The biography of George Frederick Watts (1817 - 1904)

George Frederic Watts, OM (1817 - 1904) was a popular English Victorian painter of grandiose allegorical themes and sculptor associated with the Symbolist movement. He was one of the most singular and enigmatic figures in Victorian art, and perhaps the hardest to pigeon-hole or classify in any way. Watts believed that art should preach a universal message, but his subject matter, conceived in terms of vague abstract ideals, is full of symbolism that is often obscure and today seems superficial.

Watts was born 23 February 1817, in Marylebone, London in an ordinary family. He was son of a poor piano-maker. He showed promise very early, learning sculpture from the age of 10 with William Behnes and enrolling as a student at the Royal Academy at the age of 18.

He was elected as an Academician to the Royal Academy in 1867 and accepted the Order of Merit in 1902.

Watts became famous in his lifetime for his allegorical works, such as Hope and Love and Life. These paintings were intended to form part of an epic symbolic cycle called the “House of Life”, in which the emotions and aspirations of life would all be represented in a universal symbolic language.

He came to the public eye with a drawing entitled Caractacus, which was entered for a competition to design murals for the new Houses of Parliament at Westminster in 1843. Watts won a first prize in the competition, which was intended to promote narrative paintings on patriotic subjects, appropriate to the nation’s legislature. In the end Watts made little contribution to the Westminster decorations, but from it he conceived his vision of a building covered with murals representing the spiritual and social evolution of humanity.

Visiting Italy in the mid-1840s, Watts was inspired by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel, but back in Britain he was unable to obtain a building in which to carry out his plan.

In the 1860s, Watts’s work shows the influence of Rossetti, often emphasising sensuous pleasure and rich color. Among these paintings is a portrait of his young wife Ellen Terry. Watts married his first wife teenaged Ellen Terry the great young actress, on 1864. However, her youth and wish for a career led to their separation after a year.

Watts’s association with Rossetti and the Aesthetic movement altered during the 1870s, as his work increasingly combined Classical traditions with a deliberately agitated and troubled surface, in order to suggest the dynamic energies of life and evolution, as well as the tentative and transitory qualities of life. These works formed part of a revised version of the house of life, influenced by the ideas of Max Müller, the founder of comparative religion. Watts hoped to trace the evolving “mythologies of the races” in a grand synthesis of spiritual ideas with modern science, especially Darwinian evolution.

In 1881, having moved to London, he set up a studio at his home in Kensington, and his epic paintings were exhibited in Whitechapel by his friend and social reformer Canon Samuel Barnett. Refusing the baronetcy offered him by Queen Victoria, he later moved to a house, “Limnerslease”, near Compton, south of Guildford, in Surrey.

Watts was married for a second time (at the age of 69) in 1886 to Mary Fraser Tytler, a Scottish designer and potter, then aged 36.

After moving into “Limnerslease” in 1891, Watts and his wife Mary arranged the building of the Watts Gallery nearby, a museum dedicated to his work – the first (and now the only) purpose-built gallery in Britain devoted to a single artist.

In his late paintings, Watts’s creative aspirations mutate into mystical images such as The Sower of the Systems, in which Watts seems to anticipate abstract art. The most famous of his later works is “Hope” (1886; version in the Tate Gallery, London). The most obvious Italian influence in his work is that of Titian. Some of Watts’s other late works also seem to anticipate the paintings of Picasso’s Blue Period.

Relatively late in life Watts took up sculpture, and produced a relatively small number of outstanding works. His most famous work, the large bronze statue Physical Energy, was originally intended to be dedicated to Muhammad, Attila, Tamerlane and Genghis Khan. A cast was placed at Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town, South Africa honouring the grandiose imperial vision of Cecil Rhodes. There is a casting of Watts’s essay “Our Race as Pioneers” in London's Kensington Gardens.

George Frederic Watts died July 1, 1904, Compton, Surrey, England.