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Room 26: G.F. Watts Bicentenary

In 2017, the National Portrait Gallery is marking the bicentenary of the birth of the artist George Frederic Watts (1817-1904). A painter and sculptor, Watts made portraits, landscapes and symbolist works that were highly influential, and captured many of the key themes and ideas of the Victorian era. The son of a piano-maker, Watts’s career was unconventional at times, but by the last two decades of his life he had secured his place as one of the world’s most famous painters. Working with his second-wife Mary, Watts created a purpose-built gallery for his works in Compton, Surrey, which opened to the public shortly before his death.

Watts believed passionately in the historical importance of his age and nation, and in the necessity of recording the likenesses of its greatest figures. It is likely that he was inspired by the foundation of the National Portrait Gallery in 1856 when he began a grand sequence of portraits of his most eminent contemporaries called the ‘Hall of Fame’. His sitters included statesmen, literary figures and philanthropists. Insisting on, ‘the nobilities of the subject', Watts sought a profound characterisation, with focus on the head or face of the sitter rather than on dress or accessories. He continued to add to his collection throughout his long career, and it was always his intention that the collection would eventually become part of the National Portrait Gallery.

To celebrate this 200th anniversary, historian A. N. Wilson will be discussing G.F. Watts’ art and legacy with art-historian Richard Ormond at the National Portrait Gallery on 19 October 2017.

The Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village at Compton near Guildford is holding a series of special exhibitions and events throughout 2017. Please visit


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