Watts wins back his reputation as a master of Victorian portraiture

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The Independent Online

He was the son of an impoverished piano maker who counted Alfred Tennyson, John Ruskin and William Gladstone among his friends and painted more than 300 portraits in his lifetime.

He was the son of an impoverished piano maker who counted Alfred Tennyson, John Ruskin and William Gladstone among his friends and painted more than 300 portraits in his lifetime.

At the time of his death a century ago, George Frederic Watts was one of the world's most revered artists, worshipped among the great and good of the Victorian era. Now after decades of Watts being overlooked, the National Portrait Gallery is hoping to restore the artist to his rightful place in the pantheon of British painters with the largest exhibition of his work in half a century.

More than 50 portraits by Watts, many of which have not been seen in public before, will go on display to show his prolific output of private commissions for the artistic and social elite of Victorian London.

Organisers of the exhibition said the self-taught and precocious artist, who joined a sculptor's studio at the age of 10, has been denied the recognition given to many of his contemporaries such as the pre-Raphaelite movement. Barbara Bryant, the art historian who curated the exhibition, said: "Watts had a huge reputation in his lifetime - he was given a one-man show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1884. But for subsequent generations he has somewhat faded from view, largely because his later work of symbolist allegories was rather difficult. But his portraits show a highly talented artist who wanted to delve into the personalities of his subjects."

The exhibition, which marks the centenary of the artist's death, will highlight the refined and bohemian circles in which he moved at the height of the Victorian period. He lived for 25 years as the house guest of Lord and Lady Holland, two prominent aristocrats and patrons of the arts, in Kensington.

As a result Watts found himself at the heart of high society. A salon held at the Kensington mansion attracted artists such as Edward Burne-Jones, the essayist Thomas Carlyle and politicians such as Gladstone, who later became prime minister. The artist was known in the circle as the "Signor".

Watts, who became known for emphasising the strain and wear on some of his subjects' faces, had a particularly close relationship with Tennyson, painting the tempestuous poet six times.

Such was his renown that Queen Victoria offered him a baronetcy but Watts rejected the honour. The artist became best known for his Hall of Fame, a series of the most important men and women of his day, including Tennyson, Robert Browning and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Watts described the subjects as his "worthies".

But the new exhibition, which will run from today until 9 January, also features the women in his life. Among them was the actress, Ellen Terry, who was 17 when she married a 47-year-old Watts. The marriage was ill-judged and lasted less than a year but the artist completed a number of outstanding portraits of his wife, three of which are in the exhibition.

He also developed a close relationship with his patron, Augusta, Lady Holland. But Ms Bryant said it would be wrong to see Watts as a womaniser: "He was more motivated by an idea of modern beauty."

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