On 23rd February, the great Victorian artist George Frederic Watts (1817–1904) would have been 200, and at Watts Gallery – Artists' Village, the site of his studio-home and historic picture gallery, we will be celebrating in style. Famously described as ‘England’s Michelangelo’ by Lord Leighton, Watts was renowned for being equally adept as a draughtsman, painter, muralist and sculptor. We’ve adopted this fitting epithet for our major 'Watts 200' programme of exciting exhibitions and events to mark the artist’s landmark anniversary.
Three special shows – staged throughout the year – collectively aim to reflect Watts’s compelling creative spirit, reinvigorate his reputation and generate new ways of thinking about his output. Importantly, each exhibition showcases one of the distinct artistic mediums Watts mastered: drawings in 'A Life in Art', paintings in 'England’s Michelangelo', and frescoes in 'Monumental Murals'. Bronze and marble figures will also feature in our displays, culminating in the Sculpture Gallery that houses the iconic man-and-rider Physical Energy – currently being re-cast as part of the Watts 200 legacy. This arrangement will highlight the intriguing inter-medial links between the artist’s works.
'A Life in Art: G. F. Watts 1817–1904' (28th February to 5th November) introduces the world of Watts through a short film showing stills of the man himself, as well as the people and places that shaped his life. This intimate display will also present a selection of his beautiful, delicate drawings – ranging from careful early copies made from imagery he especially admired, to late abstract outlines captured in sweeping strokes – which demonstrate his endless fascination with the human form over a period of 75 years. Often these slight, sensitive studies developed into elaborate paintings or sculptures, several of which appear elsewhere in the shows.
On an entirely different scale, 'Monumental Murals' (28th February to 5th November) is the first ever exhibition devoted to exploring Watts’s colossal, visionary mural projects. Frescoes fired the artist’s imagination with almost limitless possibilities in terms of scale, scope and subject: he even requested permission to depict the history of the cosmos on the walls of Euston Station! Watts’s epic, public-spirited creations still decorate the interior architecture of the Houses of Parliament, Lincoln’s Inn and St Paul’s Cathedral. At the Gallery, we will be displaying two rare, fascinating fresco fragments, both painted for grand private homes and later rescued when the buildings which they inhabited were modified or demolished: Apollo and Diana and Achilles and Briseis.
Combining colour, cosmos and celebrity, 'G. F. Watts: England’s Michelangelo' (20th June to 26th November) brings together many of Watts’ most striking masterpieces from private and public collections. The artist’s insightful society portraits will be shown alongside his grand symbolist subjects and powerful political paintings. Amongst the highlights are Choosing – one of the nation’s top ten favourite paintings – which portrays Watts’ charismatic teenage muse, Ellen Terry, and the emblematic The Good Samaritan, gifted to the people of Manchester in honour of the great prison reformer Thomas Wright. Other celebrated canvases include the prime version of Love and Life, once displayed in the White House (now in a private collection), and our very own vibrant After the Deluge.
Please visit our website for further details of the 'Watts 200' programme.
Dr Beatrice Bertram, Curatorial Fellow, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village