An artist at home with human frailty

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The Independent Online

I first visited the Watts Gallery, at Compton near Guildford, 20-odd years ago. I went in the spirit of pilgrimage, not just out of curiosity. Nothing had prepared me for what I found. I turned aside from the roar of the A3 into the sudden hush of the village. A track led round an unpromising outhouse on to a lawn - and there it was: an Arts and Crafts dream turned into reality. Shaggy bushes concealing much of the façade. A row of pert little dormer windows. The entrance like the opening of a bower.

I first visited the Watts Gallery, at Compton near Guildford, 20-odd years ago. I went in the spirit of pilgrimage, not just out of curiosity. Nothing had prepared me for what I found. I turned aside from the roar of the A3 into the sudden hush of the village. A track led round an unpromising outhouse on to a lawn - and there it was: an Arts and Crafts dream turned into reality. Shaggy bushes concealing much of the façade. A row of pert little dormer windows. The entrance like the opening of a bower.

It was the special talent of the gallery to make every visitor feel they had discovered something that no one else knew about - something all the more precious for being poised, apparently, on the verge of collapse.

The air of the rooms felt woody with damp, and the pictures felt more nearly out of time than timeless: large allegorical canvases that seemed nervously to overstate their interest in the Aesthetic and Symbolist movements; precocious early drawings; portraits of both well known and long-forgotten Victorian names; John Stuart Mill, revealing exactly the blend of steeliness and kindliness that he shows in his writing. Tennyson, sunk into his melancholy but never letting his attention swerve from the world. These things alone were confirmation that Watts merited a much wider audience; his cultivated ambitions ("The Utmost for the Highest") were the proper ideals of a committed and courageous spirit.

All the same, it was difficult to leave without feeling that Watts had sunk irretrievably far from public esteem.

Today, however, enough time has passed, and a sufficient momentum of interest in the Victorians has accumulated, to allow us to look at Watts afresh. And not just to look at him for what he did, but to look at him in the best possible place. Watts's enthusiasms and emphases cannot easily be separated from the National Portrait Gallery. His bequest to the Gallery helped to build the foundation of its 19th-century holdings, and as a painter himself he widened its catchment to include literary and artistic types (Tennyson several times, Browning, Swinburne) as well as society and aristocratic names - thereby reinforcing the National Portrait Gallery's own burgeoning practice. As a technician, he fought to preserve Renaissance principles while at the same time making his canvases more than just superior kinds of mug shots. As an advocate he was vitally involved in the influential National Portrait exhibitions of the 1860s. As an argufyer he identified the necessary modesty of the portraitist's role, yet extolled the values of the final result. (He wanted, he said, to produce "portraits [that] should be as inartificial & true as possible".)

One of the keys to his success was his willingness to think of his painting in terms of the other arts. Very many of his remarks about painting invoke music (no doubt partly due to the influence of Walter Pater), while others refer to poetry. Painting, he said, "is art that corresponds to the highest literature, both in intention and effect, poems painted on canvas, judged and criticised as are the poems written on paper". He was interested in making character seem fluid - subject to moods and waywardness, rather than being fixed and unchanging.

This is what makes his portraits of the Victorian great and good so compelling: we see them as wounded, aspiring, hopeful, flawed individuals, not merely as figures in a pantheon. It is also what draws us into his pictures of those whose names we have forgotten: Virginia Pattle, Princess Lieven, Jeanie Nassau Senior. We see his subjects as people who are involved in their particular world, and who often enjoy a richness of setting that has become frankly strange, yet also as personalities brimming with feelings that we can recognise as our own. Compared to the predominantly aristocratic portraits by his well-known contemporary Francis Grant, these are pictures we can identify with, in the same way that we can identify with the differently remote worlds depicted by Gainsborough or Lawrence.

But is Watts as good as Gainsborough or Lawrence? Looking across the whole range of his work - there are some 800 surviving paintings, of which about 300 are portraits - his achievement appears much less consistent.

It is possible no amount of passing time will allow us to see the Symbolist works as anything other than curiosities. But the flexibility that made these experiments possible is the thing that gives his portraits their lasting energy. He was always willing to be surprised by what he found in his contemplation of character, and to capture that surprise for us to share.

This is an edited extract from the foreword to "GF Watts Portraits: Fame & Beauty in Victorian Society" (National Portrait Gallery, £20). The exhibition runs until 9 January.

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