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Letters of Victorian artist G.F. Watts go online

— January 2014

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G.F. Watts, Self-portrait,  c. 1860 © National Portrait Gallery, London

The National Portrait Gallery has completed a major online catalogue of the personal and professional correspondence of the 19th-century British artist George Frederic Watts (1817–1904), enabling, for the first time, world-wide access to the stories behind his remarkable life and career.

The nine-month project, funded by the National Cataloguing Grants Programme for Archives, has included the transcription of 1,446 letters and notes written to, or received by, Watts. The Collection reveals the professional and personal relationships of one of Britain’s most significant artists, providing an invaluable source of material for researchers, students and those with an interest in British art in the 19th century.

Watts is celebrated for his portraits of eminent Victorians, known as his ‘Hall of Fame’ series, and the letters in the Collection, held in the Gallery’s Heinz Archive and Library, reflect the impressive artistic, political, academic and social circles in which he moved. From his London residence, Little Holland House, where he lived with the bohemian Prinsep family, Watts corresponded with the Victorian elite and counted many ‘celebrities’ of the time his close friends, including the politician William Ewart Gladstone; the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson;  Cecil Rhodes, founder of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe); the Roman Catholic churchman, Cardinal Manning; the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron; the religious philosopher James Martineau; and the painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais .

Other highlights of the Collection include letters revealing the ideas behind his magnificent symbolist paintings; hundreds of letters between Watts and his art supplier, Winsor and Newton,detailing the secrets of his artistic practice and unusual techniques; and correspondence regarding his exhibitions, including one of over 200 of his works in 1881-82, which was the first ever retrospective of any living British artist, and another in New York in 1884-85. Other letters of interest record appointments for sittings, social engagements and his physical health.

The letters were compiled by Watts’s second wife Mary Seton Watts (1849–1938) following her husband’s death, in preparation for her biography of him, published in 1912. In July 1905, Mary Watts advertised for the loan of Watts’ letters, intending to make copies for biographical research. The correspondence, both original and copied, was arranged and pasted into 15 albums, of which the National Portrait Gallery acquired 14, plus many loose letters.

The Heinz Archive and Library of the National Portrait Gallery, London, documents the history of the institution and its activities, and is the leading centre for research in the field of British portraiture. It also includes archive collections acquired from external sources, including the papers of key portrait artists and art historians. The Watts Collection is one of the most significant of these collections.

George Frederic Watts was considered one of the greatest artists of his age, internationally renowned and celebrated in his own lifetime. He pursued an individual approach to painting and sculpture and pushed the boundaries of Victorian art. As well as his portraits of his distinguished contemporaries in Victorian society, Watts was known for his large allegorical works of art with strong moral messages to educate and improve society. In artistic terms he is significant not only because of the works he produced, but because of his determined innovation in developing an artistic practice which was not tied to a larger artistic movement. A gallery of his work is open near Guildford, Surrey. See Jeff Fendall's article in Cassone, December 2011.

Ruth Benny, National Portrait Gallery Archive Cataloguer (Watts Collection), says:

‘Working on this project I had to fully immerse myself in the world of this intriguing painter. The Watts Archive consists of correspondence which reflects the life and career of this great artist: his art practice and exhibitions, his close friends and patrons and the places he resided. The National Portrait Gallery Archive and Library is very excited about this project as it will be an invaluable research tool to a range of users.’

The online catalogue of Watts’s correspondence is available on the NPG's archive website. An online resource detailing Watts’s life and art, accompanied by extracts from the catalogue, has also been created.

The National Portrait Gallery launched its online archive catalogue in 2010, enabling a wider audience to access details of the Gallery’s activities since it was founded in 1856. The online archive comprises over 30,000 descriptions containing information about all types of records, including letters, x-rays, videos, posters, press-cuttings, minutes and reports as well as photographs. It includes records of former Gallery Directors, such as Sir George Scharf, Sir Lionel Cust and Sir Roy Strong, as well as on acquiring, conserving and displaying portraits, organizing and staging exhibitions, and constructing, managing and developing the building.

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