Room 26: Portraits by G.F. Watts

See the portraits currently on display in Room 26 here

Room 26

© 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'.

STRUCK & CAST: Nineteenth-Century Portrait Medals

The medium of the portrait medal was in a state of transition in nineteenth-century Britain; its function as a mode of portraiture was re-examined through differing approaches. This display presents a selection of bronze medals and medallions in the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection and highlights key developments in medal-making practice throughout the Victorian period. Central to this was the growing discrepancy between striking and casting as primary methods of production.

The striking process involves mechanically pressing two dies, engraved with a design in negative, on to a disc of softer metal held between them. This enabled the mass manufacture of medals in the Royal Mint and other commercial mints, in the manner of coinage. In contrast, casting occurs in a foundry and is achieved by pouring molten metal into a cast taken from an artist’s model.

In response to the dominance of the struck medal throughout the 1800s, the late nineteenth century saw a revival of the casting process, whereby small editions of single-sided medals and larger medallions were produced. The resulting, softly modelled portraits stress the creative input of the artist. While struck medals were often commemorative, these examples were frequently conceived as independent works of art without a particular message or purpose.