A Victorian Michelangelo: Huge new archive reveals the letters of George Frederic Watts

By Culture24 Reporter | 21 January 2014

An online collection reveals the correspondence of George Frederic Watts, the International painter compared to Michelangelo by the National Portrait Gallery

A black and white painting of a male artist sitting in a gallery surrounded by paintings
George Frederic Watts by and published by; after; for Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington; Frank Dudman; Joseph Parkin Mayall (circa 1883)© National Portrait Gallery, London
A total of 1,446 letters and notes to and from GF Watts have been transcribed, funded by a National Cataloguing grant for a collection originally compiled by Mary Seton Watts – the artist’s second wife – in preparation for a 1912 biography.

An image of a dark red painting of a 19th century artist with an impressive beard
George Frederic Watts by George Frederick Watts (circa 1860)© National Portrait Gallery, London
“I had to fully immerse myself in the world of this intriguing painter,” says Ruth Benny, the Archive Cataloguer at the gallery’s important Watts Collection, who believes the results should provide an “invaluable” tool for visitors.

“The archive consists of correspondence which reflects the life and career of this great artist - his art practice and exhibitions, his close friends and patrons and the places he resided.”

Although Watts is well known for his portraits of eminent Victorians such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Alfred Tennyson, his nervous reluctance to be separated from his works, which were shown in two major international shows, at Paris’ International Exhibition in 1878 and in New York in 1884, is also revealed by some of the letters.

“One interesting discovery that I have made is the story of Watts’s relationship with an impressive young American, Miss Mary Gertrude Mead – later Mrs Edwin Austin Abbey,” says Benny, choosing a highlight from months of investigative work last year.

“Mead arranged the exhibition of Watts’s work in New York, establishing him as one of the first British ‘International’ painters.”

An image of a dark red painting of a woman from Victorian Britain wearing a coat
George Frederic Watts, Mrs GF Watts (1887)© Watts Gallery Trust
Mead saw his work for the first time in Paris. “She was so impressed that, when in London, she visited the gallery at Little Holland House, where Watts lived, and met him.

“They became friends and she made up her mind that his work must be shown in America.

“The letters reveal that Watts was very difficult to persuade.

“He feared for his collection and, not wanting to be separated from his works for so long, he worried about transporting them and how the pictures would be received abroad. His reputation was at stake.”

He need not have worried. Some of the ideas behind the grand symbolist paintings Watts is revered for are documented through these letters, as well as hundreds of exchanges with his art supplier, Winsor and Newton, which should intrigue admirers of his practice and unusual techniques.

Benny’s devotion to her cause will leave art history explorers gratified.

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