Magazine article The Spectator

Striving Ever Upwards

Magazine article The Spectator

Striving Ever Upwards

Article excerpt

Striving ever upwards G. F. WATTS: THE LAST GREAT VICTORIAN by Veronica Franklin Gould Yale, £40, pp. 458, ISBN0300105770 £38 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

George Frederic Watts (18171904), if never exactly popular, was regarded in his day as possibly the greatest artist in the world. He was the first living artist to be accorded a retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and was esteemed in France as few British artists have been, before or since. He was one of the great portraitists of his age. Sadly, though, to a 21st-century audience he has all too little of the accessibility of his younger contemporaries, the Pre-Raphaclitcs, and until recently was the point at which even many lovers of Victorian painting drew the line.

He deplored the very idea of 'Art for Art's sake' and regarded himself as an ethical teacher like his friends John Ruskin and Lord Tennyson. 'Great Victorians' like these have been little more than figures of fun for much of the last century. Watts is the latest, perhaps the last, for whom a serious reappraisal has been attempted. Though his hellfireand-brimstone upbringing in a strict Sabbatarian household put him off organised religion for good, an unspecific spirituality - a sense that the universe is benign and death not the end informs his great 'symbolical' works such as 'Love and Death' and 'Hope'. During the Great War these offered real comfort to many of the bereaved, but this last flicker of popularity was his swansong - or so it seemed. Suddenly, the study of alternative spiritual traditions that he undertook late in life with his much younger second wife Mary seems quite modern, and the symbolic paintings have acquired a new contemporary relevance. The gallery devoted to his work and the extraordinary memorial chapel next door (built to Mary's design and elaborately decorated by the villagers under her direction) at Compton in Surrey may now become the places of pilgrimage for 'new agers' that they already are for lovers of the Arts-andCrafts movement and Watts aficionados.

The publication of The Last Great Victorian was the culminating event in the celebrations for Watts's centenary, the final rousing salvo in a campaign to rehabilitate his reputation. …

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