Watts in London and Guildford?

The answer is the marks of the life and achievements of George Frederick Watts, artist and Royal Academician, born in 1807 near Bryanston Square in London, and dying in 1904 at Compton near Guildford, Surrey.

Visitors to the National Portrait Gallery in London may have seen portraits on display from time to time under Watts' so-called Hall of Fame, where he painted the great and the good from late Victorian society, perhaps one of the most noted of whom is Roman Catholic Archbishop Manning.

Another sitter was the actress Ellen Terry, and Watts' studies include her in the character of Ophelia from Shakespeare's Hamlet, a work he completed in 1864, coming eleven years after the completion of the work of the same name by (then Pre-Raphaelite) Sir John Everett Millais.

Millais' muse for his portrait was Elizabeth Siddall; Watts' muse, Ellen Terry, had another connection with him  - Watts married her in 1864 (he 47; she 16), allegedly in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent her from becoming an actress.

The Ellen Terry portrait can be found in the Watts Gallery in Compton, a small Surrey village where Watts resided from the beginning of the 1900s with his second wife, Mary Seton Watts (the Ellen Terry marriage only lasted a year).

Springing from George and Mary's Arts and Crafts ethos, the simple building (refurbished in 2008/09) is home to over 100 of Watts' works, and demonstrates the range of his output, including the monumental works in the Sculpture Gallery, and Found Drowned, one of his Social Tragedy paintings, where the corpse of a woman is depicted lying on the bank of The River Thames, with the industrialised South London hinterland showing beyond Hungerford Bridge.

However, what fascinates many London livers and visitors is Watts' project under which he started (with Mary completing the work after his death) a 50ft open air gallery of ceramic tile panels in Postman's Park in the City of London, each panel depicting some tragic act of late Victorian heroism.

What was equally fascinating was to come across, on a visit to The Watts Gallery, a series of quirky external panels in homage to/ the Postman's Park display.

So here is an intermingled selection from the respective locations:


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This last one is the odd one out, appearing in Postman's Park
 

As the first plaque sets out, Watts developed the Postman's Park project as an attempt to uplift society with records of heroic behaviour. The 21st c. visitor may be equally moved, but alternatively may recoil from a perceived panoply of mawkish late Victorian sentimentality.

Worse still might be to descend to pastiche and have Watts turning in his grave (assuming that the hearse successfully reached the cemetery without one of the mourners being tragically run over while trying to save a dog from running in front of the funeral cortège - you get the picture).

Nevertheless, one should as ever leave conclusions to the visitor - but in any event do get down to the Gallery if you have a chance.

The author is a City of London and City of Westminster Guide, who runs guided walks in the City and in Westminster. See tabs for further details.

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