The Life/Death-Writing of Mary Watts: a diary record of the demise of ‘England’s Michelangelo’

Lucy Ella Rose has recently completed her PhD in English Literature – titled ‘Women in Nineteenth-Century Creative Partnerships: the “Significant Other”’ – at the University of Surrey. As part of her research, she worked on the Mary Watts archive and transcribed several of Mary’s diaries at Watts Gallery in Surrey. Watts Gallery is planning to publish a selection from the diaries in the near future (see



Death is at once familiar as an inevitable event and universal condition of humankind, and yet unfamiliar as a largely unknowable experience; shrouded in mystery, it has always inspired artists and writers. Victorian literature, correspondence and diaries reveal an especially deep preoccupation with death due partly to a shorter life expectancy, high infant mortality rate and dominant Christian culture. The diaries of the pioneering professional Victorian woman artist and Liberty’s designer Mary Seton Watts (1849-1938) are no exception. However, they are unique and remarkable in the sense that they meticulously record the life and death of her husband: the famous Victorian artist George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), dubbed ‘England’s Michelangelo’, who produced the world-famous painting Hope (1886). Poignant and culturally important as the only record of his dying words and visions, these diaries are much more than the trivial jottings of a bourgeois Victorian lady.

Like Franco-feminist Hélène Cixous’s intense appreciation of the precious last scribbles by the writer Franz Kafka, I found the final words of ‘Britain’s premier portrait-painter’ documented in Mary’s diaries hugely moving and significant. [i] Cixous recognises ‘writing’s potential to inscribe the living moment’ as well as the dying moment, during which the self is ‘free from habits, obligations, proprieties’; the ‘book-of-last-day cannot lie: no time. Each phrase the truest one possible. The most immediate. Most necessary.’[ii] Furthermore, the topic of how nineteenth-century artists died ‘remains by and large unexplored’. [iii] Public interest in GF Watts’s last words is undoubtedly heightened by an awareness of his progressive socio-political beliefs: along with his wife, he was a philanthropist and proponent of women’s rights who prided himself on being a ‘real Liberal’;[iv] his ethos of ‘art for all’ transcended class and gender boundaries.

Death Crowning Innocence

Death Crowning Innocence

GF Watts advocated greater equality and liberty through his Symbolist paintings – many of which represent death. These reveal his own increasing absorption with the subject of death as his health deteriorated with age. However, he deliberately rejected traditional ‘memento mori’ imagery (the grinning skeleton or grim reaper) in his artwork, casting death in a more positive light as ‘that kind nurse who puts us all as her children to bed’ [v] in paintings such as Death Crowning Innocence (1886-7) and The Messenger (1884-5). GF Watts’s images of death were recreated by Mary Watts in her bronze Death Triptych [vi] (1886-1903) and her memorial to him in the cemetery cloister at Compton. Mary’s work at Compton was to some extent a preparation for the moment of her husband’s death; she completed the Watts Cemetery Chapel and
what is now Watts Gallery just weeks before he died. Death was central to the Wattses’ aesthetic, being of great importance for them artistically and intellectually.

3.GF Watts, The Messenger (1884-5)

The Messenger

Mary Watts’s diaries reveal the couple’s deep, philosophical and also sometimes light-hearted discussions about death. One 1893 entry reads:

We came to talk of death somehow – the losing hold of all material things, all that has seemed to be real – [George] said to me “the older I get the more I am aware that the only reality that exists is the spiritual” – His words made me realise what the loosening from [the] earth world would be to him. “Ah, but sweet” I said “you will save with you a paintbrush when you get to the new life” – “That I am sure I shall” he said laughing. [vii]

The remainder of this post traces the deterioration and death of GF Watts (aged 87) at his Surrey studio-home through a reproduction of extracts from Mary Watts’s diary of 1904, [viii] offering an unprecedented insight into the physical and psychological state of GF Watts on his deathbed, as well as her own thoughts and feelings.

Thursday, June 16. 

Wakened in the early hours to find my beloved very weak – an hour & a half of great prostration, the pulse intermittent, the whole face truly seeing the borderland between life & eternal life – […] The blackbirds sang & the woodpigeons cooed & somehow the intense strength of the soul alone in the supremest anguish came down upon me – If my beloved & I were parting, I somehow knew of a strength stronger than myself – or a sense of the absence of the human, the absence of the need of the human & the sense of the strength of the divine – 

  Friday, June 17. 

 “I love art,” he said “& as I lie here, the present condition of it makes me miserable – The modern conception of art seems to me […] full of sound & fury signifying nothing”

 Sunday, June 19. 

My beloved one told me he wanted to tell Gerry & me something – […] we came & knelt at his bedside – He wanted us to know what he had been seeing & yet knew he could not put his thoughts into words without losing almost all the glory of what he knew – He said “It was not a dream, it was not an illusion, it was not an hallucination, it was a reality a glorious state” & when he spoke of it & of its being “no place” & having “no people myself the only blot” he had to cover his dear face with his beautiful thin hands – he was so moved – to tears – by the unutterable beauty of it – “The Book of Creation was open, I saw the breath of the Creator acting on nebulous matter so that agitating waves & revolving lines flew from this in all directions & yet I saw that in all this violence & convulsion there was a restraining force. The converging lines were evolution and the apparent conflict was a necessary part – 

Last night I was in one of those spaces where collision had not taken place, all was clear & splendid – 

Now I see that great Boom 

I see that great light” 

 Can we ever forget his face, when he said those words – so beautiful, spiritual – enraptured   

Tuesday, June 28 

The nurses both so touched by his grateful thanks, his patience – his regret that he should be so troublesome […]

“Oh Mary I have so craved for you,” he said to me when I came back from dinner. 

Wednesday, June 29

I understand that he was explaining to me that [his suffering] was great – “You asked me once” he said “if I could control” & then the words were lost – I know what he meant – I had asked him if the moaning was a relief or actually forced upon him through suffering – & he had answered that he had intense suffering – & I believe it –

 Thursday, June 30 – Friday, July 1

Pulse very quick – temperature rising tho’ he had much sleep – sometimes he woke & said things indistinctly – But once quite clearly – while I buried my face in his beloved hand – he said “There is nothing more to be said – nothing to explain only goodbye goodbye goodbye – Bless everyone” –  

 Once he cried “Where am I?” with a sort of start, & I could only answer huskily through my tears “Beloved you are safe quite safe” feeling the All Pervading [ix] was about us – he repeated “safe safe” 

 Sometimes he cried out what sounded like “Sister – Sister – Sister” and once he said “I cannot see faces distinctly – I want to see faces” – 

4.Mary Watts, GF Watts in his sick-bed (1894)

GF Watts in his sick-bed

 I lay down on my bed about midnight […] I had not been there many minutes when quite strongly he called “Mary Mary Mary come to me” – I sprung up & was quickly holding his beloved hand once more – I had my bed (now nearly a month away from his side) pushed up once more & lay beside him – & when he slept I slept my last sleep at his side. He was not restless & took food once more, & at 6.30 said quite distinctly “Tea Tea” – And suddenly to me “Read to me” – I had no book – but said the verses of the opening of [Tennyson’s elegy] In Memoriam – “Strong Son of God Immortal Love” I could not remember them all – but he must have heard & liked it for he said “Say it again” – I ran out to get Lady Sarah’s little book, & a new testament, & Lily [the Wattses’ adopted daughter] hearing I wanted In Memoriam ran to the Holman Hunts’ & brought his precious copy – his since 1850 – & I read again 8 verses of “The Strong Son of God” the 1st 8 verses – & also the “Charity” sermon from Corinthians he so loves – “what more is to be said” he seemed to say –  

 “I want you to be happy” he said later […]

 “Why, why don’t they come” he cried after – meaning the great messenger he had so implored to come a few days before –  

 The End. 


[i] See Hélène Cixous, ‘Lemonade Everything Was So Infinite’, in The Helene Cixous Reader, ed. Susan Sellers (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 105-118.

[ii] Ibid., pp.114-115.

[iii] Marc Gotlieb (Williams College), ‘How Orientalist Painters Die’, Article 14 (2014): NP, accessed 03/05/15, stable URL:

[iv] G. F. Watts, in Mary Watts, George Frederic Watts: The Annals of An Artist’s Life (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1912), Vol. I, p.5.

[v] G. F. Watts, in Hugh Macmillan’s The Life-Work of George Frederick Watts (London: J. M. Dent & Co., 1903), p.245.

[vi] Mary’s so-called Death Triptych was designed for her family cemetery in Scotland and was recently exhibited at the Tate Britain’s Sculpture Victorious exhibition (2015).

[vii] Mary Watts, Diary: 1893, Watts Gallery archives.

[viii] Mary Watts, Diary: 1904, Watts Gallery archives.

[ix] See G. F. Watts’s painting ‘The All-Pervading’ (1887-90) at the Tate, and the smaller version of this painting (1904) which serves as an altar-piece for the Watts Cemetery Chapel, Compton.

All images are used with kind permission of the Watts Gallery.


2 responses to “The Life/Death-Writing of Mary Watts: a diary record of the demise of ‘England’s Michelangelo’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s