English painter GF Watts exhibited

This video is called George Frederick Watts – Paintings (1 of 2).

This video is called George Frederick Watts – Sculptures (2 of 2).

By Peter Knight in Britain:

Radical Victorian returns to brush

Wednesday 15 June 2011

On Saturday a gallery devoted to the work of the 19th-century painter GF Watts reopens in a quiet Surrey hamlet.

From Wordsworth to Elgar, Constable to Hardy, the English countryside has been the idyllic source of inspiration to hundreds of thousands of artists, poets and thinkers throughout the centuries.

It is part of an English history which is proud of its pastoral identity.

But to many a rural setting is the last place to exhibit work. That is what is so surprising about an internationally renowned artist who turned his back on the city galleries and located collections of his work in the dense Surrey brushlands.

Because that’s exactly what George Fredrick Watts did and perhaps this is the reason why his name may be so unfamiliar and obscure.

The Watts Gallery first opened its doors in 1904 and became the only purpose-built public art gallery to show a single professional artist’s collection. Over the last 10 years the building has required major work and the gallery reopens on June 18.

The studio and exhibition space opened just three months before Watts died in July 1904. His 87-year life spanned the entire Victorian period during a time when the historical and cultural importance of cities such as London reached a creative and industrial dominance on a global scale never seen before.

Watts was part of no school of art or group of learning and followed his own creative path. He produced vivid dreamlike pictures and sculptures of “allegory and virtues” and was an important role model and personal confidant for Pre-Raphaelite artists working at the time.

He lauded the Classicist movement and style in his work, was an influence on the young Picasso and became the first living artist to be accorded a retrospective at the New York Metropolitan Museum.

Watts’s proto-Symbolist representations of nature and the human condition were fuelled by his empathetic “outsider” perspective of the world.

His canvases comment on the social, sexual and economic changes that occurred during the Victorian period, notably anticipating the gathering momentum of the women’s rights movement and the traditional artistic values that later succumbed to Surrealism, Minimalism and Abstraction after his death.

Watts’s outsider instincts and methods helped him to forge ahead of his contemporaries to create work that would pre-empt many of the genres born only a few decades later.

He is regarded as a highly influential painter and since his death has been wildly referred to as the “English Michelangelo.”

Philanthropic and politically radical – on two occasions he refused a baronetcy – Watts was highly sympathetic to the urban poor.

He regarded the upper classes of the country as a “great evil” for neglecting the health and living conditions of the working class.

His socialist principles were the guiding force behind the creation of the gallery. Watts not only wanted to encourage a rich community spirit to develop through the language of art but also to create an educational centre which would provide free access to the art world for the benefit of the working class for the first time.

The reason for the gallery’s location in Compton, a quintessential Surrey hamlet, reflects an integral part of Watts’s later years. His ill health brought on by the cold winters and the pollution of London forced him to retreat to the countryside and to the safe and tranquil surroundings of village life.

The winter months were spent productively in Surrey and his wife Mary was keen to move permanently. A piece of land was purchased from the nearby squire of Loseley and a friend, Ernest George, was asked to draw up plans for their new home.

The early Arts and Craft style exhibition and workshop space was finished a few years later and was officially completed in April 1904. When it opened it became the first purpose-built public gallery in Britain devoted to a single artist and has since been described as one of the country’s best-kept secrets.

After he died Watts’s impression upon the art world diminished due to the acquisition of his work outside of the city galleries and it diminished particularly after the death of his wife in 1938.

She had fought to keep his art widely on display and continued to keep the gallery open.

But his reputation has slowly been restored throughout the last decade with the inclusion of his canvases in contemporary exhibitions including those featuring the work of Symbolist artists and at the Victorian Nude exhibition at London’s Tate Britain.

The gallery itself was also a runner-up on the BBC’s Restoration series with urgent work needed to repair the Grade II listed building and its crumbling roof.

Now, after years of painstaking work, the Watts Gallery is finally to reopen.

Its location beneath the foothills of the North Downs, nestled between the bramble branches on the Pilgrim’s Way, leaves an essence of Watts himself intact along with his paintings, sculptures and craft.

Go and take a look yourself at the work of this spirited and most maverick of Victorians.

Visit the website for details of exhibitions and opening times.

Was Watts really such a radical? Here.

British Surrealist Leonora Carrington (1917-2011): here.

Lucian Freud, who died last week at the age of 88, was one of the most famous artists in the world in the second half of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century: here.

3 thoughts on “English painter GF Watts exhibited

  1. Amazing man and an excellent post! “Philanthropic and politically radical” 🙂 I’m going to post about G F Watts in a short while and will be including a link to you here, thank-you so much xx


  2. Pingback: The Recording Angel | Jill London

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