Biographical sketch of George Frederick Watts

Date Created

c. 1884


Frederick George Stephens (1828-1907), author and editor


F. G. Stephens, Artists at Home, photographed by J. P. Mayall and reproduced in facsimile by photoengraving on copper plates; edited, with biographical notes and descriptions, by Frederick George Stephens (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington; New York: Appleton & Co., 1884), pp. 45-48.


Watts, George Frederick (1817-1904), English painter and sculptor

Date Issued

June 1884


Born in London in 1818, Watts was discovered by his father to have great talent in painting at a very young age. In 1835, he was admitted to the Royal Academy, yet left soon after, but at the age of nineteen contributed several works to the exhibitions at the Academy and the British Institution. In 1842-43, his cartoon Caractacus won him one of the First Premiums in the Westminster Hall Competition, funding his travel to Italy. Watts’s works in 1849 illustrated his desire to express his ideas of nature and progress of life by abstract embodiments of hope and ambition. In 1852, Watts was so preoccupied with public commissions that he did not exhibit any works at Trafalgar Square. In 1882, an exhibition of many of his works was held at Grosvenor Gallery.


G. F. Watts, contributions to The Nineteenth Century 
G. F. Watts, essay in 3rd volume of Life of Haydon


The online edition of this work in the public domain, i.e., not protected by copyright, has been produced by the National Gallery of Art.




Department of Image Collections, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Omeka record contributed by Albertine Lee

Date Submitted

September 28, 2016

Date Modified

October 1, 2016




THIS illustrious artist, who has given all his heart and mind to the development of a cultured mode of design in this country, was born in the north of London in 1818, and having, even in early childhood, shown marked predilections for painting, was, by his father, who delighted in their exercise, ardently encouraged to practise drawing.  Some of his early studies having been brought to the notice of William Behnes, the boy-draughtsman was permitted to use the antique casts abounding in the workshops of that sculptor at 91, Dean Street, Soho.  Behnes was a kind and art-loving man who, besides helping Watts in every way, had aided many another student.  In Dean Street our painter made the drawings which, in 1835, procured his admission to the Schools of the Royal Academy.  Finding there was “no teaching whatever” in that institution at this period, he very soon ceased to attend, and pursued his way single-handed.

            His studies being diligent and well-guided, his progress must have been exceptionally rapid and fortunate.  As early as 1837, when he could not have been more than nineteen years of age, Watts contributed to the Academy Exhibition “A Portrait of a Young Lady,” “A Wounded Heron,” and a second “Portrait of a Young Lady.”  Other portraits followed these works in the exhibitions of 1838 and 1840.  In the latter year “Isabella e Lorenzo,” from Boccaccio, his first subject-picture put before the world, appeared to illustrate the expanded scope of the painter’s studies, and indicated the direction of those energies he has since, without ceasing, exercised in works of a high and poetic category.  In the same year the British Institution contained “The Fount,” a subject borrowed from the Odyssey.  The next year produced at the same place “Vertumnus and Pomona,” and, at the Academy, a “Portrait of Miss Brunton.”  Part of 1842 was applied to the preparation of “Guiderius, Arviragus, and Belarius,” from Cymbeline, which was shown in Trafalgar Square in this year, and at the British Institution in the year following.  The greater part of 1842 and early months of 1843 were devoted to the cartoon of “Caractacus led in Triumph through {46} the Streets of Rome,” which, in May, 1843, won the draughtsman one of the three First Premiums in the Westminster Hall competition for the decoration of the Houses of Parliament.  At another competition held at the same place in 1847 Watts’s picture of “Alfred inciting the Saxons to prevent the Landing of the Danes by encountering them at Sea” obtained the national prize of five hundred pounds.  It is now in one of the committee rooms of the House of Commons.  With it at Westminster Hall was “Echo,” which commanded ample artistic praises.  At the British Institution in 1843 the artist displayed the romantic subject of “Blondel.”

            Mr. Watts was already distinguished as a portrait painter, and, becoming acquainted with the late Lord Holland, who was then English Envoy at Florence, he lived from July, 1843, till the spring of 1847 in Italy, with that nobleman, and devoted himself to studies of Venetian art, without preparing anything for the exhibitions.  The Academy of 1848 contained portraits of Lady Holland and M. Guizot, the technical qualities of which attest the searching mode of drawing and painting the student then affected.  In 1849 he executed and sent to the Academy a large moral allegory called “Life’s Illusions,” the first of a class by which he, in many later instances, 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.  “A Subject from Isaiah, a design for a fresco,” another ambitious work, appeared in the last-named exhibition.  In the next year portraits of “Miss Virginia Pattle” (Countess Somers) and her sister “Mrs. Jackson,” accompanied a large ideal picture of “The Good Samaritan,” which, being designed to express homage for the noble philanthropy of Thomas Wright of Manchester, was in itself a noble example presented to the Town Hall at Manchester by the artist.

            A numerous series of portraits followed these works, and among them were likenesses of the under-mentioned noteworthy persons:  Mr. John Ruskin, Col. (Sir Henry) Rawlinson, (Sir) Henry Taylor, Lord John (Early) Russell, H. T. Prinsep, Prince J. Bonaparte, Herr Joachim, Sir A. Panizzi, Lord Shaftesbury, Sir F. Leighton, Dean Stanley of Westminster, Lord Lyndhurst, Dean Liddell of Christ Church, Lord Lawrence, William Morris of the “Earthly Paradise,” Lord Tennyson, A. C. Swinburne, Robert Browning, W. E. Gladstone, Viscount Sherbrooke, Sir C. W. Dilke, Leslie Stephen, Thomas Carlyle, J. S. Mill, The Duke of Argyll, Sir Alexander Cockburn, Sir Edward Sabine, Lord Wensleydale, Dr. James Martineau, P. H. Calderon, Sir William Armstrong, W. Spottiswoode, Matthew Arnold, J. E. Millais, Mrs. Langtry, Viscount Stratford de Redclyffe, General Garibaldi, Prince of Wales, Prince de Joinville, E. Burne Jones, and Lord Campbell.  The portraits of persons whose names are here printed in italics belong to the Little Holland House Gallery, and will, it is understood, be ultimately presented to the nation by the painter as records of some of the abler men of his time, whose {47} features and outward semblances of their inner selves deserve to be held in memory by men of the future.  Mr. Watts painted several of the above more than once, e.g., the Laureate, Sir A. Panizzi, and Sir H. Taylor.  In addition to these, he has delineated many gentlemen, ladies, and children, whose names are not on the lips of the world at large.

            Of course each of these portraits embodies subtle searchings of character rarely employed in modern likeness-taking, and is a work of art per se, distinct from all the others, and free from mannerism, although bearing emphatic and easily recognizable marks of the style of the master who produced it.  Notwithstanding his success in artistic portraiture, Watts’s heart is devoted to higher flights of design, and works of deeper significance than the above have occupied most of his graver thoughts.

            Among the most important of these examples have been (1) a fresco in the Houses of Parliament representing “The Red Cross Knight overcoming the Dragon,” from Spenser’s Faery Queen; (2) “The School of Legislation,” which is in the Dining Hall of Lincoln’s Inn, and forty-five feet wide by forty feet high, and comprises thirty-three figures; it was finished in 1859;[1] (3) “Christ in Glory,” over the chancel-arch of the Church of St. James the Less, built by Street, in Garden Street, Westminster; (4) “The Parting of Briseis and Achilles,” a composition in Lord Lansdowne’s house at Bowood; (5) “The Gods of Parnassus and Olympus,” painted on the walls of Mr. Hardy’s dining-room in Carlton House Terrace; (6) several paintings, now destroyed, on the walls of rooms and corridors of the first Little Holland House at Kensington, where Mr. Watts resided for many years, a house which has since been pulled down.  It has given its title to a second building, where the painter now lives, in Melbury Road, and on the walls of which he has delineated a few figures of great beauty.

            During several years following 1852, the painter, occupied by his public commissions, did not exhibit any works at Trafalgar Square.  “Isabella” appeared in 1859; “Sir Galahad” (1862); “Ariadne” (1863); “A Design for Sculpture—Time and Oblivion” (1864); “Esau” (1865); “Thetis” (1866); “The Meeting of Jacob and Esau” and “The Wife of Pygmalion” (1868); “The Return of the Dove,” “The Red Cross Knight,” “Una,” and “Orpheus and Eurydice” (1869); “Fata Morgana,” from Bojado, and “Daphne” (1870); “My punishment is greater than I can bear” (1871); “The Prodigal” (1873); “Dedicated to all the Churches,” a large composition representing the churches as children of Faith wrapt by the robes of the Supreme Being, which are gathered about His feet.  “By the Sea—a Study” (1876); “The Dove” (1877); and “Britomart and her Nurse,” from Spenser (1878), the scene where the former describes the vision of her knightly lover. {48} Besides these, Mr. Watts has painted designs, which have appeared at the Grosvenor Exhibitions; of these let me name “Time, Death, and Judgment;” “The Three Goddesses,” of which there are more than one version; “Mid-day Rest,” a noble group of brewers’ horses and their drayman; “Love and Death,” which I consider to be his 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.  To these must be added “The Angel of Death,” “Love and Life,” “Diana and Endymion,” “Paolo and Francesca,” “Eve,” one of a series of compositions intended to illustrate the life of our first mother, “Watchman, what of the Night?” a knight in armour, “Eve penitent,” “Time and Oblivion,” “Ariadne deserted by Theseus,” a lovely illustration of romantic pathos, full of emotion, and rich in silvery colour; “Psyche,” “Dorothy,” “The Creation of Eve,” and “The Temptation of Eve.”

            Mr. Watts has taken up a distinguished position as a sculptor, and produced a nobly picturesque bust of Clytie turning with the intensest passion to the Sun.  A colossal equestrian group of Hugh Lupus, Earl of Chester, by him, is just finished in bronze, and intended to be set up in the City of the Dee.  Another colossal equestrian group on hand represents the artist’s ideal of Active Force as a conqueror like Pizarro or Alexander, scanning distant and unconquered lands, while he shades his eyes with one hand and reins up his horse with the other.  Besides occasional contributions to “The Nineteenth Century,” Mr. Watts wrote an admirable essay on the public employment of artists, which is appended to the third volume of the “Life of Haydon.”  He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1867, and a Royal Academician in 1868.  In 1878 he obtained a First Class Medal as a contributor to the Exposition Universelle, Paris, and was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour.  In July, 1880, he received the honorary degree of LL.D. at Oxford, and, in 1883, a like distinction at Cambridge.  In the former year he was, as a representative English artist, invited to contribute his portrait to the Collection in the Uffizi Gallery at Florence of Portraits of Artists painted by themselves.  A numerous collection of his works was formed at Liverpool a few years ago; later (1882), and on a still larger scale, a similar gathering was made of his pictures of all classes in the Grosvenor Gallery.

            The portrait before the reader comprises in the background, on our left, part of “Dedicated to all the Churches;” on the floor, “Cardinal Manning;” above the last, “Lady Lindsay (of Balcarres),” with a violin; over this, “Britomart and her Nurse;” on the ground at the painter’s left is the Duke of Devonshire’s portrait; over this, “The Meeting of Jacob and Esau;” “Paolo and Francesca” is on our right, on the floor.  The chamber containing these pictures was built by the painter to contain his works, including those of the Little Holland House Gallery.

[1] This was painted as a gift to the Inn, the Benchers paying for the materials, &c. After it was completed they presented to the artist 500 guineas in a silver cup. At this time, desiring to aid the development of mural painting, Mr. Watts offered to cover the walls of several other buildings, especially Euston Terminus, with frescoes; this offer was not accepted.

Original Format

Book pages





Frederick George Stephens (1828-1907), author and editor, GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS, R.A., LL.D.

Cite As

Frederick George Stephens (1828-1907), author and editor, “GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS, R.A., LL.D.,” Victorian Artists at Home, accessed September 21, 2020,

Item Relations

Item: Watts, George Frederick dcterms:relation This Item
Item: New Little Holland House, Studio-home of G. F. Watts dcterms:relation This Item
Item: George Frederic Watts dcterms:subject This Item