Striving ever upwards
G. F. WATTS: THE LAST GREAT VICTORIAN by Veronica Franklin Gould Yale, £40, pp. 458, ISBN0300105770 ® £38 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848 George Frederic Watts (18171904), if never exactly popular, was regarded in his day as possibly the greatest artist in the world. He was the first living artist to be accorded a retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and was esteemed in France as few British artists have been, before or since. He was one of the great portraitists of his age. Sadly, though, to a 21st-century audience he has all too little of the accessibility of his younger contemporaries, the Pre-Raphaelites, and until recently was the point at which even many lovers of Victorian painting drew the line.
He deplored the very idea of ‘Art for Art’s sake’ and regarded himself as an ethical teacher like his friends John Ruskin and Lord Tennyson. ‘Great Victorians’ like these have been little more than figures of fun for much of the last century. Watts is the latest, perhaps the last, for whom a serious reappraisal has been attempted. Though his hellfireand-brimstone upbringing in a strict Sabbatarian household put him off organised religion for good, an unspecific spirituality — a sense that the universe is benign and death not the end informs his great ‘symbolical’ works such as ‘Love and Death’ and ‘Hope’. During the Great War these offered real comfort to many of the bereaved, but this last flicker of popularity was his swansong — or so it seemed. Suddenly, the study of alternative spiritual traditions that he undertook late in life with his much younger second wife Mary seems quite modern, and the symbolic paintings have acquired a new contemporary relevance. The gallery devoted to his work and the extraordinary memorial chapel next door (built to Mary’s design and elaborately decorated by the villagers under her direction) at Compton in Surrey may now become the places of pilgrimage for ‘new agers’ that they already are for lovers of the Arts-andCrafts movement and Watts aficionados.
The publication of The Last Great Victorian was the culminating event in the celebrations for Watts’s centenary, the final rousing salvo in a campaign to rehabilitate his reputation. Its author, Veronica Franklin Gould, also organised the centenary exhibition at the Watts Gallery and was the editor of the catalogue, which has been nominated for the Berger Prize. Though the book is obviously the result of serious, exhaustive research, all the scholarly apparatus of endnotes, bibliography and index could not dispel the curiously (but not unattractively) old-fashioned impression that it made on this reader. The frank hero-worship his biographer lavishes on him makes her book seem in many ways like ‘the last great Victorian biography’. But Watts clearly was a good man, the object of sincere respect, reverence even, from his public, and loved by his many friends. And though this may be no modern ‘kiss-and-tell’, debunking biography, Veronica Franklin Gould is as good on the human relationships as she is on the paintings. Neither is she quite so reticent as her Victorian forebears, making as she does one charmingly discreet reference to the gentle wifely comfort (‘rubbing’) that Mary offered her octogenarian husband to help him get off to sleep.
The Last Great Victorian is a wellmade and beautifully designed book, with colour plates of excellent quality. Numerous small black-and-white illustrations in the wide margins are keyed to the text, and the index and endnotes are good. Page references at the head of each page of endnotes make it easy to turn back and forth between them and the text. The book is really only marred by sloppy proof-reading. There is even a typographical error on the title page, and Lord Leighton’s masterpiece is called ‘Captive’, not ‘Captain Andromache’. Altogether, though, this is an excellent book, a pleasure to handle as it is a pleasure to read. It has tremendous narrative drive and is probably the definitive biography of Watts.
The Symbolic Paintings of G. F. Watts is at Tate Britain until 17 July 2005. G. F. Watts Portraits: Fame and Beauty in Victorian Society is at the National Portrait Gallery until 9 January 2005. England’s Michelangelo: Drawings by G. F. Watts is in the Tennant Room at the Royal Academy until 2 January 2005. The address of The Watts Gallery is Down Lane, Compton, Guildford GU3 1DQ, Tel: 01483 810235.