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William Morris

William Morris, by George Frederic Watts, 1870 - NPG 1078 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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William Morris

by George Frederic Watts
oil on canvas, 1870
25 1/2 in. x 20 1/2 in. (648 mm x 521 mm)
Given by George Frederic Watts, 1897
Primary Collection
NPG 1078

On display at Attingham Park, Shrewsbury

Sitterback to top

  • William Morris (1834-1896), Poet, craftsman and socialist. Sitter in 68 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), Painter and sculptor. Artist associated with 91 portraits, Sitter in 43 portraits.

This portraitback to top

On 15 April 1870 William Morris wrote to his wife Janey (who at the time was having an affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti), 'I am going to sit to Watts this afternoon, though I have got a devil of a cold-in-the-head, which don't make it very suitable.' Perhaps a combination of the cold and his depression at the failure of his marriage accounts for the slightly rheumy look of his portrait. According to Mrs Watts, it was painted at a single sitting, although it is possible that Watts may have done more work on it when it was exhibited in 1880. Otherwise, there is singlularly little contemporary comment on it, apart from a later and well judged remark by G.K. Chesterton that 'There is something appropriate in the way in which the living, leonine head projects from a background of green and silver decoration. This immersion of a singularly full-blooded and aggressive man in the minutiae of aesthetics was a paradox that attracted men to Morris.'

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Portraits, p. 79
  • Audio Guide
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Victorian Portraits Resource Pack, p. 29
  • Funnell, Peter, Victorian Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 29
  • Funnell, Peter (introduction); Marsh, Jan, A Guide to Victorian and Edwardian Portraits, 2011, p. 15 Read entry

    William Morris (1834-96) was one of the most important and inventive artistic figures of the Victorian period, and his name has become synonymous with the Arts and Crafts movement. His home, Red House in Bexleyheath (now owned by the National Trust) was a social centre for the Pre-Raphaelite circle and his firm, Morris & Co., which designed and manufactured furniture, fabrics, wallpapers and stained glass, espoused standards of craftsmanship that Morris traced back to the medieval period, rather than following the trend for mass production. Both his approach and his characteristically rich and colourful designs were highly influential. His wish to find dignity in work led to political action, and in 1884 he founded the Socialist League. His influence, in art, design, printing and manufacture, remains extremely important.

  • Gibson, Robin, Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery, 1996, p. 97
  • MacCarthy, Fiona, Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy 1860-1960, 2014 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 16 October 2014 - 11 January 2015), p. 9
  • Marsh, Jan, Character Sketches: The Pre-Raphaelites, 1998
  • Marsh, Jan, The Pre-Raphaelite Circle, 2013, p. 89 Read entry

    'I am going to sit to Watts this afternoon, though I have got a devil of a cold-in-the-head, which don't make it very suitable,' Morris wrote to Jane on 15 April 1870. Of the result, however, G. K. Chesterton declared that the way 'the living, leonine head' projects from the green and silver decoration was apt, since 'the immersion of a singularly full-blooded and aggressive man in the minutiae of aesthetics is the paradox that attracted men to Morris.'

  • Marsh, Jan, Insights: The Pre-Raphaelite Circle, 2005, p. 84
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 140
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 140 Read entry

    On 15 April 1870 William Morris wrote to his wife Janey (who at the time was having an affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti), 'I am going to sit to Watts this afternoon, though I have got a devil of a cold-in-the-head, which don't make it very suitable.' Perhaps a combination of the cold and his depression at the failure of his marriage accounts for the slightly rheumy look of his portrait. According to Mrs Watts, it was painted at a single sitting, although it is possible that Watts may have done more work on it when it was exhibited in 1880. Otherwise, there is singularly little contemporary comment on it, apart from a later and well-judged remark by G.K. Chesterton that 'There is something appropriate in the way in which the living, leonine head projects from a backgorund of green and silver decoration. The immersion of a singularly full-blooded and aggressive man in the minutiae of aesthetics was a paradox that attracted men to Morris.'

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 443
  • Various, William Morris: Words & Wisdom, 2014 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 16 October 2014 - 11 January 2015)
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 155 Read entry

    This is a rare painted portrait of William Morris, one of the most influential artistic figures of the Victorian period, whose name has become synonymous with the Arts and Crafts movement, which embraced standards of medieval craftsmanship in order to oppose factory mass-production. His industriousness and apparent dislike of portraiture made him an elusive subject. According to Mary Seton Watts, wife of the artist George Frederic Watts (1817–1904), there may have been just one sitting for the picture, on 15 April 1870. In 1880 the work was submitted to the Summer Exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery, for which it was possibly reworked. Ultimately it made a worthy addition to Watts’s ‘Hall of Fame’, a series of eminent Victorians that numbers over fifty portraits and is now in the Gallery’s collection. Although selected for presentation in September 1895, it was not officially acquired until February 1897, owing to Gallery regulations that then precluded the display of a portrait during a sitter’s lifetime. The fact that it eschewed the usual ten-year rule regarding the acceptance of deceased sitters into the collection is testament to Morris’s celebrity at the time of his death.

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Subjects & Themesback to top

Events of 1870back to top

Current affairs

William Edward Forster's Education Act is passed, making provisions for education for all under-13s. It demonstrated the balance in Gladstone's first ministry between progressive reform and conservativism by spreading literacy, whilst maintaining the status of Church schools.
The Married Women's Property Act gives wives rights over their own earnings.

Art and science

The Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet, based on Shakespeare's play and written with the aid of composer Mily Balakirev, debuts in Moscow, conducted by Nikolai Rubenstein.
W. G. Grace becomes cricket captain of Gloucestershire, marking the start of a successful decade for the club in which they won three 'Champion County' titles.

International

Isaac Butt, an Irish MP at Westminster, forms the Home Rule Association.
The Franco-Prussian war breaks out between France and a coalition of German states led by Prussia. Provoked by the candidacy of German Prince Leopold Hohenzollen-Sigmaringen for the Spanish throne, France declared war in July after Bismark published the deliberately provocative Ems telegraph, in which the French were represented in an offensive light on the issue.

Tell us more back to top

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Martin Hopkinson

31 December 2016, 09:14

Emile Verhaeren, 'The Corporation Art Gallery', L'Art Moderne, 22 June 1890, pp. 194-5

Martin Hopkinson

31 December 2016, 08:41

The Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren , an admirer of Watts, reviewed it in 'La Libre Esthetique, L'Art Moderne in one of 5 articles of March -April 1895 see his Ecrits sur l'Art (1893-1916), ed. Paul Aron , Brussels,1997, p.657

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