Curator's Choice: Mark Bills of the Watts Gallery on the Hope which inspired Barack Obama

Mark Bills interviewed by Ben Miller | 27 June 2011
A painting of a figure sitting on a globe in robes
Curator's Choice: In his own Words... Mark Bills, the Curator of the Watts Gallery, discusses Hope by GF Watts – a painting which has had a remarkable reach…

"Hope is one of the most mysterious and arresting paintings from any age – a blindfolded woman astride a globe, plucking at a remaining single string, when all the others have snapped – it’s an image once seen, never forgotten.

While its composition is simple and iconic, its atmosphere is heavy with emotive meaning. It was reputedly painted at a moment of anguish, when the daughter of GF Watts’s adopted daughter, Blanche, died.

This mood is not entirely absent in the painting and GK Chesterton wrote that the first thought on anyone seeing it is that it should be called Despair. But the title given it by the artist suggests something quite different; it suggests optimism.

It is, in fact, Hope in Despair. An evocation of the human condition; the ability of people, at their lowest point to sense and feel a strand, a single string of hope that keeps them going, when all around is failing.

Can a picture succinctly portray this idea? Is the image too obscure in its symbolism? Generations have been captivated by this enduring image not simply because of its haunting imagery, but the meaning that it clearly suggests.

It has inspired many, from leading politicians to the poor and destitute. If any picture has a pedigree of Art for All, Hope does.

When he first painted it Watts did not know how it would be received. When it was first publicly exhibited he found that it was much liked, so he painted another version which is now in the Tate. In later years it was acknowledged by Watts that it was ‘the one most generally popular.’

More remarkable than its popularity was the intense power that it has had in influencing people’s lives. In his own lifetime, Watts received testimonials from those deeply affected by the work such as this one recorded by Mary.

She records that Watts ‘...received a letter which had moved him profoundly.' It was written by a stranger to tell him in the simplest language that in a dark hour of life in a grimy northern town a photograph of his picture of Hope had attested attention at a moment of extreme crisis.

The photograph had been bought with a few remaining shillings, and the message pondered, and so for one life the whole course of events had changed.

The letter concluded with these words: “I do not know you, nor have I ever seen the face of him who gave me my ‘Hope’, but I thank God for the chance of that day when it came to me in my sore need.”’

Wilfrid Blunt further records examples of a Holocaust survivor helped by the image and Egyptian troops comforted through receiving a copy of the picture after their defeat in 1967. There is also a suggestion that the image may have been used for strength by Nelson Mandela in his Robben Island cell.

Most recently and dramatically is the influence that it has had on the next President of the United States of America. The painting inspired a lecture by Dr Frederick G Sampson in Richmond, Virginia, in which he discusses at length Watts’s Hope.

This inspired the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who was present at this lecture, to give a powerful sermon in 1990 called The Audacity to Hope. This was attended by the 29-year-old Barack Obama, who at the time was in his second year at Harvard Law School and president of the Harvard Law Review.

Here the President first saw Watts’s painting and was deeply inspired by the sermon, which provided the title for his second autobiographical book. Obama’s Hope is one rooted in a deep faith in the American Dream.

‘The true genius of America,’ he writes, is ‘a faith in the simple dreams of its people, the insistence of small miracles.’ If Watts had never painted Hope, who knows..."

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