THE WINTER STUDIO: GEORGE FREDERIC WATTS IN BRIGHTON

Martin Kenig is a Brighton resident who lives in the house where the eminent Victorian artist George Frederic Watts once had a studio. He is researching Watts’ many visits to Brighton and the work which he did there. Martin is a volunteer researcher for Tate Archive, and also volunteers at Leighton House Museum.

George Frederic Watts (1817‒1904) was one of the greatest artists of the Victorian period. He was a portraitist, a painter of symbolist and allegorical works, and a celebrated sculptor. In 1886, Watts married Mary Seton Fraser-Tytler who was an accomplished artist and designer.

 In the 1870s and 1880s, Watts spent much time in Brighton, particularly during the winter months. Watts hoped that these visits would improve his health and that his work would benefit from better light than in London. He used rooms in at least two Brighton houses as studios. He began to visit frequently when Mrs Sara Prinsepa moved to 24 Lewes Crescent in the Kemp Town area of Brighton, and, in November 1888, after his marriage, he went back to a nearby house, living for seven months at 31 Sussex Square. Watts’ time at Sussex Square is described below.

On 5 October 1888, Mary Watts went to view the house.[1] She was evidently satisfied, as, a few days later, Sir Frederic Leightonb wrote to George Watts as follows: “Alas! I fear that getting away to Brighton to see you – much as I should like it, is not a thing to be hoped for. I am delighted to hear that you have found such an admirable place for work and that you are in such good spirits about the results… I look forward vastly to what you will bring back.”[2] On 19 October, Watts told Mary Gertrude Meadc: “We expect to go to Brighton soon for I cannot bear the fogs.”[3]

The Wattses took up residence at 31 Sussex Square, then owned by Sir John Puleston, M.P., on Thursday 1 November 1888. In her biography of her husband, Annals of an Artist’s Life, Mary Watts wrote: “After much consideration we settled the question where to spend the winter by taking a house at Brighton. There was the advantage of a well-lighted studio, built for a picture-gallery, large enough to take in his big painting of ‘The Court of Deathd, and as many others as he wished to have there.”[4] Mary refers to Watts’ anxiety over what still needed to be done to complete the picture when she notes on 15 November: “The Court of Death. Signore before it half afraid.”[1]

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Figure 1 – The Court of Death. G F Watts (c.1870–1902), Tate; Photo © Tate. CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported). 
http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/watts-the-court-of-death-n01894

Several pages of Mary’s Annals describe her husband’s work at the Sussex Square studio. She refers specifically to “The picture he was now working at – if one of the many may be especially singled out – was the newly created Eve to which he afterwards gave the title ‘She shall be called Woman’”.

'She shall be called woman' c.1875-92 by George Frederic Watts 1817-1904

Figure 2 – ‘She shall be called woman’. G F Watts (c.1875–92), Tate; Photo © Tate. CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported). 
http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/watts-she-shall-be-called-woman-n01642.

 

The Brighton studio showed this picture to an advantage it has never had since. Very often we breakfasted in that room, and the morning light poured down upon the breast of the Great-Mother till it seemed to breathe and scintillate.”[4]

Watts had begun Sunset on the Alps during their travels on the continent the previous winter, but, according to Mary, he then rather overworked the painting when in Brighton: “There was an early stage when the picture as it appeared to me gave the diamond glitter and the height and weight of those mighty peaks; later, something of this was lost, as he knew himself. The grey of an English winter seemed to have dimmed his impression of radiancy.” Mary also writes of other compositions: “It was at Brighton that he completed the little Cupid under the monk’s cowl, and named it ‘The Habit does not make the Monk’.”[4]

 

Now established at Sussex Square, Watts was photographed in the studio working on his painting Ariadnef, surrounded by other canvases including one that would appear to be She shall be called woman.

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Figure 3 – George Frederic Watts working on ‘Ariadne in Naxos’ in his studio in Brighton, 1888. Photograph by Donovan & Son, St James’s Street, Brighton. Watts Gallery Trust.

Mary Watts notes that her husband worked on 16 pictures in total while at the Brighton house. In addition to those pictures mentioned above, they included the other two paintings in Watts’ Eve Trology (Eve Tempted and Eve Repentant), as well as The Good Samaritan, two versions of The Messenger, Love and Death, Love and Life, Death Crowning Innocence, Aspiration, and a portrait of Mr Jowett. [1]

George and Mary Watts entertained their friends and other artists at Sussex Square. In early December, the painter and stained glass artist Henry Holiday, who had a cottage near Shoreham a few miles along the coast, came to the house. Holiday’s visits to the Wattses there are described his Reminiscences of my life. He had been helping to raise money to keep a Brighton crèche open for women who worked during day in the laundries or private houses. When he heard the news that the crèche might have to close, Watts invited its organiser, Mrs Hughes, to tea and settled the whole debt there and then.[5]

Frederic Leighton was invited twice to Brighton but was unable to accept due to pressure of work. He first declines in the letter of 8 October 1888 (see above), and in a second letter of 24 December, he writes: “It was very kind of you my dear Signor to write again & bid me come to see you in your Brighton home – that would indeed be pleasant! but I am sorry to say the fact that I am often prevented from working by the darkness here does not liberate me from a life to which I am tied down by so many other strings – holidays at this time are not within my reach.”[6]

Watts fell ill in February 1889. Mary writes: “In February came a sad interruption to this happier time; he caught a bad cold, developed bronchitis, and finally pneumonia, and so, with complications which followed on convalescence, he was hardly at all at work till the middle of April.”[4] In Mrs Russell Barrington’s Reminiscences of Wattsg, the artist’s stay at Brighton is recalled in one paragraph as follows: “The next winter Watts tried Brighton. He looked fairly well when I saw him there in the autumn, but he was taken ill shortly after, and wrote later that he had been in bed nine weeks, and had had a hospital nurse for eight weeks. He was afraid that I and all his friends would be disappointed by the little he would have to show, ‘but the fact must be accepted now that I am really an old man, and shall have to take things quietly’.”[7]

The Wattses were intending to leave Brighton at the end of March 1889, [8] but decided to stay on, Mary writing in the Annals: “When by degrees the strength returned, and after the long interruption he got back to the studio, he decided to stay on at Brighton till the end of May, to have the advantage of another month of work in that fine room.”

This room is shown in the photograph below. With George and Mary Watts are three sisters, Agatha, Ruth, and Sylvia Lawrence. The large canvas of The Court of Death can be seen on the right-hand wall. On 26 May 1889, shortly before he left Brighton, Watts executed a beautiful signed pencil drawing of Agatha. Three older Lawrence sisters had founded Roedean School nearby. Watts was one of the founding benefactors of the school and later sent his ward Lilian Mackintosh there.[9] The photograph was published in the 1942 Roedean Magazine, and, according to this publication: ‘was taken by the School’s old friend, Mr Donovan’. The ‘Mr Donovan’ refers to Thomas Donovan who was a leading Brighton photographer of the day with studios in St James’ Street. Donovan also took the photograph reproduced above of Watts working on his picture Ariadne in the Brighton studio.

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© Roedean School.

In an article on Thomas Donovan in Views and Reviews, Brighton and Hove, published around 1897, it is reported that: ‘when Mr. G. Watts, R.A., with his wife, were residing at John Pulestone’s house at Sussex Square, Mr. Donovan attended the Royal Academician’s studio, there giving lessons in photography to Mrs. Watts, and has photographed the distinguished artist painting both in his own and at the St. James’s Studio’, and that: ‘He has had many distinguished sitters both in his own studio and in that of Mr Watts, R.A’. Watts wrote a testimonial of recommendation for Donovan that appeared in an advertisement for Donovan’s studio in the Brighton Herald (1899), in which he is quoted as: ‘I have great pleasure in testifying to the excellence of Mr Donovan’s Photographs, and think those I have sat for among the best that have ever been done of me’.

The Wattses, by 1891, had their house, Limnerslease, at Compton, Surrey, and, apart from making the occasional visit to see Lilian, do not appear to have spent any further extended periods in Brighton after leaving 31 Sussex Square.

 

_________________________________________________

 

Notes:

a. Watts had earlier been a house guest in Kensington of Sara Prinsep and her husband Thoby for 24 years.
b. Sir Frederic Leighton, as was his title then, was President of the Royal Academy, one of the leading artists of the day, and friend and neighbour of Watts in Kensington.
c. Mary Gertrude Mead curated the exhibition of Watts’ work at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, 1884-1885.
d. The Court of Death is one of Watts’ largest canvasses, 14 feet in height, on which he was engaged at that time.
e. Watts was called ‘Signor’ after his travels in Italy.
f. Watts painted several versions of Ariadne. The version in the photograph would appear to be the painting now in the collection of the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University.
g. Mrs Russell Barrington was a London friend and neighbour of Watts.

References:

[1] The Diary Notes of Mary Watts.

[2] The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Archives and Museum Catalogue LH/1/1/6/008.

[3] The National Portrait Gallery Archive Catalogue GFW/1/10/56.

[4] Watts M. S. George Frederic Watts. Annals of an Artist’s Life, Volume II. Macmillan, London, 1912; pages 126-127, 135-146.

[5] Holiday Henry. Reminiscences of my life. Heinemann, 1914; pages 333-334.

[6] The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Archives and Museum Catalogue LH/1/1/6/009.

[7] Barrington, Mrs Russell. G F Watts, Reminiscences. Macmillan, London, 1905; pages 180-181.

[8] The National Portrait Gallery Archive Catalogue GFW/1/12/109.

[9] Naughton, Gail. Personal communication.

 

The author would like to thank the following for their assistance with his research: Dr Lucy Ella Rose (University of Surrey); Dr Beatrice Bertram and Dr Desna Greenhow (Watts Gallery – Artists Village); Jackie Sullivan (Roedean School).

 

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