George Frederic Watts (G.F. Watts): To Be Signor Or Not To Be? Part I (23 February 1817-1 July 1904)

“I usually begin my picture with the arrangement of colour I intend to keep to throughout, though in a very much lighter scale. The bounding lines of the form are laid in with transparent colour-one of the Earths such as Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna, Burnt or Raw Umber, according to circumstance. 

I am careful to preserve the brightness of my first painting, and never use any under paintings of a dark or heavy colour on such parts as are intended to be light, so as to avoid the application later of any light colour over a dark one.

The first painting is a thick impasto (as it is termed). If the composition is intricate I sometimes lay it in monochrome, using Terra Vert and White, or Raw Umber and White- by which I mean Flake White, though occasionally, to increase the body of colour, I use Davy’s Foundation White.

In all cases I leave my first application to become thoroughly dry before retouching, for which purpose I expose what I have done to the strongest sunlight I can get, leaving my pictures for days, weeks, and even months, under such exposure, the glass house garden being built for this purpose. 

Before retouching any part, I am careful to have each picture washed with tepid water, and rubbed with a raw potato cut in half the edges being carefully pared and rounded off to avoid scratching any part that would come in contact with the paint. This application of the potato is washed off with more clean water, and the picture is finally wiped with a soft cloth, and left to be thoroughly dry.

By this method I am able to preserve something of the crispness of a first painting.” G.F. Watts explains  his ‘method’ of painting from George Frederic Watts His Writings, Volume III, by Mary S. (Fraser-Tytler) Watts, 1912

George Frederic Watts was born above his father's workshop at 52 Queen Street, Bryanston Square, in the early hours one February morning in 1817. After a private Anglican baptism, the St. Mary-le-Bone register of baptisms recorded the boy's birthday as the 22 February. Whether this was a mistake or a distraction by his father at the time, Watts would celebrate his birthday on the date inscribed in the family prayerbook, Sunday 23 February. He shared the Christian names and birthday of the composer Handel and he was named Frederic after his maternal grandfather and favorite uncle. Young George inherited his mother's delicate physique, slight frame and brown eyes, while his Celtic passion was as a result of his Welsh forebears. Even from the start, he always knew that he would become an artist. 
Five year old George survived a measles outbreak that killed his three brothers: WIlliam, Frederic, and James. This also brought about his mother's death, four years later, from consumption. His only lasting memory of her was her slow sad step which reveals a child with a keen visual sense already in place such as an artist will need. However, the dark pain and struggle in the Watts household is soon to be revealed. His father, also named George, had some success and was even granted citizenship of the City of Hereford, but soon fell into decline. He was tormented by bereavement and thought it a good idea to move himself, and his only remaining child, into a smaller house in Star Street, Paddington. He neglected his piano business, and his mood swings and fits of anger and rage, over what he considered to be career and life obstacles, left young George to grow up in a highly charged atmosphere. Years later, G.F. Watts's wife Mary would recall in her diary, 'Every day George dreaded a crisis. He would remember his father as 'very refined', but not quite sane. He was devoted to the boy and taught him to read, but his tantrums caused permanent damage to his son's nerves.' 

Young George was racked by loneliness and illness. He was brought up as though he were an only child; his maternal half-sisters, Maria and Harriet, didn't share his intellectual and artistic spirit. He suffered from attacks of migraine headaches and vertigo which forced him to lie flat on his back for days each week and prevented him from going to school. He would describe the pain as a mystic sensation that when it subsided and left his body through his feet it was as if it were travelling through space and he was left with a strangely exhilerating after effect. This might have been a blessing in disguise. Not being able to participate in school activities and wanting to achieve more he discovered his father's library where he eagerly read Sir Roger L'Estrange's The Fables of Aesop and other Eminent Mythologists, with Moral Reflections, the seventeenth century chivalric legend of The Seven Champions of Christendom, The Old Testament stories, the more recent novels of Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott. The Iliad fascinated him; he made sketches of them, imagined Athene in his room, 'bearing the holy aegis that knoweth neither age nor death.'   Most of all, young George loved to draw chalk graffiti of horses on walls and gateposts - the urge to decorate building was even then irresistible. His father, who dabbled in watercolour, recognized his son's superior gifts, and dated and preserved his drawings; by 1827, within a year of his wife's death, Mr. Watts had arranged, through a Hanoverian piano-manufacturer, for his ten year old son to be apprenticed to William Behnes (later sculptor to Queen Victoria), George would 'haunt' the sculptor's studios at 91 Dean Street, Soho. He studied anatomy, made outline compositions in chalk and pen, and produced monumental head studies, their sculptural form foreshadowing his mature paintings. 
He learned to use silverpoint for fine detailed studies drawn on prepared paper; he worked on stone, copied engravings and etchings from Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens, Charles Lebrun's Espressions des Passions de l'Ame, Greuze and Hogarth and the Archangel Uriel and Satan, from Milton's Paradise Lost. He recreated A Lion and Tiger, Fighting, twice the size of George Stubb's enamel, and experimented with clay. He had his first lesson in oil painting with William Behnes who also introduced him to the works of Shakespeare, Virgil and Ossian.

Having been painting for four years now, at the age of seventeen, a young teenaged George Frederic Watts became overwhelmed that he had not fulfilled his ambition as a painter yet to achieve greatness. So, he disciplined himself to wake with the sun by sleeping fully dressed rolled inside a dressing gown on the floor. That sense of determination and vocation can be seen in an informal self-portrait , an oil sketch showing the seventeen year old with long Byronic hair, poetic face and huge, brown eyes.
Freely painted on used canvas, the face-in-shadow against a background of light and with the almost illumination of the skin indicates a gentle, receptive nature and potential to capture the inner quality of himself as well as his sitters. Upon completion of his son's first portrait he took it round to show Behnes who congratulated Mr. Watts on such a noteworthy portrait. One would think that perhaps a parent would stop there? Well, not Mr. Watts. He took his son's portfolio to the President of the Royal Academy, Archer Shee who said, 'I can see no reason why your son should take up the profession of art.' 
 Undine by George Frederic Watts
George Frederic Watts entered the Royal Academy School at Somerset Palace as a probationer on 8 January 1835 and qualified as a full student on 29 April. Obliged to draw only from antique casts, not from life, he found the teaching wasn't very constructive.  Although, The Keeper William Hilton singled out Watts's drawing as an example to fellow students and, when he failed to win a medal, walked across the floor and whispered, 'Never mind, you ought to have had it!'  Watts's first recorded symbolic picture, Undine, which he started at this time, shows the spirit of the waters, created without a soul, turning away from the observer. Disillusioned by the Academy, he played truant and chose to learn instead from the Elgin Marbles and would judge his own compositions according to the poetic lines, curves and drapery of Phidias.

 Watts studied anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons where the radical MP John Roebuck asked him to draw a portrait of the late Jeremy Bentham who had bequeathed his body to be embalmed by the College of Physicians. It is still preserved there today!  Watts gave him a quizzical look but painted a small picture of him sitting on a rock in a wideawake hat, cutaway coat, stiff gloved hands over his knees.

He is indeed preserved!

In 1837, George Frederic Watts was commissioned by Nicholas 'Felix' Wanostrocht, the owner of Alfred House boys' school in Blackheath, to draw a series of cricketing lithographs, Leg Volley, Play, The Cut, The Draw and Forward, dedicated to the Marylebone Cricket Club, were published to acclaim in July. All seven lithographs illustrated Wanostrocht's classic Felix on the Bat.  Watts took this opportunity to further his education and studied French, Italian, and Greek, all while at work at his studio where he could be overheard often singing in a light tenor voice which lowered when he spoke.
Felix Wanostrocht demonstrating 'The Cut' in 1837, illustrated in Felix on the Bat, 1845 (Watts Gallery)

George Frederic Watts: The Annals of an Artist's Life by Mary Seton Watts, 3 vols, 1912 

G.F. Watts: The Last Great Victorian by Veronica Franklin Gould, 2004

Part II of this article on G.F. Watts will cover the years he spent at Little Holland House with his very infamous friends...stories will be told, photographs and paintings galore! 


Kevin Marsh said…
Hello Kimberly,

Another very interesting piece about Mr Watts. Fascinating to know what these people were up to all those years ago.

Thank you for sharing.

Kind regards
Anonymous said…
Great post on a great painter sadly neglected today despite the wonderful gallery. Thanks Kimberly. (Hermes)
Kimberly Eve said…
I've always found G.F. Watts to be such a fascinating man but I'll never understand why he isn't more widely known or recognized for his talents as one of the best painters from the nineteenth-century.
I appreciate the comments.
Kimberly Eve said…
Thanks so much, Melinda. I'm so glad you liked it so much!

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