G.F Watts - Selected Letters

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
by George Frederic Watts
circa 1871
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Gift of portraits made by George Frederic Watts to the National Portrait Gallery

In December 1895 Watts, who had lately been appointed a Trustees of the National Portrait Gallery, offered to transfer to the Gallery any portraits from his collection that the Board might think suitable. The Gallery selected 17 portraits (NPG 1000 - NPG 1016), which were accepted from Watts as a gift to the nation. Amongst the selection was Watts's portrait of the influential painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti (NPG 1011). Sir John Everett Millais, a fellow Trustee at the Gallery, was absent from the meeting at which the gift was acknowledged and wrote the following day to offer his thank to Watts.

Matthew Arnold
by George Frederic Watts
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Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), poet and critic

The eminent Victorian poet Matthew Arnold considered Watts to be 'the highest and singlest minded artist of my acquaintance'. He sat to Watts for his portrait during 1880. Arnold had to arrange his visits around his commitments as an inspector of schools, as is indicated in the letters below. In the last of these letters, he warmly congratulates the artist on being offered a Baronetcy - an honour, however, that Watts declined (see William Ewart Gladstone's correspondence with Watts below).

Samuel Augustus Barnett
by George Frederic Watts
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Samuel Augustus Barnett (1844-1913), divine and social reformer

Canon Samuel Augustus Barnett was the founder and Warden of Toynbee Hall and Vicar of St Jude's Church in Whitechapel. Watts painted the Canon's portrait in 1887 as a tribute to his work among the poor. However, he chose not to display it for reasons explained in the first letter below. None-the-less, Watts was a great admirer of Canon and Mrs Barnett's work in the East End and in the second letter he discusses paintings they might like to borrow for one of the exhibitions they organised at St Jude's.

Robert Browning
by George Frederic Watts
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Robert Browning (1812-1889), poet and husband of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning

Robert Browning, one of the great poets of the 19th century, sat to Watts for a portrait that was described in the Athenaeum in 1866 as 'one of the painter's most nearly perfect pictures there is in this painting all the higher qualities of portraiture'. G.K. Chesterton said it showed 'the head of a strong, splendid, joyful and anxious man who could write magnificent poetry'. Browning was a great admirer of Watts's work and a frequent visitor, sometimes in the company of his sister, to the artist's studio.

Julia Margaret Cameron
by George Frederic Watts
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Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879), pioneer photographer

Julia Margaret Cameron was a great friend and admirer of Watts, who for a number of years lived with her sister Sara, Mrs Thoby Prinsep, at Little Holland House. Watts painted her portrait in 1852-1854, a few years after her return from Ceylon and in the early days of their friendship. Cameron corresponded regularly with Watts and sought his advice about her work. The artist returned her enthusiasm with an admiration of her photographs, as is evident in his replies below.

Thomas Carlyle
by George Frederic Watts
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Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), historian and essayist

The eminent historian Thomas Carlyle was an early advocate for the study of portraiture and supported the creation of a national gallery of portraits. He sat to Watts himself in 1867-8, but he was an impatient sitter whose restlessness unsettled the artist. Watts began 3 portraits of Carlyle but only 2 were finished. Sittings continued for more than a year, when the letter below was written, and the portraits were not completed until 1869. Carlyle said of them: 'you have made me like a mad labourer'.

Sir Andrew Clark, 1st Bt
by George Frederic Watts
NPG 1003

Sir Andrew Clark, 1st Bt (1826-1893), physician

Sir Andrew Clark was President of the Royal College of Physicians. He was a physician at the London Hospital and had a considerable reputation as a teacher of medicine. Watts asked him to sit for a portrait in 1892 and the first 2 letters below record arrangements for an early sitting. The portrait was completed in 1893, only a few weeks before Clark died. Gladstone saw the portrait early the following year and wrote in gratitude to Watts and described it as a 'living recollection of the person represented'.

Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke, 2nd Bt (1843-1911), politician and writer

The politician Sir Charles Dilke commissioned Watts to paint marriage portraits of himself and his wife. Sittings took place during 1872-3, although ill health interrupted the artist's work during the autumn of 1872, as explained in the first letter below. The portrait was completed, with the aid of photographs, early in 1873. The artist explained by letter that the photographs 'make one acquainted with peculiarities and shorten the sittings necessary'. Watts charged Sir Charles Dilke 300 guineas for his portrait.

Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava (1826-1902), diplomat and administrator

Watts's painted a portrait of the diplomat Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava in 1881, the year in which the sitter was transferred as British ambassador from St Petersburg to Constantinople. In the second letter below, Dufferin mentions that he is sitting to a former pupil of Watts called Henrietta Rae. She and her artist husband, Ernest Normand, settled in Holland Park in the early 1890s, where they received advice from local painters, including Leighton and Watts.

William Ewart Gladstone
by George Frederic Watts
NPG 1126

William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), Prime Minister

William Ewart Gladstone sat to Watts for an early portrait in 1859, as indicated in the first letter below, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. The letters recording later sittings, relate to a commission for Christchurch College, Oxford, which was eventually withdrawn by the artist. These letters reveal that Gladstone was unable to attend regular sittings because of the pressures of work. Gladstone greatly admired Watts's work and twice offered him a Baronetcy. On both occasions Watts declined the honour.

William Edward Hartpole Lecky (1838-1903), historian and essayist

Watts painted a portrait of the historian William Edward Hartpole Lecky in 1878. Lecky was a regular visitor to Watts's studio in London on Sunday afternoons and one of the few people to stay with the artist at Limnerslease. Following the death of Thomas Carlyle in 1881, a committee was formed to raise money for a memorial to the great historian. In the letter below Lecky write to Watts to enlist his support with the project. The statue, by Joseph Edgar Boehm, was unveiled on Chelsea Embankment in 1882.

Edward Robert Bulwer Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton (1831-1891), statesman and poet

In the letter below, Watts refers to a proposed dinner that was to be held in his honour at the Grosvenor Gallery in January 1882. The dinner was suggested by a committee of the artist's friends and admirers to coincide with an exhibition of some 200 of his paintings at the Gallery. However, Watts vetoed the proposal, and, as the letter indicates, was reassured by the Earl of Lytton's approval of his decision. Two years later, in 1884, Watts painted a portrait of Lytton, who had been Viceroy of India from 1876 to 1880.

Henry Edward Manning
by George Frederic Watts
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Henry Edward Manning (1808-1892), Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster

Cardinal Manning was one of the most distinguished ecclesiastics of his day. He was created Roman Catholic archbishop of Westminster in 1865 and Cardinal in 1875. Described as a man of ascetic temper, he became in later life an ardent crusader against alcohol. Watts painted his portrait in 1881-2 and the Cardinal booked his sittings in the briefest of letters, as illustrated in the examples below. According to G.K. Chesterton the portrait made its subject look too like a church and too little like a man.

James Martineau
replica by George Frederic Watts
1873, based on a work of 1873
NPG 1251

James Martineau (1805-1900), Unitarian divine and writer

The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson described James Martineau as the 'great metaphysician' and in 1872 proposed to Watts that he should paint his portrait, as indicated in the first of the letters below. Sittings began within 3 months and the portrait was completed in 1873. Watts made a copy for his own collection of portraits of famous men. Martineau was principal of Manchester New College, before it moved to Oxford, and the original portrait is now at Manchester College, Oxford.

George Meredith
by George Frederic Watts
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George Meredith (1828-1909), novelist and poet

According to his wife Mary, Watts was anxious to paint a portrait of George Meredith. Their neighbours at Limnerslease, General and Mrs Palmer, invited the novelist to stay with them in order that sittings might be arranged and the painting was completed in 1893. Watts and Meredith, who first met in the 1850s, enjoyed the renewal of their acquaintance. In the second letter below Meredith refers to the portrait of William Schomberg Robert Kerr, 8th Marquess of Lothian, which Watts painted in 1861.

John Stuart Mill
replica by George Frederic Watts
NPG 1009

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), social philosopher

The politician Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke commissioned Watts to paint a portrait of the eminent philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill in 1873. As the letters below indicate, sittings commenced almost immediately and the painting was finished shortly before Mill's death later that year. A replica was painted at the same time. Helen Taylor, who wrote to Sir Charles and Lady Dilke about the portrait, was the sitter's step-daughter and an advocate of women's rights.

Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt (1829-1896), painter and President of the Royal Academy

Watts painted a portrait of his old friend, the great Victorian painter and founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Sir John Everett Millais in 1871. Millais refers to this portrait in the first of the letters below. In the second letter Millais congratulates Watts on his statue of Physical Energy, one of 3 castings of which is now in Kensington Gardens. In 1896, Millais became President of the Royal Academy, and in the last letter below he records his concerns about the responsibilities of the position.

Lady Dorothy Fanny Nevill (1826-1913), hostess, horticulturalist and collector

Lady Dorothy Nevill, noted gardener, collector and writer of memoirs, was the daughter of Horatio Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford. She was one of the most celebrated hostesses of her day and her home, Dangstein in Sussex, became a focal point for the literary and artistic circles in which she moved. She counted Watts amongst her friends and he painted her portrait in 1844. In the letter below he declines an invitation to her house to meet people he describes as 'those who become famous from accident'.

Sir Anthony Panizzi
by George Frederic Watts
circa 1847
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Sir Anthony Panizzi (1797-1879), Principal Librarian of the British Museum

Sir Anthony Panizzi joined the British Museum as assistant librarian in 1831. He was appointed Keeper of printed books in 1837 and conceived the idea of reading room and full catalogues. Watts painted his portrait, apparently at the British Museum, in 1847. The original is in the Ilchester Collection and Watts painted a replica, which was not finished, for his own collection of portraits of famous men. He depicted Panizzi in a typical pose, transcribing notes from an early printed book.

Cecil John Rhodes
by George Frederic Watts
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Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902), imperialist and statesman in South Africa

Watts wanted to paint a portrait of the South African statesman and founder of Rhodesia, Cecil Rhodes, for his collection of portraits of famous men. He wrote to Lady Dorothy Stanley, wife of the famous explorer Henry Moreton Stanley, on this subject, as indicated in her letter below. She encouraged Rhodes to contact the artist and sittings were arranged immediately because of his imminent return to South Africa. However, the portrait was never finished and Watts refused to let anyone see it.

George Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon (1827-1909), Viceroy of India

George Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon was born at 10 Downing Street whilst his father was prime minister. He was governor-general of India, 1880-4, and colonial secretary, 1892-5. Watts admired his colonial policy and sympathetic attitude to America. He sat to the artist in 1895, as indicated in the first letter below. In his second letter, he refers to the Order of Merit conferred on Watts. King Edward VII established this order at the time of his coronation and Watts was one of its first recipients.

Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts (1832-1914), Field Marshal

Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts was probably the most popular military leader of his time. He spent most of his career in India but he returned home in 1893. Watts painted his portrait in 1898, the year before he became supreme commander in South Africa, where he defeated to Boers. Sittings were arranged during the summer and autumn of 1898, as the letters below indicate. In the October of that year, Roberts's wife and daughters visited the artist's studio to see the finished portrait.

Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (1830-1903), Prime Minister

Robert Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury was a statesman of formidable intellectual authority and a severe critic of radical ideas of progress. He was vigorous in opposition to the Liberal government and twice became prime minister, in 1885-92 and 1895-1902. Watts painted his portrait in 1882, whilst he was in opposition, and the letters below probably relate to sittings. The portrait depicts Salisbury in his robes as the Chancellor of Oxford University.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-1885), philanthropist and social reformer

The eminent social reformer Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, spent much of his long life defending and helping the poor and under-privileged. More than any other individual, he highlighted their sufferings and fought for social welfare: urging reform in factories, collieries, education, housing, sanitation and asylums. Shaftesbury's portrait was painted by Watts in 1862, and in the letter below he arranges a time for a sitting.

Sir Henry Taylor
by George Frederic Watts
circa 1868-1870
NPG 1014

Sir Henry Taylor (1800-1886), poet, essayist and civil servant

Julia Margaret Cameron was a great admirer of the distinguished poet Sir Henry Taylor, whom she dubbed 'the Practical Poet'. She corresponded avidly with Watts, whom she also admired, and in the letter below she urges him to honour Taylor with a portrait. Taylor was a regular visitor to Little Holland House, where Watts lived as a guest of the Prinsep family. According to Mary Watts the portrait was painted in 1868-70, but in a Grosvenor Gallery exhibition catalogue it is dated 1882.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson
by George Frederic Watts
circa 1863-1864
NPG 1015

Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson (1809-1892), Poet Laureate

Alfred Lord Tennyson, whom Julia Margaret Cameron described as 'our contemplative poet' in the above letter to Watts, became Poet Laureate in 1850 on the death of William Wordsworth. Like Cameron, Watts was a great admirer of the poet and painted his portrait on a number of occasions over a period of more than 30 years. 6 versions are documented, the earliest of which, referred to in the first letter below, was produced in 1857. The last recorded version was painted by Watts in 1890.