Little Holland House, East Wing, Kensington,London, 1907
It seems that Sara Prinsep was looking for a larger house to entertain her friends during her literary salons. When she mentioned this in passing to Watts, he remembered that just a few days prior, Lord Holland had invited him to stay at his ‘Little House’for a few days. Watts wanted to but knew he could never afford it. So, he introduced Sara and her husband Thoby Prinsep to Lord Holland who showed the couple around. Little Holland Housewas a rambling gabled house in an idyllic rural setting, with lawns and stately arching trees, located just off Kensington High Street. Two miles from Hyde Park Corner, the house suited Sara perfectly. The Prinsep’s signed a twenty-one year lease for two hundred pounds per annum on Christmas Day 1850. What was supposed to be a three day stay for Watts, in the New Year, turned out to be a close to thirty year stay… thus beginning ‘the Bohemian years!’
Watts was right on all fronts. It seems that Little Holland House benefitted everybody. Once moved in, the literary salons began, parties were thrown, and word spread like wild fire about the Prinsep and Pattle families and this man named Watts. Sara’s reputation was now solidified and her name reflected glory! Her place in society was surely sealed. As for our Young Watts, well, he yearned to broaden the spectrum of his art, still his reputation for portraiture at this time attracted commissions but he preferred to avoid them. Watts was about to meet one of the two most important women known for their beauty. Henry Bruce, Lord Aberdare recalled, ‘Oh, how in love with her we all were!’ Virginia Pattle lived with her married sister Sara Prinsep in Chesterfield Street, near Watts’ studio. The artist was tempted, but had no time to make new acquaintances. Later he would confess that his first concentrated love, ‘began and encouraged and developed before I knew the living object.’
One morning Watts saw two robed women with heavy lidded eyes and hair parted in the middle as if floating down Regent Street, leading a small boy. Watts was mesmerized; he knew at once they were Virginia with her sister and nephew. Immediately he went home and wrote a note to Fleming, ‘You cannot be more anxious to introduce than I am to know Miss Pattle, she is beautiful.’ He was to meet the sisters during the winter of 1849 at Eastnor Castle. The sisters were equally intrigued by his charisma, humility and genius. They quickly became regular visitors to his studio.
Virginia Pattle drawn by G.F. Watts, 1849 (private collection)
Watts was deeply in love with Virginia and began drawing tender silverpoint studies of her in the soft grey cloak she wore that first day. He pared down its graceful lines for a full-length almost monotone portrait which he exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1850. The Art-Journal commended his portrait of Virginia Pattle for its rare, elevated sentiment. Virginia stands like a pilgrim on the stone terrace, ‘her hair simply braided, and a long grey coat of nun like simplicity falling round her. She has no curls, no frills or furbelows, no jewels; she is as God made her; a perfectly beautiful woman.’ as her great niece Laura Troubridge observed.
Another drawing full-face of Virginia Pattle by G.F. Watts, undated
Even though Virginia encouraged Watts and drove him to distraction, he never declared his love to her believing himself to be unworthy of her and that he had nothing to offer her. Whether or not this was one of his biggest and deepest regrets is not known but his decision was to benefit Charles, Viscount Eastnor, the future Earl Somers, enchanted by her portrait on Watts’ studio dresser, proposed marriage and she accepted. Watts was devastated explaining, ‘It became wrong for me to love. I nearly died but I conquered it. My existence became a blank.’ He made a large chalk drawing, the strongest image yet of her oval face, heavy lidded eyes and firmly modeled throat. He painted The Vanished Spirit, returning for a last look upon the world, with Eastnor Castle and a book inscribed ‘Finis.’
Now that Watts was living amongst The Prinsep’s, he was thought of as a family member. They felt funny calling him Mr. Watts and he hated being called, ‘George’ so a nickname was definitely in order. Sara Prinsep’s youngest sister Sophie, who was married to an East India Company civil servant John Dalyrmple, named him ‘The Signor.’ This was not overly familiar yet respectful, it suited Watts. In brotherly affection he nicknamed Sophie ‘Sorella.’ Gradually the prefix was dropped and he became simply ‘Signor,’ and was never called ‘George’ again.
Lady Sophie Dalyrmple by G.F. Watts, oil on canvas 1851-53
Enter the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood - a revolutionary new art movement led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman-Hunt during the summer of 1848. They believed in a purity in British painting and wanted what they called a ‘Truth to Nature’ put back into painting. They looked to Watts for guidance and help in attainment. For in his paintings they saw how he had an ability to bring forth a light that shone on each entire canvas, even illuminating the shadows. At the time, the PRB, as they wrote on their canvases, were horrifying the art establishment with their ‘realistic’ versions of paintings of biblical scenes. However, a Mr. John Ruskin, critic at the time, became enraptured, as he explained in ‘The Stones of Venice’,
‘We have, as far as I know, at present among us, only one painter, G.F. Watts, who is capable of design in colour on a large scale. He stands alone among our artists of the old school, in his perception of the value of breadth in distant masses, and in the vigour of invention by which such breadth must be sustained; and his power of expression and depth of thought are not less remarkable than his bold conception of colour effect. Very probably some of the Pre-Raphaelites have the gift also; I am nearly certain that Rossetti has it, and I think also Millais; but the experiment has yet to be tried.’
It was during the year 1856 after William Holman-Hunt visited Watts at his studio in Little Holland House that another two important visitors arrived in true style. Rossetti lured his ‘apprentice’ who explains further, ‘I am going with Rossetti to be introduced to a lot of swells who’ll frighten me to death, twenty-three year old ‘Ned’ Jones wrote to his father Edward Coley Burne-Jones:
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, 1st Btby Cundall, Downes & Co, or by John Watkins
albumen print on card mount, published 1864
‘Gabriel took me out in a cab…we drove and drove until I thought we should arrive at the setting sun – and he said, ‘You must know these people, Ned; they are remarkable: you will see a painter there, he paints a queer sort of pictures about God and Creation.’ So it was he took me to Little Holland House. It was a very strange society, foreign in its ease and brilliancy.’
Portrait of Edward Burne-Jones by G.F. Watts, 1870, (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery)
The illustrator George du Maurier described Little Holland House as : ‘A nest of proeraphaelites, where tutti quanti receive dinners and incense, and cups of tea handed to them by these women almost kneeling. Watts, who is a grand fellow, is their painter in ordinary; the best part of the house has been turned into his studio, and he lives there and is worshipped till his manliness hath almost departed, I should fancy.’ Invited to dine, du Maurier was advised not to wear a dress coat. As he wrote to a friend, ‘Instead of dressing for dinner there, you undress.’ Watts wore a velvet coat and slippers, and in the music room afterwards stretched full length on the sofa, while everyone sat in a circle and listened to du Maurier singing Schubert lieder. The worship I got. I wonder if they are sincere.
Portrait of Julia Margaret Cameron by G.F. Watts, 1850-52,
National Portrait Gallery, London
The Pattles were too highly charged to be reticent: excruciating as it may have been, their praise was genuine. Julia Cameron could be seen reciting Tennyson’s latest poem to the vulnerable Whig statesman, the Marquess of Landsdowne under the shade of a tree. Ruskin’s former wife, Effie, abhorred the Tennyson and Watts worship at Little Holland House and reported that her new husband, Millais, hated the adulation he received. Nevertheless, he remained an habitué, and du Maurier returned on occasion for the intellectual society.
Hearing that Tennyson was in town, Sara Prinsep swept out in her robe and forced the protesting Poet Laureate back to Kensington, where she placed him in Hunt’s charge and sat him down to dinner, a defeated lion. ‘In this company there ought to be Lady Somers, whose beauty I have heard much extolled. I can’t see her anywhere, is she here?’ Tennyson roared and crushed Hunt’s discreet reply. The Laureate was facing savage abuse from the public over Maud, his epic poem against falsehood and tyranny. He arrived, distraught, one evening, with an anonymous letter-‘Abhorred Sir, Once I worshipped you, now I loathe you, I hate you. You beast!...Yours in aversion’ – which he showed to each guest, asking, ‘What would you do if you got a letter like this?’ He refused to be comforted.
It was during another visit to Little Holland House that Tennyson composed ‘Guinevere’ for ‘Idylls of the King’, his recreation of the Arthurian legend, while pacing the lawns and grumbling out loud, ‘Gone-my lord! Gone thro’ my sin to slay and to be slain’ He explained to Watts how Arthur represented conscience and his knights the sentiments, impulses, feelings, ‘the more animal qualities that man has to contend with’ while sitting for his first of many portraits.
One year later, in 1859,Tennyson returned to Little Holland House to sit for his second portrait of which this time Lady Tennyson approved of. She did not like the first one because it did not capture his poetic imagination and asked Watts if he would do another one. Watts obliged. Tennyson asked Watts, ‘what was in the artist’s mind at the start of a new portrait?’ Watts explained, ‘how he didn’t want to highlight every wart and wrinkle but instead hoped to encourage his sitters to reveal their inner nature; he would talk to them, draw out each train of thought, and immerse himself in his subject to reproduce the face as ‘the window of the mind. ‘
Alfred Tennyson, Poet Laureate, by G.F. Watts, 1859
Original painting is in private collection at
Eastnor Castle Collection.
Archived at Watts Gallery is this print photogravure by
Sir Emery Walker after GF Watts
After the painting session wrapped up, the friends gathered for a chat session and this situation occurred: John Ruskin was in the room overheard by Tennyson saying, ‘Jones, you are gigantic!’ dubbed Ned ‘Gigantic Jones.’ Watts had recommended ‘Ned’ to design stained glass windows for James Powell and sons and described him to everyone he knew as a ‘genius!’ Ruskin who now regarded Watts as ‘a man of great imagination and pathetic power,’ could see Watts lying on the sofa, with the 1857 Moxon edition of Tennyson’s poems open on his knee. Behind him stood the poet laureate, his face quivering with indignation as he explained, over his shoulder why the Pre-Raphaelite illustrations did not suit the poems. Ruskin, sitting at Watts’s side, looked up, deprecating Tennyson’s criticisms on the artist’s behalf, ‘feeling very cowardly in the good cause-yet maintaining it in a low voice:
Painter’s ought to attend to at least what the writer said if they couldn’t, to what they meant while Watts and I both maintained that no good painter could be subservient at all: but must conceive everything in his own way that no poems ought to be illustrated at all but if they were the poet must be content to have his painter in partnership not a slave.’
That summer, Idylls of the King, published to critical acclaim, and established Tennyson among England's finest poets, as Watts acknowledged when Emily sent him a copy of the poems: 'I feel happy to have lived at the time of their production, and proud of being acquainted with the Poet.'
One of the last photographs of 'Signor' G.F. Watts, 1903-4