Painter and sculptor, born in London. In c.1827, he entered the studio of the sculptor, William Behnes, a family friend. As part of his training, Watts was required to make drawings of plaster casts after the antique, amongst which were some from the Elgin marbles. The profound impact these works exerted upon him lasted a lifetime. Although he gained entrance to the RA Schools in 1835, he was disappointed with the quality of teaching and left in the following year, later saying, ‘The Elgin Marbles were my teachers. It was from them alone that I learned’. Watts established a reputation as one of the leading painters in Victorian England, but in the late 1860s also began to produce sculpture. His marble bust, Clytie (London, Guildhall Art Gallery), which he exhibited unfinished at the RA in 1868 earnt him ecstatic reviews; the Athenaeum critic praised the sculpture’s ‘passionate vivacity of design and that large style of treatment which should be more often found in the works of trained sculptors than it is. That a painter should exhibit this fine style is extraordinary’. A commission for an equestrian statue of Hugh Lupus soon followed, with Watts revisiting the theme over the following decades, transforming it, in the process, into his sculptural masterpiece, Physical Energy, erected posthumously in Kensington Gardens, 1907. Watts also executed a number of church monuments: to Thomas Cholmondeley, 1866–67, St Mary and St Andrew, Condover, Shropshire; Bishop Lonsdale, 1869–70, Lichfield Cathedral; Lord Lothian, 1871–74, Blickling church, Norfolk; and John Armistead, 1876, Sandbach church, Cheshire. And finally, there are his two important outdoor statues, Henry Fox, 3rd Baron Holland, 1869–72, Holland Park, London, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1898–1903, Lincoln Cathedral. Watts was elected ARA in January 1867 and RA in December of the same year. He lived and worked in Kensington for much of his life: from 1851 to 1875 at Little Holland House, as the long-term guest of Henry Thoby Prinsep and his wife, and from 1876 in his own home at 6 Melbury Road (‘New Little Holland House’). In 1891, Watts and his second wife commissioned the architect Ernest George to build Limnerslease (now Watts Gallery) at Compton, outside Guildford, as their autumn and winter country residence; here, preserved in the sculpture studio, are the full-size gesso grosso models of Physical Energy and Lord Tennyson.
Sources: The Athenaeum, 16 May 1868, p. 702; Bryant, B.C., ‘Watts, George Frederic (1817–1904)’, ODNB, Oxford, 2004; Manchester Guardian, 2 July 1904, p. 7 (obit. by M.H. Spielmann); Mapping Sculpture; Morris, E., and E. Roberts, Public Sculpture of Cheshire and Merseyside (excluding Liverpool), Liverpool, 2012; Oxford Art Online – Grove Art Online; Royal Academy of Arts website; The Times, 2 July 1904, p. 5 (obit.).
Terry Cavanagh November 2022
George Frederic Watts (photo: Ogden’s Guinea Gold Cigarettes trade card No.74, issued 1902; public domain)