPG, Bodelwytthan – you of all people should know them! They are uneven but there are some decent portraits among them, surely?

  2. BellisVintage says:

    Actually living close to Watts Gallery for some 30 years I have to disagree with your appraisal of it being “seedily neglected”. I have visited both before and after the recent renovations.
    Prior to the renovations the Gallery had a different atmosphere of charming, faded elegance – an unexpected piece of magic found at the end of an unfinished, unprepossessing Surrey lane. And after perusing, having regularly traipsed across the Downs, one could settle down for a plate of Welsh rarebit at the unpretentious “caff” next door. All that has now gone.
    Obviously one has to take into account the damage being caused to the artwork itself by the seriously leaking building. But… the in-house artist, gift bookshop, fancy tea rooms, tacky art shop next door and user friendly carpark means something of the amateur, but delightful, atmosphere has been lost. Charleston has suffered the same fate.
    I’m not convinced in either case that this is the sort of environment the artists themselves intended, having chosen to move out of London society and finding creative inspiration somewhere remote. These aren’t galleries. This is where the artists themselves lived.
    Subtle restoration of these gems to ensure the spirit and ideals of the artists who inhabited these places appears very difficult – if not impossible – when making something commercially viable.

    • I think I only saw the outside of the house before the renovation, sneeking up on it, probably illictly and looking through the windows. I remember an atmosphere of neglect and decay. And now it feels well and sensitively restored, using ZMMA as architects and good materials. Charleston is trickier. I’m sure that many people are nostalgic for the house as it was when Duncan Grant was still alive. It’s hard to preserve decay, as the National Trust has found.

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