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Algernon Charles Swinburne

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Algernon Charles Swinburne

by George Frederic Watts
oil on canvas, 1867
25 1/2 in. x 20 1/2 in. (648 mm x 521 mm)
Given by wish of George Frederic Watts, 1909
Primary Collection
NPG 1542

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), Painter and sculptor. Artist associated with 92 portraits, Sitter in 43 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Swinburne told his friend George Powell on 22 May, 1867, that he was 'in the honourable agonies of portrait sitting - to Watts . . . he won't let me crop my hair, whose curls the British public (unlike Titian's) reviles aloud in the streets'.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Marsh, Jan, Character Sketches: The Pre-Raphaelites, 1998
  • Marsh, Jan, The Pre-Raphaelite Circle, 2013, p. 107 Read entry

    'I am in the honourable agonies of portrait-sitting - to Watts,' wrote Swinburne in May 1867. 'Of course it is a great honour to be asked to sit to him ... But it takes time and trouble, and he won't let me crop my hair, whose curls the British public (unlike Titian's) reviles in the streets ... But the portrrait is a superb one already, in spite of the model, and up to the Venetian standard, by the admission of the other artists.'

  • Marsh, Jan, Insights: The Pre-Raphaelite Circle, 2005, p. 100
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 136
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 136 Read entry

    G.F. Watts painted Algernon Swinburne, the aesthete and poet, in the summer of 1867 as part of his project to paint all the most important people of his time. First exhibited as a 'House of Fame' at the Grosvenor Gallery in London, the majority of these works were later presented to the National Portrait Gallery. In a letter dated 22 May 1867, Swinburne wrote: 'Of course it is a great honour for one to be asked to sit to him, now especially that he accepts no commissions and paints portraits only for three reasons - friendship, beauty and celebrity; having the "world" at his feet begging to be painted. But it takes time and trouble, and he won't let me crop my hair, whose curls the British public (unlike TItian's) reviles aloud in the streets.' However, Swinburne liked the result, adding 'Il faut souffrir pour être - peint'. It is indeed effective as an image of Swinburne, with his shock of carrot hair, high brow and wispy beard.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 601

Subjects & Themesback to top

Events of 1867back to top

Current affairs

The Second Reform Act, although effectively a Liberal measure, is expediently passed by the Conservatives, under Disraeli's influence, who believed it would widen Conservative appeal by making the party appear more progressive. The Act extended the vote to 1.5 million working men in British towns, and redistributed 52 seats from towns with populations under 10,000 to the newer urban towns.

Art and science

Karl Marx publishes his hugely influential Das Kapital, whilst living and researching in London. Its proclaimed aim was 'to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society', and it presented mid-Victorian capitalism in terms of a tragic drama.
Henry Irving rises to fame on the London stage, performing alongside Ellen Terry for the first time, beginning their famous theatrical association.


Francis Joseph, the Emperor of Austria, becomes King of Hungary, and thus ruler of the 'dual monarchy' of Austria-Hungary.
The dominion of Canada is formed, as the British North America Act unites four British colonies, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec. The Act defines much of Canada's constitution and operation of government, and Canada's dominion status is the first of its kind.

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Simone Beyfus

19 July 2018, 09:16

This painting appears to have been exhibited at the Galerie Georges Petit at the International Painting Exhibition in 1883. See an extract from the article which appeared in The Guardian newspaper:

Encouraged by the success of his select international exhibition of paintings last year, M Georges Petit will tomorrow open a second exhibition of the same kind at his gallery in the Rue de Seze. The plan is to select representative artists from each country, by invitation, and to limit the number of exhibitors to twelve.

Stevens sends about a dozen works, exhibiting almost every variety of his amazing powers. His ‘Fedora’ an idealised study of Madame Sarah Bernhardt is matchless in it delicate colouring and feeling – if this is not how she is, then this is how she would like to be. De Nittis shows a November day in London and a twilight view of Paris. Chelmousky shows another of his wild scenes from the steppes, this time, however, without the horses. Mr Watts sends a portrait of Mr Swinburne. Leibl’s ‘Village Politicians’ is likely to be much noticed in Paris for the novelty of his somewhat photographic exactitude of style.

Mr Whistler, whose fine picture of his mother has made him the talk of this year’s salon, sends a variety of nocturnes, harmonies and arrangements in blacks, blues, greys, brown and gold that will excite Parisians keen for the new and the strange.

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