Martin Gayford

Maximum wattage

G.F. Watts was way ahead of his time, as this beautifully installed new exhibition at the Watts Gallery shows

On his deathbed in 1904, George Frederic Watts saw a extraordinary spectacle. He witnessed the universe coming into being: the ‘breath of the Creator acting on nebulous matter’ causing ‘agitating waves & revolving lines’ to fly out in all directions. With hindsight, it is tempting to conclude that Watts had a vision not, as he thought, of reality in ‘a glorious state’, but of abstract painting.

The beautifully installed exhibition at the Watts Gallery, Compton, Surrey, celebrating the bicentenary of his birth actually contains a few pictures that — surprisingly for a great Victorian — put one in mind of Jackson Pollock. The trouble is that much of Watts’s work is also abstract in another sense: it attempts to depict intangible concepts — abstract nouns such as Time, Death and Judgment — in the form of muscular nudes and shrouded figures.

Many such pictures have a comic side. ‘Love and Life’ (1884) looks like a couple of teenagers having second thoughts about mountaineering in the altogether (the figure representing ‘Life’ seems to be a fond memory of his first wife, the actress Ellen Terry, without her clothes). But there is something noble as well as ridiculous about Watts’s attempts to paint the unpaintable.

He was unclassifiable as a artist and also an odd man. Nicholas Tromans, curator of the Watts Gallery, compares him to William Blake: two Cockney visionaries, not to say eccentrics, both of whom emulated the art of Renaissance Italy in a thoroughly idiosyncratic way. Watts, the son of a piano tuner, was dubbed ‘England’s Michelangelo’, although his mural in the Great Hall of Lincoln’s Inn is a direct imitation of Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’, substituting notable lawyers for classical philosophers.

One difference from Blake is that Watts, though reclusive, was more socially accept-able; at one point he was taken up by the proto-Bloomsburies of the Holland House set.

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