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December 15, 2004

G. F. Watts: Portraits, Fame & Beauty in Victorian Society at the National Portrait Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

G. F. Watts: Portraits, Fame and Beauty in Victorian Society
National Portrait Gallery, London
14th October 2004 to 9th January 2005
Open Daily 10am - 6pm (Thursdays & Fridays to 9pm)

It was a mistake to try to revive interest in the work of George Frederick Watts, the Victorian portrait painter. That he was famous in his own day merely confirms the prejudice of subsequent generations that Victorian tastes were banal. Either his sitters really were as bland as he portrays them or else Watts is unable to draw out such character as they possessed. A very large number of people who may once have had fame, not beauty, are portrayed in the exhibition but you would not want to have met any of them; not even Hallam's best friend.

The exhibition is an appalling piece of self-indulgence by art historians. Mediocre twenty watts portraits are repeatedly related in one way or another to the work of a much greater artist by the organisers. Here Watts reflects "the high ideals of Sir Joshua Reynolds", here he emulates Ingres, here we find "an awareness of Gainsborough". There are further unhelpful cross references to Poussin, Rubens, van Dyck, Holbein, Rembrandt, the Venetians, Renaissance frescoes, Rossetti and Burne-Jones. We are even told that his 1880 self-portrait clutching a palette and standing in front of one of his own paintings, Time, Death and Judgement, shows that he considered himself an old master in the tradition of Titian with "grand notions about the role of the artist". In other words Watts was a tedious eminent Victorian who appealed to people like himself. All that these comparisons show is that Watts did not exist as an individual. All artists are influenced by and paint in the manner of their predecessors and contemporaries but Watts could do nothing else; he had no voice of his own and could not effectively emulate those whom he admired. He was an imitator and synthesiser of influences and a master of none, a man imprisoned in a kaleidoscope. Watts had volts but lacked amps because he resisted innovation.

Many of his earlier portraits were of women from leading families. The organizers repeatedly describe them as "beautiful" and "striking". Mary Augusta, Lady Holland, 1843 is supposedly both. She is neither. Her portrait is said to be "an extraordinary likeness"; with those Mabel Lucie Atwell eyes this can not possibly have been the case. Watts went on to produce a series of full length life-size portraits of women whose appearance or money appealed to him. The Victorians clearly liked their women ornamental and insipid …well insipid. The repeated use of the term "striking" to describe some of them is risible; these ladies have no force of personality.

The Victorian obsession with describing those with tedious faces as being in possession of a "striking" appearance extends to some of the male portraits. Randall Palmer, First Earl of Selbourne, 1893 shows him as Lord Chancellor but without his wig, an early version of tightless wallpaper Irvine. Contemporaries said that dispensing with the wig "heightened the effect of a fine forehead". In point of fact the old boy has a bad case of male pattern baldness. Some of Watts' men, in contrast to his women, are overly thrusting and intense - in a manly sort of way of course. Benzedrine had not yet been invented but Henry Wyndham Phillips, the Viscount Allendale, circa 1852-5, looks as if he had recently indulged in it or possibly ingested something else through his capacious nose. Anyone who believes Watts was a master of representation should look carefully at the good Viscount's shapeless hands.

The worst of Watts' portraits of the Victorian elite are those of self-consciously Scottish aristocrats such as George Douglas Campbell, Duke of Argyle, 1859-60, who looks like Charles Kennedy charged up by a van de Graaf generator and Herbert David Graham Ogilvie, 9th Earl of Airlie, 1865-6, swathed in the Ogilvie of Airlie tartan. There is a hint of a dark mountain with a touch of mist in the background which brings out the directly staring, impossible bright blue eyes of the 9th Earl. The portraits reek of the worst of contrived Victorian Scottishness with its deer-stalking and ghillies and the dancing of reels with ginger hairy shins peeping out of tartan-hairy socks and the piping in of offal with cacophony in cold castles with fake turrets to imitate Balliol. How on earth could the great country that produced David Hume and Adam Smith, James Clark Maxwell and William Robertson Smith have allowed itself to be represented like this in the degenerate trappings of Abbotsford and John Brown?

Many of these portraits still hang in private homes and that is where they belong. These were never portraits of real individuals but of ancestors in the making. Watts with one eye on the past as usual had the other on fictitious imagined Victorians of the twenty-first century, whether grateful descendents or plain folk coming on trips a sovereign from Tredegar or Boston (Lincs) to gawk at physically great paintings in country houses.

The Victorian critics loved him. His portrait Isabella, 1857 was called "the most refined piece of portraiture in the 1859 Royal Academy exhibition", his naches-ridden Prudence Penelope Cavendish-Bentinck and her children, 1857-60 exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1860 was "quite old masterish" and his "moonlight portrait" of Tennyson brought out the "soul of the man with his retrospective eye". The very phrases that contemporary critics chose to use in praise of Watts condemn both their own taste and the art of Watts. No doubt we will be told not to judge them and Watts in contemporary criteria but rather to appreciate Watts according to the artistic standards of his own time. Fair enough, but what if you reject those standards?

Occasionally Watts took time off from his heavy old masterly emulations. In the 1860s, around the time of his infatuation with and disastrous brief marriage to the sixteen year old Ellen Terry (whom he unsuccessfully hoped to save from becoming an actress and a tart), he produced some very fine smaller portraits. There is Sara Prinsep, 1864 and Ellen Terry herself in Choosing 1864 where the women painted do seem to have distinct individual characters. Best of all is Emily Tennyson, 1862-3, a pale face against a deliberately unfocussed autumn landscape. A faded sky casts its light on her alone and captures her calm sadness. Watts' failure was not a failure of talent but of Victorianism, the art of a period in which social, economic and moral progress and achievement were accompanied by a fear of artistic modernity well brought out in Whistler's libel suit against Ruskin. The Victorian public could not see that 'a pot of paint in yer face' insult would have been good for them. In the more innovative, unoldmasterly work Watts did in his later years, which is not shown here and not concerned with fame and beauty, he too understood the point.

Watts may fairly be compared with some of the once much esteemed writers of the long Victorian era that began well before the Queen's accession whom we now see as bores. What characterises the literary banalities that culminate in the 'serious' work of Sir Arthur Ignatious Conan Doyle is a false view of how to represent the past in the present. Conan Doyle is rightly remembered for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson but who now reads Sir Nigel or The White Company? In order to write the latter Conan Doyle spent much time making sure that his descriptions of medieval items was correct down to the last stirrup and scabbard and left us with nothing more than the basis of a BBC T.V. costume drama that will sell in Virginia. It is falseness through authenticity, like the garb of the tourist guides in colonial Williamsburg. Authenticity should be left to the archaeologists. Imagine being forced to read Sir Nigel in a room with windows imprisoned by curtains and walls hung with Watts' portraits while having to listen to the 'serious' knighthood-earning music of Sir Arthur Sullivan and to experience total refinement.

In a period of dramatic social change it makes no sense solemnly to cling to the art of a past that is radically different from your own time. Artists can and should learn from the past and they can also reproduce it in wonderfully playful ways as the architect Burgess did at Castell Coch but if, like Watts, you consciously seek to be an old master you end up becoming an auld dominie.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, Transaction, 2004.


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It is always refreshing to read a negative review - and this is certainly negative. I do agree with Christie Davies that this kind of art can be lifeless and tell you little about the subject. I also find Christie Davies view of Victorian Britain as stultifying intriguing - and it suggests that Christie Davies has somewaht more complex views than Frank Prochaska in his review of "The Death of Moral Britain" - on this site - allowed for. That review gave the impression that Prof. Davies was harking back to a bygone romantic era which had long passed - this art review suggests that Prof. Davies is not all that keen on the Victorians - or some aspects of them - after all.

Posted by: Jane at December 16, 2004 12:10 PM
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Prof Davies is most perceptive in his critique of Watts' portraits, and I wandered through the show for some time puzzled over why he had such a splendid reputation (GK Chesterton wrote a book on him for Heaven's sake!). But I tend to disagree with the remark that Watts failed for lack of innovation -- indeed he never did anything else.

One moment he was a caricturist in oils, then an Ingre-wannabe, the next he was attempting to be Holman Hunt or Rossetti, finishing with ghastly French Symbolist lyre-playing gods. He never stopped innovating long enough to evolve into anything. Beneath the camouflage of that patriarchal beard of his, it was always a snatch-and-grab for the quick artistic buck. Had he lived long enough he'd have been wrapping public urinals in cellophane and hanging his bed linen in the Tate.

Posted by: s j masty at December 19, 2004 09:33 PM
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All very true, but how long will it be before some docu/drama tv person sees Watts life suitable for our mass consumption on the goggle box?

I am glad I only paid the concessionary rate to get in - if I was in work I'd not have even bothered, but I'm glad I did and taking an uncritical view of his paintings I can say it was an enjoyable experience.

Posted by: suffolkboy at February 2, 2005 09:13 PM
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I think I might have a little more respect for Christie Davies's diatribe - and God, how he hates Victorians...a hatred that clearly blinds him to any reasoned assessment of the art - if he wasn't so carelessly ignorant of that about which he pontificates. The "thrusting and intense" nature of Watts' portrait of Henry Wyndham Phillips (and his deliberately powerful hands) is unsurprising since Phillips was a fellow artist (and close friend) - not, as Davies believes, some mad titled toff called Allendale: Viscount Allendale is the owner of the picture, not the sitter..... D'Oh.

Posted by: osmund bullock at March 14, 2006 03:14 AM
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