Stephens on Watts

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G. F. Watts, Love and Death, c. 1884, the work Stephens considered Watts's "masterpiece--it shows Love endeavouring to repulse Death, in the form of a gigantic figure veiled from head to foot in opalescent white robes, when he enters the house of one who is doomed to change the phase of life for another."


G. F. Watts, Life's Illusions, 1849, which Stephens describes as "a large moral allegory . . . the first of a class by which he . . . has striven to express his ideas of the nature and progress of life by 'abstract embodiments of diverse forms of hope and ambition,' and the other great motive forces of humanity."

The biographical sketch of George Frederick Watts, R.A., a highly renowned English painter and sculptor of his time, was written by Frederick George Stephens to accompany the portrait photograph of Watts by Joseph Parkin Mayall in the publication Artists at Home. Stephens’s biography gives an overview of the development and course of Watts’s professional career as a painter and sculptor and also sheds light on Watts’s character by pointing out some of his particular artistic styles, personal attitudes, and beliefs. The beginning of Watts’s artistic career, as Stephens highlights in the biography, was extremely fortunate and rapid. Early in his childhood, Watts was encouraged by both his father and the sculptor William Behnes (1795–1864)—key figures who helped to influence and form his later artistic development. Behnes even assisted with drawings Watts made during that period, which lead to his admission to the Royal Academy in 1835.

Throughout the biography, Stephens highlights the artist’s various achievements, including the numerous competitions the draughtsman had won, his election as a Royal Academician in 1868, and several public commissions. Although Stephens’s extensive listing of works does make the biography read like a catalogue, readers can still detect the author’s admiration and respect for the artist and his works. He examines Watts’s attempt “to express his ideas of the nature and progress of life,” and specifically names Love and Death as the work he considers Watts’s masterpiece (46). The artist later takes up the profession of a sculptor, Stephens writes, producing several notable busts and bronze equestrian groups. Stephens praises the artist’s talent in portrait painting, especially Watts’s ability to bring out the subtle qualities of each subject’s inner character while successfully achieving a likeness. The author also focuses on portraits from the Little Holland House Gallery, which serve “as records of some of the abler men of his time, whose features and outward semblances of their inner selves deserve to be held in memory by men of the future” (46-47). The Victorian painter is not limited to creating portraits, Stephens observes, but has also devoted himself to producing allegorical works, frescoes, murals, works influenced by the Aesthetic movement, and symbolical and classical subject paintings. Throughout his text, Stephens focuses on many of Watts’s interests in the production of art and his commitment to fostering culture. The author expresses his approval and respect for Watts's desire to obtain “higher flights of design, and works of deeper significance” through public commissions over several years after 1852, in order to make art more accessible to the public (48).

Stephens’s biography of Watts does not include much about the artist’s personal life and relationships, apart from a mention of his close acquaintance with, and the patronage of, Lord Holland. Specifically, Watts’s scandalous marriage to the actress Ellen Terry, and his friendship with the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and the Thoby Prinsep family go unmentioned—although Stephens does note that Watts lived for many years at Little Holland House, which stood on the grounds of Holland House. Intriguingly, the Pre-Raphaelite art critic chose not to mention Watts’s association with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, even though both were part of the Prinseps’ circle of “bohemians” at Little Holland House; undoubtedly, Stephens—whose ties with Rossetti were so strong that he allowed the painter to proofread everything he wrote about him for The Athenaeum[1]—was aware of their relationship, and it is likely that the deep respect and admiration he felt towards Rossetti was transferred to Watts, whose sensual and richly colored works of the 1860s showed the former’s influence. 


Clytie, c. 1868–75, which Stephens describes as "a nobly picturesque bust" that shows Clytie "turning with the intensest passion to the Sun."

Stephens presents several lists of Watts’s works to demonstrate the breadth of the artist’s interests and acquaintances: he painted nearly everybody, from the “under-mentioned noteworthy persons” to “gentlemen, ladies, and children, whose names are not on the lips of the world at large” (46-47). As one of the most illustrious artists in Artists at Home, Watts’s works and wall decorations appear in several revered locations—the Houses of Parliament, Lincoln’s Inn, and the Manchester Town Hall, for example. Stephens effectively illustrates Watts's professional achievements, reflecting his own respect and admiration for the eminent artist.

Albertine Lee

[1] Dianne S. Macleod, “F. G. Stephens: Pre-Raphaelite Critic and Art Historian,” The Burlington Magazine 128, no. 999 (June 1986): 399.