Alfred, Lord Tennyson
6 of 96 portraits of Alfred, Lord Tennyson
- Extended catalogue entry
Early Victorian Portraits Catalogue
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
by George Frederic Watts
24 1/8 in. x 20 1/4 in. (613 mm x 514 mm)
This portraitback to top
This is a variant version of the portrait painted for Sir William Bowman (see no. 3 in list below), which was begun in 1863, and finished in 1864. In November 1863, Bowman wrote to Watts (M.S. Watts, I, 218):
'I am delighted to hear you propose soon to finish for me the head of the great poet. The sooner the better. The only thing I would have wished otherwise in the head of the great artist [Watts' portrait of himself, commissioned by Bowman, and now in the Tate Gallery], is that in size and handling it does not (but perhaps my impression is wrong) match the other for I would fain have painter and painted, a pair of nobles answering one to the other on my walls.'
According to Mrs Watts (M. S. Watts, II, 167n), the Bowman and NPG portraits were begun at the same time (they are almost identical in pose, features and composition). In her MS Catalogue, she states that the NPG picture remained unfinished for some time, and that it was 'worked upon from time to time'.
Watts was a passionate admirer of Tennyson and his work. In his portraits of the poet, he sought to embody 'the shape and colour of a mind and life', and nowhere more prophetically than in the NPG painting. The flat frontal composition, the simplicity of the costume, the decorative use of bay leaves and sky, and the emphasis on the brooding features, produce an arresting and idealized characterization. Tennyson himself wrote a short poem on Watts, quoted in H. Tennyson, Tennyson and his Friends (1911), p 173.
Lists of Watts' portraits of Tennyson will be found in M. S. Watts, George Frederic Watts (1912), II, 167n, her very important MS Catalogue (Watts Gallery, Compton), II, 157-8 (with illustrations), H. Tennyson, Alfred Lord Tennyson: a Memoir (1897), II, 431, and the 'Watts Exhibition' catalogue, Arts Council, 1954-5, pp 29-30. The following list is based on these, with emendations, corrections and additions:
1 1857. Half-length painting (profile). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. In her MS Catalogue, Mrs Watts dates this work 1856-8, but in her biography, 1857 (M. S. Watts, I, 170).
2 1858-9 (Signed, and dated 1859). Half-length painting (popularly called 'the great moonlight portrait'). Collection of the Hon Mrs Hervey-Bathurst, Eastnor Castle. Exhibited Colnaghi, 1860 (see Art Journal (1860), p 126); Winter Exhibition, Grosvenor Gallery, 1882 (95); Watts Exhibition, RA, 1905 (189); Watts Exhibition, Arts Council at the Tate Gallery, 1954-5 (25); and elsewhere. Engraved by J. Stephenson, published Colnaghi, 1862 (example in NPG), by the same artist for the Art Journal (1874), facing p 27, by G. J. Stodart (example in British Museum), for Tennyson's 'Death of Enone', by W. B. Gardner for the Magazine of Art (1893), p 41, and by Sir F. Short, published R. Dunthorne, 1903 (example in Usher Art Gallery, Lincoln); Short's engraving was exhibited RA, 1904 (1311), and reproduced Connoisseur, XXXVI (1913), 129. Tennyson mentions sittings for this work in his Letter Diary for March 1859, see H. Tennyson, Materials for a Life of A. T. (c.1895), II, 214. Sittings in the summer of 1858 are mentioned by H. Tennyson, Alfred Lord Tennyson: a Memoir (1897), i, 428. It was while this portrait was being painted that Tennyson is said to have asked Watts what was in his mind when he painted a portrait, and to have embodied the reply in his poem, 'Lancelot and Elaine'. There are several recorded copies of this portrait.
3 1863-4 (Signed, and dated 1864). Half-length painting (full-face, against bay leaves). Collection of Lord Lambton, Fenton House, Northumberland. Ex-collection of Sir William Bowman; Christie's, 8 June 1917 (lot 127), and again, 1 June 1956 (lot 153); Captain Spencer-Churchill; his sale, Christie's, 25 June 1965 (lot 100), bought Bush, reproduced in sale catalogue. Exhibited National Exhibition of Works of Art, Leeds, 1868 (1357), Watts Exhibition, RA, 1905 (67), and elsewhere. In his Letter Diary for 3 July 1863, Tennyson wrote (Materials for a Life of A. T., II, 379): 'Watts is working away at me'. This portrait was subsequently finished for Bowman, but it did not begin as a commission. For Bowman's letter to Watts, see M. S. Watts, I, 217-8.
4 1863-4 (and later). NPG 1015.
5 1890. (Signed, and dated 1890). Half-length painting (in Oxford DCL gown). Trinity College,
Cambridge, presented by the artist (plate 902). Exhibited Watts Exhibition, RA, 1905 (200). Reproduced Connoisseur, CXLIV (1959), 11. In his Journal for 26 May 1890, Hallam Tennyson wrote (Materials for a Life of A. T., IV, 256): 'G. F. Watts left to-day [from Farringford] having done a fine portrait of A. T.' For a long and interesting description of the visit and sittings, see M. S. Watts, II, 158-67. A preliminary drawing for the portrait (signed, and dated 1890) is in the Usher Art Gallery, Lincoln, reproduced Tennyson Collection (Lincoln, 1963), frontispiece.
6 1890. Half-length painting (in peer's robes). Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Reproduced A. Waugh, Alfred Lord Tennyson (1892), frontispiece. Painted at the same time as no.5, and almost identical in pose, features and general composition.
7 1898-1905. Bronze statue. Lincoln. See M. S. Watts, II, 283-4, and 305-6. A photograph of Watts
at work on the statue is reproduced M. S. Watts, II, facing 305; other similar photographs are in the Central Library, Lincoln, and the Watts Gallery, Compton. The original plaster model is also at Compton, as are innumerable smaller sketches and models.
Mrs Watts (M. S. Watts, II, 167n) mentions another portrait of Tennyson done at the time when Watts was painting Mrs Tennyson and her sons (i.e. c.1865). This seems to be a mistake. She does not mention this portrait in her much fuller MS Catalogue, and it is not listed elsewhere.
Referenceback to top
Art Journal (1866), p 374.
Athenaeum, no.2037 (10 November 1866), 613.
Magazine of Art (1893), p 100.
R. G. D. Sketchley, Watts (1904), pp 79-80, 89, 184.
(Mrs) M. S. Watts, George Frederic Watts (1912), II, 167n, 192.
'Catalogue of Works by G. F. Watts', compiled by Mrs M. S. Watts (MS, Watts Gallery, Compton), II, 158.
'Watts Exhibition' catalogue, Arts Council, 1954, p 30.
Physical descriptionback to top
Dark complexion, brown hair and beard. Dressed in a white collar and dark, undefined costume. Dark green bay-leaves behind the head. Deep blue sky, with white clouds, and orange streaks lower right.
Provenanceback to top
Presented by the artist, 1895.
Exhibitionsback to top
French Gallery, London, 1866 (223); Winter Exhibition, Grosvenor Gallery, 1882, 'Collection of Works by G. F. Watts' (112); Worcestershire Exhibition, Worcester, 1882, 'Fine Art Section' (137); Royal Jubilee Exhibition, Manchester, 1887 (257); Gravesend, 1894; Hammersmith, 1894.
Reproductionsback to top
Magazine of Art (1893), p 6; R. Chapman, The Laurel and the Thorn (1945), plate 16.
This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: Richard Ormond, Early Victorian Portraits, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1973, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.