Ellen Terry ('Choosing')

1 portrait

Ellen Terry ('Choosing'), by George Frederic Watts, 1864 -NPG 5048 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Later Victorian Portraits Catalogue

Ellen Terry ('Choosing')

by George Frederic Watts
Oil on strawboard mounted on Gatorfoam, 1864
18 1/2 in. x 13 7/8 in. (472 mm x 352 mm)
NPG 5048


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Inscriptionback to top

Four labels (removed from back of frame July 1983, now NPG RP 5048):
(a) printed: ‘The LADY LEVER ART GALLERY / Port Sunlight / THEATRICAL EXHIBITION, 1949 / Lent by Kerrison Preston Esq. / Cat No. 235’.
(b) printed: ‘BARBIZON HOUSE / 9, HENRIETTA ST., CAVENDISH SQUARE, / LONDON, W.1’.’
(c) printed fragment (RA exhibition label?), inscr. in ink: ‘… F. Watts … Choosing … Sir Alex. Henderson BT. MP / 18 … St, W.’
(d) inscr. in ink (in Preston’s hand?): ‘Choosing. 1864 / Oil painting on panel, 19” x 14”, / by G.F.Watts. O.M, R.A. (1817–1904). / Portrait of Ellen Terry / at the age of 16 or 17. / She was born in Coventry / on 27 Feb. 1847 (not 1848) / and married to G. F. Watts / on Saturday 20 January February 1864 / a month week before she was 17. / This picture is the property of / Kerrison Preston, St Julian’s, Bournemouth The Georgian House, Merstham. / It was Ellen Terry’s favourite portrait / of herself, and is Watts’s greatest / small picture, confirming his supremacy / in both portraiture and allegory. She / chooses the gay scentless Camellia / while the sweetness of almost invisible / Violets is held close to her heart.’

This portraitback to top

The strength of feeling evoked in George Frederic Watts by his first wife is evident in this small, almost devotional, painting that celebrates her youthful beauty. It is at once a portrait and an allegory: Ellen must choose between the spectacular yet scentless camellias to which she inclines, and the small bunch of sweet-smelling violets cradled in her left hand. Whilst the latter symbolise innocence and simplicity the former signify worldly vanities, in this instance the empty vanity of the theatre, from which the artist sought to rescue her. A legal document produced at the time of their divorce in 1877 records his motivation for the marriage: ‘although considerably older than his intended wife he admired her very much, and hoped to influence, guide and cultivate a very artistic and peculiar nature and to remove an impulsive young girl from the dangers and temptations of the stage’. [1]

The marriage ceremony took place on 20 February 1864 at St Barnabas Church in Kensington, an event Terry clearly recalled in her 1908 memoir: ‘The day of my wedding was very cold. Like most women, I always remember what I was wearing on the important occasions of my life. On that day I wore a brown silk gown which had been designed by William Holman Hunt, and a quilted white bonnet with a sprig of orange-blossom, and I was wrapped in a beautiful Indian shawl.’ [2] The same Renaissance-style dress is worn by Ellen in this portrait, which was probably executed soon after the wedding. Although described by the actress as brown, the colour is now closer to green, further contributing to the effect of the sitter being engulfed by the abundant blooms of the camellia bush. Holman Hunt’s involvement with the dress design has not been established, although he was a close friend and neighbour of Watts at the time. A photograph by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) showing Terry posed in her wedding dress reveals the full Italianate sleeves, trimmed with dark ribbon (see ‘All known portraits, I. In private character, Photographs, 1865’). Barbara Bryant notes that the camellia is amongst the first flowers of the year, blooming as early as February, which adds further weight to a date of early 1864 for the painting’s execution. [3]

The marriage began positively. Ellen claimed that for the length of their union and her retirement from the stage ‘I never had one single pang of regret for the theatre. This may not do me credit, but it is true.’ [4] Instead, she greatly enjoyed modelling for Watts in his studio. Her presence triggered a period of artistic productivity and she sat for a succession of portraits and subject pictures (see ‘All known portraits, I. In private character, Paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints, 1862–3’ and ‘1865–89’). It is clear from studying these works that beyond his protective instincts, the nature of the artist’s interest was deeply romantic. NPG 5048 sums up the intense emotion aroused by his model, apparent in the sensuous depiction of pale flesh against dense green foliage, the attentively rendered shades of luxuriant golden hair, and the carefully delineated contours of Terry’s delicate upturned features. In addition to her beauty, Ellen’s theatrical experience and her ability to strike a pose also provided inspiration. Commenting upon the portrait, Walford Graham Robertson insisted ‘that throat is Ellen Terry’s throat, the eager, impulsive movement entirely hers, the whole thing inspired by her’. [5] Indeed, this gesture is repeated (and exaggerated) in a number of Watts’s later compositions, including Clytie (late 1860s, Watts Gallery, Compton) and The Wife of Plutus (c.1880–89, National Museums Liverpool).

Unfortunately the relationship was to break down within a year. A major factor was the 30-year age gap; the wedding took place a week before Ellen’s seventeenth birthday and just as Watts was about to turn 47. Her youthful exuberance and natural high spirits were at odds with the quiet dignity of the middle-aged artist. Perhaps even more testing were his highly unusual domestic arrangements. Since 1850, Watts had been living with his friends and patrons Thoby and Sara Prinsep at Little Holland House in Kensington, which became a meeting place of great names, including Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, Benjamin Disraeli and William Ewart Gladstone. Once installed with his own set of rooms and a studio, Watts had become a permanent fixture, Mrs Prinsep often joking that ‘He came to stay three days; he stayed thirty years.’ [6] Of course Ellen was expected to join her new husband at Little Holland House, placing the young bride in an ambiguous position. In no way regarded as the mistress of the house, she was nevertheless the wife of its most exalted occupant. [7] Terry herself records her response to Watts’s numerous guests: ‘I sat, shrinking and timid, in a corner – the girl-wife of a famous painter. I was, if I was anything at all, more of a curiosity, a side-show, than hostess to these distinguished visitors.’ Nevertheless, Ellen was fascinated by the bohemian world she encountered, where ‘all the women were graceful, and all the men were gifted’. [8] Sara Prinsep was one of the celebrated Pattle sisters, among whose number was the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Soon after the wedding, the Prinseps took the couple to stay with the Camerons at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, where Ellen was photographed bare-shouldered with her hair loose down her back (see ‘All known portraits, I. In private character, Photographs, 1864’).

The portrait was finished by April 1864, when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy under the title Choosing. At this stage the painting had already been purchased by Thomas Eustace Smith MP, who saw it on a visit to Watts’s studio and asked to buy it. The artist agreed but requested that he be allowed to keep the picture for a time, presumably to send it to the Summer Exhibition, where it was well received. Criticism centred on the efficiency of the artist’s technique. A reviewer for the Art Journal noted that ‘Mr Watts, in this small work, certainly one of the most artistic in the exhibition, shows his usual subtle sense of harmony and colour.’ [9] Tom Taylor, who had introduced Terry to her husband, devoted a section of his review in The Times to its praise: ‘It is an almost solitary example here of the poetry of painting and its harmony of hue and tender suavity of line transform the trivial yet not ungraceful little incident into an idyll which delights the eye and stamps itself on the memory.’ [10]

During the 1860s Watts favoured the use of small hardwood supports, which enabled the more precise application of paint and the accumulation of detail. This, coupled with the use of luminous colour and merging of sitter with background, produces a decorative effect and a sense of pattern within the composition. Emilie Barrington (Mrs Russell Barrington) later recorded its memorable impression: ‘yet another gem I remember … I had only then seen it once, on the walls of The Academy – the painting on panel called “Choosing” another of those pictures which once seen is never forgotten. A beautiful fair girl’s head and a perfect throat stretching forward towards a branch of camellias, a hand slid caressingly under one of the deep pink flowers.’ [11]

By the beginning of 1865, tensions between Watts and Terry had developed to the extent that a deed of separation was drawn up and signed on 26 January. Robertson argued that the couple ‘were much misrepresented to each other by kind friends, and they both knew it afterwards. But of course they could never have settled comfortably down together. To marry Ellen was an absurd thing for any man to do. He might as well marry the dawn or the twilight or any other evanescent and elusive loveliness of nature.’ Despite the failure of her first marriage, Terry harboured no ill-feeling towards the union and according to Robertson Choosing remained her ‘favourite of all the portraits painted of her’. [12]

Marion Rawson, a granddaughter of Eustace Smith, recalled that it was some time after the RA exhibition that Watts’s client received a note from the artist asking to be released from his agreement to sell the portrait and ‘intimating that Ellen had left him and that he was destroying all the paintings and studies he had made of her. My grandfather ordered up his carriage and hurried round to Little Holland House to claim the picture as rightfully his. Watts was naturally forced to accede to the request and relinquish it.’ [13] Eustace Smith and his wife were closely associated with the Prinsep circle at Little Holland House, and its famous painter-in-residence. Mrs Eustace Smith was related to Sir John Dalrymple, who married Sophia Pattle, but the couple were also linked by social and artistic interests. Together they amassed an impressive collection of contemporary painting, which was displayed in their residence at 52 Prince’s Gate in South Kensington, designed by Sir Charles Freake. The portrait was among Smith’s very first purchases; the majority of the couple’s picture buying took place between 1865 and 1875. They moved into the house in 1874, commissioning interiors in the fashionable Aesthetic style, as a showcase for the collection. [14] Rawson suspected that the ‘present’ gilded Watts frame was the original and that it hung in her grandmother’s ‘boudoir’, which was decorated with designs devised by Walter Crane and George Aitchison. [15] Between 1885 and 1887, the house and entire collection were sold privately to Alexander Henderson Faringdon, later 1st Baron Faringdon. NPG 5048 stayed with the rest of the collection until 1934, when it was sold at Sotheby’s following Henderson’s death. At this point the painting was purchased by Kerrison Preston, a close friend of Walford Graham Robertson, who was particularly pleased with the acquisition:

I am so so glad that you have got ‘Choosing’. It is a picture with a special intimate quality in it, apart from its perfections as a work of art, and I did not like the idea of its being bandied about from one stranger to another … The picture was painted in the first few happy days after her marriage and she was very fond of it and remembered it with pleasure. She always wanted to show it to me herself, but we never actually saw it together. It is a great joy to me to know that you have the picture. I could not have chosen a more fitting owner … She will like to know that you have it. [16]

The portrait remained in Preston’s collection until his death in June 1974. Although ownership passed to his son, David C. Preston decided to offer it to the Treasury in part payment of Estate Duty, with stipulation that it should go to the National Portrait Gallery (in accordance with his father’s wish). The Gallery on its part was keen to receive the painting. In justifying this potential acquisition, the Director John Hayes admitted that the NPG already owned a portrait of the actress by Watts purchased in 1928, but argued that in comparison NPG 2274 ‘is quite a different image, only superficially similar in design, much more generalised in handling and in every way of less power and significance.’ [17]

An oil on panel copy of the work by Irving R. Wiles after Watts, Camellia Blossoms, undated but signed and measuring 178 x 127mm, is untraced (ref. Sotheby’s, New York, 6 June 1997 [1]).

Elizabeth Heath

Footnotesback to top

1) Divorce Proceedings, 13 Mar. 1877, High Court of Justice, Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division, as quoted in Loshak 1963, p.483.
2) Terry 1908, p.53.
3) Bryant 2004a, no.14.
4) Terry 1908, p.58.
5) Preston 1953, p.401.
6) Manvell 1968, p.43.
7) Loshak 1963, p.479.
8) Terry 1908, p.53.
9) AJ, 1864, p.166.
10) The Times, 30 Apr. 1864, p.14.
11) Barrington 1905, p.3.
12) Preston 1953, p.316.
13) Copy of a letter from Marion Rawson to Wilfred Blunt, Curator of the Watts G., Compton, 4 May 1974, NPG RP 5048.
14) Wilcox 1993, pp.46–7. Watts painted a portrait of Thomas Eustace Smith himself, c.1872 (Tate, N02682).
15) Copy of a letter from Marion Rawson to Wilfred Blunt, Curator of the Watts G., Compton, 4 May 1974, NPG RP 5048.
16) Preston 1953, pp.314–15.
17) Justification to Standing Commission on Museums & Galleries, from John Hayes, 19 May 1974, NPG RP 5048.

Physical descriptionback to top

Head-and-shoulders to right, profile to right, with chin tilted upwards to smell camellia cradled in right hand, holding small bunch of violets in left.

Conservationback to top

Conserved 1983; 1997; 1999; 2001; 2006.

Provenanceback to top

Purchased from the artist (c.1864) by Thomas Eustace Smith, MP, 52 Prince’s Gate; purchased by Sir Alexander Henderson c.1885/7 (later Lord Faringdon, who bought the house & collection); his sale, Sotheby’s, 12 June 1934 (135); purchased Barbizon House, London; purchased immediately by Kerrison Preston; accepted by HM Treasury in lieu of tax and allocated to NPG, 1975.

Exhibitionsback to top

Royal Academy, London, 1864 (395).

Works by G.F. Watts, R.A, etc., Royal Academy, London, 1905 (74).

Burlington Fine Arts Club, London, 1912 (23).

Theatrical Exhibition, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, 1949 (235).

Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy, London, 1950–51 (818).

The First Hundred Years of the Royal Academy, Royal Academy, London, 1951–2 (348).

G.F. Watts, 1817–1904, Arts Council, London, 1954–5 (37).

Victorian Painting, 1837–87, Agnews, London, 1961 (108).

Bicentenary Exhibition, Royal Academy, London, 1968–9 (366).

Masque of Beauty, NPG, London, 1972 (43).

G.F. Watts 1817–1904, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1974 (18).

G.F. Watts: The Hall of Fame, NPG, London, 1975 (NPG only, not in exh. cat).

Whisper of the Muse: The World of Julia Margaret Cameron, P.&D. Conalghi, London, 1990 (79).

Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery, five venues in Japan, 1995–6 (26).

The Victorians: British Painting in the Reign of Queen Victoria, 1837–1901, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1997 (31).

Artists at Home: the Holland Park Circle, 1850–1900, Leighton House Museum, London, 1999–2000 (14).

G.F. Watts Portraits: Fame and Beauty in Victorian Society, NPG, London, 2004 (44).

Great Britons: Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery, London, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC, 2007 (23).

The Pre-Raphaelite Lens, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 2010–11 (60).

The Cult of Beauty, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Musée d’Orsay, Paris and de Young Museum, San Francisco, 2011 (no cat. no.).

Ellen Terry: The Painter's Actress, Watts Gallery, Compton, 2014 (no cat. no.).

Reproductionsback to top

Robertson 1938, p.319.

Preston 1953, opp. p.314.

Loshak 1963, p.481, pl.12.

Howard 1990, no.79.

Wilcox 1993, p.50.

Saumarez Smith 2000, p.132.

Mancoff 2003, p.77.

Bryant 2004a, no.44.

Bryant 2009, p.20.

Waggoner et al. 2010, no.60.

Calloway & Orr 2011, p.179 (155).

Funnell & Marsh 2011, p.33.

Gould & Gawade 2014, p.27, fig.17.

View all known portraits for Dame Ellen Alice Terry

View all known portraits for George Frederic Watts