Ever since the Watts Gallery had their refurbishment, I have been dying to see what they have done with the space. When I visited a few years ago, it was a beautiful collection housed in a building struggling with its age and the elements. Now, the collection of George Frederic Watts is displayed in a lovingly renovated space, extended to present the art in the best possible way. In honour of this astonishing achievement, I bring you my favourite paintings (and one piece of sculpture) from the Watts Gallery…
The Watts Gallery, 11th September 2011
Alice Spring Rice and Geraldine Mildmay
Alice Spring Rice (1859)
|Geraldine Mildmay (1855-6)|
Out of the wall of portraits that hang in (I think) the Graham Robertson Gallery, I particularly liked this pair of young ladies, if only for the delightful names. The gorgeously painterly effect of Alice, her hair contrasting richly with the blue behind her, gives the canvas a less finished appearance than Geraldine, who has a dark beauty, with her pale skin gleaming out. The dense hanging of the portraits, in what is known as the Hall of Fame, allows you to see the scope of Watts’ talent as a portraitist and these two pretty young ladies are stunning examples of informal portraits from mid-century.
Blimey, from the frivolous to the profound. Hope has a room of its own, tightly packed with images to do with the creation of the painting and its subsequent influence as a world icon. I have to admit I wasn’t overly impressed by Hope when I first saw it, but it gets to you after a while, asking questions of the viewer. Despite the title, it seems such a sad piece in tone, the blues and greys giving it a ‘lost’ feeling, a feeling of isolation and abandonment. The figure is bent over her lyre, plucking the remaining string and struggling to hear it, while her eyes and head are bandaged. I firstly assumed the figure was a personification of ‘hope’, but now wonder if the action is ‘hope’, or even the sound of the last string. The figure is beaten and bent with her woes, but the sound of the last string holds her, ensuring she is not entirely alone. Watts seems to imply that hope is extremely fragile and uncertain, but it may be enough to hold us to reality. What a lovely sentiment.
Found Drowned (1848-50)
Not such a lovely sentiment, but it has always been a favourite of mine. I once had an argument with someone in the Watts Gallery about whether or not she is a fallen woman. Well obviously she is, I argued. No, no, she is just a poor, unfortunate who slipped and fell…. Ahem, right-o. Well, in my humble opinion, she is a prostitute who went and jumped off a bridge, so miserable was she with her fallen state and inevitable demise in the gutter, probably toothless and plastered on gin. Cheers! Anyway, I love the fact that our dead girl is practically cruciform, as if to hint that as she has had the decency to top herself rather than sleep with men for a hot meal, then she will be welcomed in heaven after all. Oh, that’s alright then. Is anyone else considering what hot meal would induce them to surrender their morals? Just me? Let’s move on…
Clytie in bronze (1868-81)
I joked to friends that I would try not to lick anything at the Watts Gallery, but if anything was in danger it has to be the utterly delicious Clytie. It is possibly the most astonishing piece of sculpture I have ever seen, as from absolutely every angle she is stunning.
Clytie on canvas (1860s)
On canvas she is lovely enough, all porcelain peachy skin and rich coloured background, but the dark, twisted glory of the bronze lets you see Clytie’s battle against her metamorphosis (into a sunflower) from all angles. I’m not sure why she is much sexier in bronze than on canvas, maybe it’s the light on her skin or just her larger-than-life presence by you, but that is a fabulous lump of sculpture and I would happily lick it. But I didn’t as I would like to visit again.
Such a beautiful piece of work. As the gorgeous and ageless Endymion sleeps, the moon, Selene, visits him each night and gazes upon his perfect face. I love that she is all glowing drapery, descending to embrace him while he lies passively beneath her. Ah! The romance! It would be easy to say that as Watts grew older, he moved towards a more impressionistic style, but when Endymion is compared to the Eve trilogy, started in the 1860s, the style seems very similar. I think one of the wonderful things about Watts is that he seemed to change his style to suit his mood rather than as a traceable ‘development’ from one style to another. He painted like he damn well pleased, and as he produced pictures like this, I’m not about to disagree with him.
Mary Bartley (1860s)
Last, but certainly not least is my favourite Watts Painting. This young lady is Mary Bartley, known as ‘Long Mary’ due to her height and stature, and she was the Princep family’s housemaid. She modelled for Watts during the 1860s and this double portrait is beautifully direct and striking. I find it an interesting piece to compare with Rossetti’s work of this period and I think Mary’s slightly mad hair and pouty lips make her a definite Stunner and I’m glad this picture is on display, in the Richard Jefferies Gallery, down the stairs as you enter the gallery. It is the reason I wanted to return to the gallery so badly and I’m so pleased that the pictures have such a secure and stable environment, to prolong their life and our enjoyment of them.
If you find yourself in reach of Compton, do not hesitate to go to the Gallery, it is an absolute joy and the work they have done is nothing short of miraculous. While you are there you can also visit the chapel, which I’ll show you next time….
Watts Gallery, Down Lane, Compton, Guildford GU3 1DQ