George Frederick Watts (1817-1904). © Watts Gallery.
A series of letters written by Victorian artist George Frederic Watts has been acquired by the Watts Gallery in Compton, Surrey where they are set to go on display from February 23.
The collection is the most important to come on the market for 35 years and features items never seen before by the public, including love letters to and from Watts’ second wife and fellow artist, Mary Fraser Tytler.
"These letters chronicle a delicate courtship of one of the most touching and unlikely love stories of the 19th century," said Richard Jefferies, Curator of the Watts Gallery.
One of the many autographed letters purchased by the Watts Gallery. © Watts Gallery.
G F Watts was a central personality of the Victorian era: a friend of Tennyson, the Pre-Raphaelite artists and pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. He married his first wife Ellen Terry, who became the greatest English actress of the period, when she was barely 17 and he was 47, although the marriage was short-lived.
The collection also includes correspondence with other members of Watts’ glamorous Bohemian circle, such as actress Lily Langtry.
Curator Richard Jefferies said: "This acquisition by the gallery means the collection of letters can stay together rather than be broken up and scattered about. It includes important insights like arrangements of sittings for portraits by Watts, the marriage certificate of Watts and Mary Fraser Tytler, and letters of condolence to Mary when Watts died."
Mary Fraser Tytler by GF Watts, 1887, oils. © Watts Gallery.
The Watts Gallery was created as a memorial to the painter, and was the first purpose-built gallery of its kind in Britain, opening just before his death in 1904.
Born in London into a poor family, Watts sympathised with the living conditions of the urban poor in the late 1840s and used his art as a vehicle for his moral purpose, giving his works to museums in Britain and abroad where they could be viewed by the public.
The purchase, at Sotheby’s English Literature and History Sale, has been made possible by generous donations from friends of the Watts Gallery, the Fine Art Society, and a grant from the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund.
One of a collection of pen-and-ink sketches attributed to Edward Burne-Jones, Georgina Burne-Jones and D G Rossetti, also purchased as part of the archive. © Watts Gallery.
Commenting on the importance of these letters to the Watts Gallery, curator Richard Jefferies said: "Biographers, students and members of the public will have a new insight into the professional and personal lives of two great artists and their circle of friends."
The timing of the purchase, he added, couldn’t be better: "At a time when we plan to strengthen Watts Gallery as a centre for study and research, this purchase is a real bonus and we are grateful to all who have supported the gallery in securing these vital documents."
Emily Sands is the Renaissance Student Writer in the South Eastern region.