Room 26: Portraits by G.F. Watts
© The National Portrait Gallery, London
'The character of a nation as a people of great deeds is one, it appears to me, that should never be lost sight of' G.F. Watts, Letter to The Times, 1887
Like many Victorians, George Frederic Watts believed passionately in the historical importance of his age and nation, and in the necessity of recording the likenesses of its greatest figures. Aside from the famous portrait of his first wife, Ellen Terry, the works in this room form part of his plan to create a 'Hall of Fame' of his most eminent contemporaries. Watts gave, or bequeathed, the paintings to the National Portrait Gallery and they are now displayed here and at the Gallery's regional partner at Bodelwyddan Castle in North Wales.
Watts formed his plan for a series of 'historical portraits' around 1850 and continued to add to his collection throughout his long career. Their style changes with that of Watts' art as a whole, but, with a few exceptions, they are consistent in focusing on the head or face of the sitter, rather than on dress or accessories. Selecting subjects noted for their intellectual power and vision, Watts sought to achieve in these portraits a profundity of characterisation suited to his idea of a modern pantheon. 'What I try for' he wrote, 'is the half-unconscious insistence on the nobilities of the subject'.