Monday, 23 February 2009

Who's Watts?

Watching Paxo's new series on The Victorians last night (not bad, but surely a real historian/art historian with deeper knowledge and passion might have done better), the image above came up. It's Found Drowned by George Frederick Watts - and, as it happens, it's the great man's birthday today (b 1817). I say Great Man because, in his day - and for a couple of decades after his death - Watts was one of the great figures in British art. Few would have questioned his greatness and his preeminence. Today, however, I imagine that few on the proverbial Clapham omnibus would even have heard of him. His high earnestness and huge synthesising ambition are quite alien to our times - and, it has to be said, his sombre soupy 'spiritual' style of painting is hard to take. A Watts revival any time soon is highly unlikely, I'd say - even though much of his earlier work and his portraiture is still fresh and brilliant and much easier to take.
One thing does make Watts unique, though, and ensures that, however steeply his reputation has declined, his name will live: the Watts Gallery, at Compton near Guildford (a village with a remarkable Norman church). This extraordinary complex includes not only the sole purpose-built gallery in Britain devoted to one artist's works, but also the extraordinary (and to most eyes pretty hideous) Watts Cemetery Chapel. There is certainly nothing like it anywhere else, it's a unique expression of one artist's interests, passions and ambitions, a true descent into a large Victorian mind, and it's well worth a visit - and presumably will be even more so when it reopens next year after much-needed restoration.
Who, I wonder, is the Watts of contempotary British art? The near-universally accepted Great Figure who will, in 100 years' time, be all but forgotten. In these days of hyperinflated reputations, there are surely many contenders - indeed it's a question of Where to begin?...


  1. Darn - the picture's come out too big again. Does anyone know how to make an image smaller? I always set it to Small when I download the picture...

  2. I find Blogger to be an elusive and illogical beast, but if you keep playing with the sizes it eventually seems to work.

    That said, I prefer your cropped version of the painting to the full size original. It has more mystery.

  3. Thanks Brit - mystery it has indeed...

  4. Size matters, pixel count is all, try pointing your wand at the screen and shout "reduce"

  5. "Who, I wonder, is the Watts of contempotary British art? The near-universally accepted Great Figure who will, in 100 years' time, be all but forgotten."

    I'm not sure if his reputation is near-universal, but I reckon Damien Hirst will be seen as little more than a curiosity in years to come. I can enjoy his stuff if I persuade myself he's actively taking the mickey, has turned himself into a parody of the art-world today, but I fear this isn't his intention.

  6. I only saw half the programme. I like Paxo but the pics of horrific diseases interfered with a late supper and overall the programme lacked any real thrust.

    If you said, "What were the Victorians really like? What are the things about that era that would most fascinate us and perhaps most repel us?", then I really doubt that saying their artists were hardly better than propagandists and mostly the Victorians were hypocrites would come all that high on the list. Missing from what I saw were the extraordinary self-confidence and sheer energy of the time. Up at 5 am, foxhunting before 6 am, at your desk in London by 11 am, etc.; and the incredible feats of building and organization in the colonies (deeply unfashionable though any mention of empire is today).

    Try setting the width of the image to 440px and deleting the height bit in the html tab, so it ends with ... width: 440px;" Just a guess as I don't use Blogger and this might not work. I think the width of the text column on this layout is 440px.

  7. I am in the market for one of those rings. I need something to get me out of bed in the morning. An excellent series. Better than that damn dancing on ice.

    [As to the pic: look at the post, click on the tab Edit HTML. Now find the code for the picture, esp. the bit: 588px; height: 334px

    Try halving the sizes: 294px; height: 167px) Should work.]

  8. Huzzah! It works! Thanks Dick - and thanks Mark. Now I know - it'll be pictures all the way from here on in...

  9. Hey - I can even do colour!...

  10. You've ruined it now. I liked the Niged version.

    (Malty, if you're bored and all is quiet do pop over to Think of England and give your twopenn'oth on the Japanese, long fingernails, Stilgoe, eggs etc)

  11. And Madeley struts arrogantly around NigeCorp, his nose in the air and conveying his mastery of technology in his every step...

  12. Headlines in tomorrows War Cry..

    Nigecorp head hunts TVs Dick Madeley as the next head of IT, corporate hospitality division. Madeley has reportedly secured a two figure salary package, including the rights to criticise Oddie.
    Brit, consider it an honour., I shall climb the rigging to your prestigious blog ASAP

  13. Two figure salary? [Whistles] That's over twice Nige's initial offer.

  14. Welcome aboard Dick - I've arranged a triumphal procession through the turbine halls for tomorrow. Wear your best toga...

  15. for what it's worth, as I recall it the Watts Chapel in Compton isn't the work of Watts .. it's a memorial to him, carried out by local woman artists in stone under the direction of his widow... the Huxleys are buried in the grounds..

  16. You're right Anonymous, the chapel's the work of Mary Watts and local craftsmen. I'd forgotten the Huxleys were buried at Compton. Isn't there also some version of Postman's Park there? Plaques commemorating heroic acts? A long time since I visited...

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