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Samuel Augustus Barnett

1 of 3 portraits of Samuel Augustus Barnett

Samuel Augustus Barnett, by George Frederic Watts, 1887 -NPG 2893 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Later Victorian Portraits Catalogue

Samuel Augustus Barnett

by George Frederic Watts
Oil on canvas, 1887
26 1/8 in. x 21 in. (663 mm x 534 mm) overall
NPG 2893


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Inscriptionback to top

On reverse, canvas stamp: ‘Winsor & Newton’.
On frame, label: ‘W.R.Smith / Carver & Gilder / Printseller & Publisher / Restorer of Works of Art / 20–22 Mortimer St [torn] St London W / and at [torn] Nottingham’.

This portraitback to top

Sitter and artist were acquainted from the mid-1870s when, after being appointed vicar of St Jude’s Whitechapel, Barnett solicited assistance from a wide range of people in his endeavours to bring culture to the poverty-stricken area. Few were exempt from the request to help pull ‘the St Jude’s omnibus’, ‘to do or get done something for the public weal’. [1] Barnett himself wrote ‘If any man or woman asks “What can I do?” Mrs Barnett and I would be ill-fitted for the place we occupy if we could give no answer. The Warden of Toynbee Hall is … a director of enthusiasm disciplined for the service of East London.’ [2]

Watts was among those approached, apparently in respect of decoration for St Jude’s church. The intermediary was Octavia Hill, who in 1880 wrote to the Barnetts:

Watts might be the best man to go to. He cares for idealization, personification, Time, Death, struggle between Death and Love, mistake of a woman’s life & all sorts of modern abstract and really noble ideas, cares for them earnestly … & only with the little grain of self-consciousness which all people who see so far, & no farther, have. Of course it is a great deal to ask, but he cares more than almost any man I know for art to be used to teach great lessons … Show him you feel it is much you are asking, but make him feel why – he gets up at daybreak feeling life short for what he has in his thoughts & may not help. If you ask him take care he gives you nothing the world would think unfit. His high art goes towards undraped figures sometimes. [3]

Watts responded positively. According to his widow, Watts’s ‘sympathies had from the first been given to churchmen who held liberal views and had the widest sympathies with the poor. Frederick Denison Maurice was well known to him and sittings for a portrait had been practically arranged, but for some reason they were deferred, and never again did the opportunity occur.’ When in the 1850s Maurice and others established the Working Men’s College in London, Watts had been asked to take part in teaching art there (as Ruskin and Rossetti did) ‘and it was a matter of great regret to him to be obliged to decline’. [4] Perhaps Watts’s support for and portrait of Barnett were to some degree a reparation for this earlier failing. At the time of the Barnetts’ silver wedding in 1898, Watts wrote to express his ‘admiration and veneration’ for the work they had carried out in Whitechapel. [5]

In respect of the Barnetts’ concurrent plans to ‘show some good pictures to our Whitechapel neighbours’, Watts assisted them ‘more than any other artist’. [6] At Easter 1881 he lent three major paintings to the inaugural exhibition in the parish schoolroom, Found Drowned, Aristides and the Shepherd and Time, Death and Judgement; the last became Barnett’s favourite. The following year, when he was criticized for opening the exhibition on Sundays, Barnett told his Bishop:

When you placed me here, you described this parish as the worst in London. For eight years I have lived as neighbour, amid people of the lowest type [and] I am certain that the preaching of a Puritan Sunday will not teach them of God … I am equally certain that the sight of pictures, helped by the descriptions of those who try to interpret the artist, does touch the memories and awaken the hopes of the people. Never in my intercourse with my neighbours have I been so conscious of their souls and their souls’ needs as when they hung around me listening to what I had to say of Watts’s picture “Time, Death and Judgement”’. [7]

A sketch by Francis Carruthers Gould (see ‘All known portraits, Paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints, c.1897’) shows Barnett standing on a school bench, expounding the exhibition to the crowd. According to his wife, his ‘picture talks’ were often ‘suggestive sermons’ that commanded attention and were greatly enjoyed by the preacher. [8] According to the Westminster Gazette in 1897, ‘Watts’s pictures, explained as they will be to the Whitechapel workers, will be as good as sermons, and probably more attractive than many’ [9]. Alluding to the theologian Isaac Watts, Punch commented:

Pictures as good as sermons? Aye, much better than some poor ones.
Where Whitechapel’s darkness the weary eyes of the dreary workers dims,
It may be found that Watts’s pictures do better than Watts’s hymns. [10]


While other eminent artists, including William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, also lent to the Whitechapel exhibitions, Watts was particularly supportive. In 1884, when Time, Death and Judgement was translated into a mosaic for the exterior of St Jude’s, he asked Matthew Arnold to unveil it, owing to their shared admiration for Barnett’s cultural endeavours. He also invited the Barnetts to bring groups of parishioners to his studio, which Henrietta’s biography of Samuel described as being ‘among treasured memories to many people who have climbed out of the degradation of Whitechapel into a purer environment’. [11]

In 1887, Watts offered to paint Samuel’s portrait for Henrietta. Mary Watts’s comparable biography of her husband records that Barnett ‘came many times this summer, especially as Signor [Watts] was painting his portrait, his gift to Mrs. Barnett. At the first sitting he made a rapid sketch; this he continued with on the second day but, not quite satisfied with the texture of his canvas at the end of the hour, he rapidly sketched in another portrait on yellow canvas. Four days later, upon this he painted and completed the portrait now in Mrs Barnett’s possession, working from two o’clock till six.’ [12] The sittings took place in September and after the final one, Samuel told his brother: ‘On Tuesday we went to Watts & he finished my portrait & gave it to my Yetta [Henrietta]. She is very pleased & the face is certainly like something in me. He was very happy in her pleasure & she was very happy in her possession.’ [13]

Mary Watts’s catalogue of her husband’s works appends this note to Barnett’s portrait: ‘Painted as a mark of the artist’s profound admiration for the work accomplished in Whitechapel by Canon and Mrs Barnett to whom he presented the portrait. He [Barnett] was one of the Founders, and long the Warden of Toynbee Hall, Vicar of St Judes Whitechapel, Canon of Bristol and later Canon of Westminster. Born 1844, died 1913. A fine record of the work done by Canon and by Mrs Barnett has been fortunately made by Mrs Barnett in the biography of her husband published in 1918.’ [14]

Barnett is shown virtually in profile, with light falling on his tall, bald domed head, white shirt collar and tie. The yellow ground on the canvas is said to have lent luminosity to the painting [15] and also adds warmth to both plain brown background and flesh tones. The work is thinly painted, with the hair and beard lightly delineated, giving the portrait the look of an oil sketch. With Barnett’s face turned from the viewer, his expression is enigmatic and mainly concentrated in the frown lines. The averted gaze was perhaps chosen to suggest Barnett’s unworldly and quasi-saintly, yet curiously ungraspable personality, as described by Henry Nevinson:

Still I cannot quite define the source of his powerful influence upon us all [who lived and worked at Toynbee Hall]. He was never eloquent and seldom more than quietly friendly, certainly never affectionate or jolly. He enjoyed humour in others, but never showed it in himself, though sometimes a terrible satiric indignation would break through. His thoughts were expressed in profound but dry sayings that could never be popular because they required thought … the two I liked most … were ‘The poor need the very best’ and ‘Idolators recognise no change’. [16]

Watts’s presentation also perhaps aimed at making Barnett’s long head and straggling whiskers look less ridiculous than they appeared to spectators; indeed, he seemingly endowed the likeness with a more elevated aspect than was immediately visible in the sitter – that is, Watts aimed at portraying Barnett’s nobility of soul rather than appearance. Hence Barnett’s cautious comment that the portrait was ‘certainly like something in me’ [17] and his wife’s pleasure in the work.

After being completed in September 1887, the portrait was intended for exhibition the following year. Watts was sparing of exhibits, however, and when the time came in 1888, he had decided to send only one work (Dawn) to the Royal Academy, and none to the Grosvenor or New Galleries lest he seem to identify with any faction in the controversy over the current policies of the Grosvenor’s organizers. Therefore, as he wrote to Mrs Barnett, ‘I should feel obliged if you would let your picture stand over till next year.’ [18] In the event, its debut exhibition was, fittingly, at the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s inaugural show in spring 1901.

According to a rather indistinct photograph of the Barnetts’ drawing room at St Jude’s vicarage, the portrait was hung over the mantelpiece, against a swag of dark drapery. [19] Artist and sitter remained good friends. In 1888, Watts loaned ten pictures to hang in Toynbee Hall for the winter. As Henrietta noted: ‘They warm hearts by their colour, and suggest thoughts which cannot be put into words. Although pictures, like the mountains, have no language, their voices are of wide reach, so that men and woman who turn away from preachers and from books stop before the pictures which tell of Life and Death, or of “the joy in widest community spread”’. She later recalled their desire to make the large Toynbee reception room ‘exactly like a West-end drawing room’ and Watts’s welcome contributions. ‘During many years he enriched our walls, and it was an unforgettable privilege to live for months at a time with his masterpieces.’ [20]

At the same time the artist presented copies of four of his works to St Jude’s, having during Samuel Barnett’s last sitting shown them being prepared. [21] The collaboration endured. In 1892, when asked for loans, Watts offered ‘two small things, good suggestions I think for a little sermon’; one was a chalk figure of Love holding rose-leaves, a symbolic accessory ‘which should be a good subject for an interesting discourse’, and the other was an allegory of Anger and Vindictiveness, of which ‘something I think may likewise be said’. [22] Watts and the Barnetts plainly shared the same view of art in relation to moral instruction, and the emblematic role of pictorial motifs. In spring 1896, Samuel informed his brother:

Yesterday we went to stay with Mr and Mrs Watts at their country house near Guildford. We found them established on a hillside amid the fir trees with peeps towards Hindhead. Their house just teems with art and ideas. The ceiling is worked in plaster, each panel symbolical of some religion – the walls varied with oak and drapery, pictures, chairs, everything is suggestive. He and she were, as ever, humble, inspired, and devoted. We talked and were refreshed to return to Whitechapel to find our pictures in the picture-rooms [i.e. for the annual exhibition] and our duties waiting…’ [23]

The following year, however, he had to admit that the overall tenor of the Whitechapel exhibition was too lofty, writing that ‘so many symbolic pictures make a strain on the mind & keep the people too continuously on the high moral level. As I go round I dread a rebellion as sermon after sermon rolls off successive canvases.’ [24] The main culprit was Watts, who ‘is above the people – or rather he makes a demand on thought wh[ich] people are too tired or too busy to give. We ourselves have enjoyed them greatly & some of the men have fallen captive.’ [25]

The present work is in a standard ‘Watts’ frame. In 1914 Charles H. Thompson made an oil copy (inscribed on the verso ‘May 1914’) for Wadham College, Oxford, commissioned by Warden Joseph Wells. [26]

A photograph published in 1931 shows the portrait hanging in Henrietta Barnett’s home, 1 South Square, London NW11. [27] Although not specifically intended for the artist’s Hall of Fame series (and not in his possession when the majority of the series entered the National Portrait Gallery Collection) it naturally found its place there after it was bequeathed by the sitter’s widow.

Dr Jan Marsh

Footnotesback to top

1) Barnett 1918, vol.1, p.218.
2) Samuel Barnett writing in the Toynbee Record, 1893, quoted Barnett 1918, vol.1, p.341.
3) Letter from Octavia Hill to Henrietta Barnett, 19 Sept. 1880, LSE, COLL.MISC.512, quoted Gould 2004, pp.151–2; and Watkins 2005, p.95.
4) Watts 1912, vol.2, p.99.
5) Letter from G.F. Watts to Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, 30 Jan. 1898, Watts Correspondence, typescript, vol.12, f.19, NPG Archive.
6) Barnett 1918, vol.2, p.173.
7) Letter from Samuel Barnett to Bishop of London, Apr. 1882, published in Barnett 1918, vol.2, pp.152–3.
8) Barnett 1918, vol.2, pp.154–5.
[n9 Westminster Gazette, Apr. 1897, quoted Punch, 24 Apr. 1897, p.198; and Barnett 1918, vol.2, p.172.
10) Punch, 24 Apr. 1897, quoted Barnett 1918, vol.2, p.172.
11) Barnett 1918, vol.1, p.161. Barnett believed it was ‘a religious service to visit and also to entertain the poor. Indeed the practice of doing so seems to me the only justification for possessing houses, grounds, and pictures’; Samuel Barnett Diary, 1885, quoted Barnett 1918, vol.2, p.156.
12) Watts 1912, vol.2, p.99.
13) Letter from Samuel Barnett to Frank Barnett, 17 Sept. 1887, Barnett Papers, LMA, F/BAR 058.
14) M.S. Watts, MS ‘Catalogue of the works of G.F. Watts’, compiled c.1904–38, 2 vols, Watts G. Archive, Compton, f.9; typescript copy NPG. Evidently Mary Watts saw in Henrietta Barnett a kindred spirit of conjugal advocacy.
15) Gould 2004, p.217.
16) Manchester Guardian, 29 Dec. 1933, p.10.
17) See note 14.
18) Letter from G.F. Watts to Henrietta Barnett, 15 Mar. 1888 (from Menton), Watts Correspondence, typescript, vol.12, ff.16–17, NPG Archive. For text of letter see NPG Archive, G.F. Watts selected letters. When the Barnetts visited the New Gallery, their critical response was very much in tune with Watts’s high-minded approach to the subjects of art: ‘The pictures are distressing, there is hardly any one with any poetry – most of them are affected & the voice of all is “Vanity of Vanities” … The warriors are stage warriors & the lovers have got up their looks for pictures’; letter from Samuel Barnett to Frank Barnett, 23 June 1888, Barnett Papers, LMA, F/BAR/076.
19) See illustration in Watkins 2005, p.36.
20) Barnett 1918, vol.2, p.42.
21) ‘[Watts] showed us also the copies wh. are ready to come to St Jude’s & wh will be put up by Oct 10 – Harvest Festival – Love & Death is beautiful’; letter from Samuel Barnett to Frank Barnett, 17 Sept. 1887, Barnett Papers, LMA, F/BAR/058. It is not clear if the copies (Love and Death, Messenger of Death, Death Crowning Innocence and The Good Samaritan) were installed by October, but they appear to have been in place by 1888 or 1889, and in 1914 were transferred to the Hampstead Garden Institute; see Watkins 2005, p.97, citing the HGS Record, Nov. 1914; and Barnett 1918, vol.1, p.218. The copies were executed by Cecil Schott, who worked as a studio assistant to Watts and is credited with creating the copy of Time, Death and Judgement used as the design for the St Jude’s mosaic; see Sotheby’s, London, 19 Dec. 2001 (90). In his letter of 15 Mar. 1888 to Henrietta Barnett (see note 19 above) Watts thanked the Barnetts for taking ‘Mr Schott into your charge’.
22) Letter from G.F. Watts to Henrietta Barnett, 11 Sept. 1892, Watts Correspondence, vol.12, f.18, NPG Archive.
23) Letter from Samuel Barnett to Frank Barnett, 28 Mar. 1896, quoted Barnett 1918, vol.1, p.214.
24) Letter from Samuel Barnett to Frank Barnett, 17 Apr. 1897, Barnett Papers, LMA, F/BAR/169.
25) Letter from Samuel Barnett to Frank Barnett, 23 Apr. 1897, Barnett Papers, LMA, F/BAR/170.
26) See Barnett 1918, vol.2, p.391.
27) Queen magazine, 23 Dec. 1931; clipping in Hampstead Garden Suburb Archives, LMA, ACC/3816/PH/01/0286.

Physical descriptionback to top

Head-and-shoulders, near-profile to right.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1987.

Provenanceback to top

Bequeathed by Dame Henrietta Barnett, the sitter's widow.

Exhibitionsback to top

Modern Pictures by Living Artists, Pre Raphaelites and Older English Masters, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1901 (44).

Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute, London, c.1909–10.

G.F. Watts: A Nineteenth Century Phenomenon, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1974 (42).

G.F. Watts: The Hall of Fame, NPG touring exh., Nottingham Art Gallery, 1980; Usher Art Gallery, Lincoln, 1980–81; Leicester Museum and Art Gallery, 1981 (no cat. no.).

Reproductionsback to top

Gage 1974, no.42.

View all known portraits for Samuel Augustus Barnett

View all known portraits for George Frederic Watts