Sir (William Matthew) Flinders Petrie

Sir (William Matthew) Flinders Petrie, by George Frederic Watts, 1900 -NPG 3959 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Sir (William Matthew) Flinders Petrie

by George Frederic Watts
oil on canvas, 1900
27 1/4 in. x 24 3/8 in. (692 mm x 619 mm)
NPG 3959

Inscriptionback to top

Small label by R.W. Alston in ballpoint pen formerly on stretcher, now in NPG RP 3959: ‘Prof Flinders Petrie / by G.F.Watts / from the Watts Gallery’.
Square label on central stretcher: ‘DEPOSIT / 5153’.
(a) formerly on stretcher small label inscr. in ballpoint pen by R.W. Alston: ‘Prof Flinders Petrie / by G.F.Watts / from the Watts Gallery’.
(b) square label on central stretcher: ‘DEPOSIT / 5153’.

This portraitback to top

This is one of the ‘Hall of Fame’ portraits of eminent contemporaries, painted in the last decade of George Frederic Watts’s career. At this date Petrie was aged 47 and the acknowledged leader of Egyptian archaeology, as well as an effective popular educator through publications on Egyptian history, folklore and religion. His Ten Years’ Diggings in Egypt was published in 1893, Six Temples at Thebes in 1897 and Royal Tombs of the First Dynasty in 1900.

Artist and sitter were acquainted from at least 1888, when the Society for the Preservation of the Monuments of Ancient Egypt was launched by Edward John Poynter and Henry Wallis. Petrie was invited to the preliminary meeting and Watts was invited to become a founder member, although it is unclear how active he proved. On 12 June 1900 Petrie received an honorary degree from Cambridge University and the same day recorded ‘G.F. Watts invited me to sit to him in September.’[1] One sitting is recorded for 19 August 1900.[2] Choosing a profile pose, with light falling on Petrie’s left temple and shirt collar, the artist has used the sitter’s staring eye to convey Petrie’s single-minded dedication to his work (his Who’s Who entry gave his ‘recreations’ as excavating and collecting antiquities).

Sometimes regarded as an unfinished work, the portrait is executed on a very loose-weave canvas, not commercially prepared. Paint is laid most thickly on the face and on the tie-pin or ring. The lower part of the canvas is simply covered, while aspects of the head appear unresolved. It is possible that Watts aimed for further sittings, but soon afterwards Petrie left London for his winter season at Denderah in Egypt, and the portrait was only continued with some dark additions to the hair and beard, which appear to have been painted later. Its state can be compared with that of the portrait of Charles Booth (NPG 4131), done at around the same time and like the present work sent by Watts to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 1901, together with five other portraits.[3] Watts’s other exhibits included his portrait of the Earl of Shrewsbury, painted over 40 years previously but equally swiftly, in a two-hour sitting. Of this, Roger Fry wrote ‘the paint is not mere pigment, as in almost all the other pictures here … it is transfigured and raised to a higher power of expressiveness, as words are in a fine poem....’ He contrasted Watts’s earlier works with those that ‘date from recent years’, describing the latter as ‘not very remarkable’.[4] This judgement has been generally accepted by later critics.

Under the terms of Watts’s will, his portraits of eminent contemporaries were bequeathed to the nation. Not all were immediately transferred to the National Portrait Gallery, however, and in 1953 it was noted that the portrait of Petrie was among those still held at the Watts Gallery, Compton, Surrey. When these were reviewed by the Trustees in 1955, Petrie’s portrait was accepted together with that of John Passmore Edwards (NPG 3958) and subsequently that of Booth.[5] It therefore entered the collection in November 1955.

According to the sitter’s daughter Anne, neither Petrie nor his wife regarded the portrait as a good likeness. ‘I remember going down to visit Mrs Watts with my mother at the studio near Godalming many years ago and at that time, and various times since, my mother definitely voiced that opinion.’[6] When the work was transferred to the NPG, the family sought to have Philip de László’s later portrait NPG 4007 accepted also.

Dr Jan Marsh

Footnotesback to top

1) Petrie 1931, p.174. As it does not appear that Watts was in Cambridge, the invitation must have been mailed.
2) M.S. Watts Diary. It is listed in M.S. Watts, MS ‘Catalogue of the works of G.F. Watts’ (with a written note, ' The great interest Mr Watts took in Egyptian archaeology and his appreciation of Professor Flinders Petrie's labours in that field made him wish to invite the professor to sit for his portrait'), compiled c.1904–38, Watts Archive, Compton, vol.2, p.124; typescript copy NPG.
3) These were portraits of John Burns, Marjorie Dunthorne, the Marchioness of Northampton, Sir Benjamin Brodie and the Earl of Shrewsbury.
4) Athenaeum, 30 Nov. 1901, p.740.
5) See correspondence between C.K. Adams and R.W. Alston of Watts G., 28 Oct. 1955, and memos in NPG RP 3958.
6) Letter from A. Petrie to C.K. Adams, 22 Oct. 1956, NPG RP 4007.

Physical descriptionback to top

Head-and-shoulders, profile to left, dark beard and hair, wearing white collar and dark jacket, against indefinite greenish-toned background.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1955; 1987.

Provenanceback to top

The artist, by whom bequeathed; transferred from Watts Gallery, 1955.

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