George Frederic Watts 1817-1907

The VV cannot be sure, but she feels quite confident that the portrait shown above of the artist George Frederic Watts may well have been taken by his friend, Julia Margaret Cameron. The image bears all the hallmarks of her photographic work - being a beautiful rendition of the man, but also transcending to something artistic in itself. 

What can be stated for sure is that Watts painted Cameron, as illustrated in the lovely, haunting image above which, the VV thinks, shows very clearly why his portraiture was in such demand.

Born in London’s Bryanston Square, Watts' father was a pianoforte maker and tuner. When only nine years old, his mother died, following three younger brothers who had perished in a measles epidemic. It is hard to imagine such a blow, and the talented but sickly boy was thereafter educated at home until entering the studio of the sculptor William Behnes, and then the Royal Academy. Although not a regular student, he exhibited at the Summer Exhibition of 1837 and his obvious skill ensured that the handsome young man secured some wealthy patrons, amongst them Lord Holland who went on to become a firm friend.

Lady Mary Augusta Holland by G F Watts

At the age of 26, having won a substantial financial prize aftering entering a work in the inaugural Houses of Parliament competition, Watts decided to travel to Europe, going first to France and then Florence where he lived in a palatial town house, the Casa Feroni on the via dei Serragli, which was owned by Lord Holland and his wife Mary Augusta.

But it must have been quite a contrast when Watts returned to London in 1847, living in the far less salubrious surroundings of Cambridge Street and finding that the grand style of historical painting to which he was attracted had fallen out of fashion. 

Under a Dry Arch by G F Watts

During this period, his painting style and themes developed to reflect his social concerns at the harsh realities of London life as depicted in Found Drowned, The SeamstressThe Song of the Shirt, The Irish Famine and Under a Dry Arch. 

Found Drowned by G F Watts

But with his illustrious contacts, Watts was never far away from a more comfortable existence, and eventually he was offered a new home, in the dower house of the Holland estate where he became part of a bohemian salon which included the 'Anglo-Indian sisterhood', the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and Sophia Dalrymple who called him ‘Signor’ on account of his foreign travels, and no doubt also his handsome dark looks. In later years, the salon was joined by the art critic Ruskin, the poet Tennyson, and several other pre-Raphaelite artists - such as Rossetti (shown left).

By the 1860’s Watts was achieving great public fame and having amassed some wealth he was able to devote himself to working on what truly interested him, which included sculpture. He also devoted himself to his muses - becoming greatly enamoured with the young actress Ellen Terry. 

'Choosing.' Ellen Terry by G F Watts (1864)

He originally thought to 'adopt' her, but eventually proposed a marriage. He was 47. She was 16. Sadly, the marriage lasted only a year. Even so a divorce was not sought until 1877, and Watts worked on his paintings of Ellen for many years to come.

'Hope' by G F Watts

In 1871, Watts moved out of Holland house and bought some land backing onto the studio of the artist, Lord Leighton which was based in Holland Park Road. Watts built New Little Holland House, opening his studio to the public every afternoon, and from there he produced much of his most significant Symbolist work including Love and Death and  Hope all of which were hailed as triumphs, resulting in his work being shown in the Uffizi Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Paris and Munich.

Mary Seton Fraser-Tytler
In later life, Watts remarried, this time to Mary Seton Fraser-Tytler, the couple eventually moving from London to Compton, near Guildford, where they adopted an orphan, Lilian MacKintosh, who became heir to the Watts estate, upon which was built the Watts Gallery which is still open to the public today.

Watts in the Compton Gallery


  1. Great post. A very hard artist to pin down. The more you look the more you get so to speak.

  2. I suppose every creative person in the world must have found the awfulness of what Watts experienced, at some time or other: finding that the style of painting to which he was attracted had fallen out of fashion. Fashions seem to come and go, so it was to his great credit that he went with the flow and found a new market for himself.

    I love the idea of a supportive and bohemian salon, with Cameron, Ruskin, Tennyson, Rossetti etc. At least they would have been great company, while Watts was finding his way back to the mainstream.

  3. Thank you, both - and yes, I love the idea of that salon, though I think it was a little 'incestuous' at times. Must delve deeper...

  4. Interesting. Visited the newly restored Watts Gallery a couple of weeks ago. Loved the gigantic sculptures especially, and the portraits, but uncertain about the darker paintings.

  5. I was hoping to go today, Susie - but now will be a little later in the year. I am looking forward to seeing the sculptures. I imagine there must have been quite an element of 'darkness' after suffering such losses in his family when a child. Imagine being one of four boys, and suddenly there is only you left, and then to lose your mother too.

  6. Years and years ago, I remember buying a little postcard of "Hope" on a school trip to the Tate - the Tate before it was split into two, that is! Wow, that seems such a long time ago. I found it a beautiful and haunting image at the time, and having long since misplaced the postcard, I was surprised to scroll down the page and see it again. Thanks for such an interesting post about a fascinating man.