Watts Pictures, Tate Gallery
( Originally Published 1908 )
George Frederick Watts, to whose gift we owe twenty-two out of the twenty-five pictures of his, we have here, died in 1904 at the age of eighty-seven. His was a long life, a life well spent; in his service to art he served man.
His people were from Herefordshire, and the Celts, who have a fixed idea that English people are unimaginative, have thought well to call him a Welshman. He began painting as a tiny child, and went on to the last. When he was an old man he would be up with the dawn and at work in his studio till the sun went down. In the short notices given here of most of our modern English painters; you will find that over and over again they went to the Academy Schools. Watts was no exception to this rule, but he did not long remain a student. After a few weeks he had had enough of the instruction. He was almost entirely self-taught. He would spend long hours studying the Elgin marbles in the British Museum, the inspiration of painters and poets. He learnt from them, he says, all the art he knew. He must have picked up a good deal of technical knowledge from his friend, the sculptor, William Behnes, for he would often go to his studio, watch him at work, and mould the clay, thinking and absorbing all he could of the art he loved.
At twenty Watts's first picture was hung in the Royal Academy—a red letter day for a young artist. Five years later there was a competition for the decoration of the new Houses of Parliament, and he determined to try his luck. He worked hard at a cartoon of 'Caractacus being led in triumph through the streets of Rome,' and gained the first prize of 300 pounds. That was one of the moments so happy that he might have asked it to linger : it meant so much to him, much more than the actual triumph. He was a poor man, and the money enabled him to go to Rome ; the city to which all aspiring artists turn longing eyes, where they can drink in the spirit of art throughout the ages. Under alien skies it is not so easy to realise the gorgeousness of Titian, the grandeur of Michael Angelo.
In Italy, Watts made the acquaintance of Lord Holland, who was a useful friend to him, and introduced him to all the important people of the time.
We must now turn to W atts's pictures. In looking at them it is well to remember that his aim was not only to paint something that was beautiful and leave it there. It was not. only to show what wonderful effects of light and shade could be produced, the richness of colouring, the dignity of a fine design, it was to teach a great lesson also. Nearly all his pictures were intended to convey some deep meaning for those who could read and understand. He had the religious spirit of the old masters, but he portrayed it in another way. They had shown us the sinfulness of sin many a time in Christ dying on the cross, bearing the burden of wrong doing for all the world. Watts makes us realise it too. He points out to us in pictures like ` Mammon ' (163o), the evil of the love of riches, as he does in the sorrowful figure ` For he had great possessions ' (1632). Watts is a fine and noble example of a painter of great ideals. He did not care for wealth ; he painted enough portraits to enable himself to live, and then gave up his thoughts to conceptions of Love and Life and Death, and all the great realities. He wrote a year before his death,* ` I even think that in the future, and in stronger hands than mine, Art may yet speak, as great poetry itself, with the solemn and majestic ring in which the Hebrew prophets spoke to the Jews of old, demanding noble aspirations.'
` Mammon ' (1630) was dedicated to all his worshippers. It is a terrible picture. A coarse heavy man with soulless face sits upon a throne. At each corner of his seat are skulls ; smoke is rising in the distance. The heavy hand of the monster rests on a girl's head, she is being crushed by its weight. As a footstool he supports his feet on a young man's prostrate body. On Mammon's knees are bags of gold, his ears are asses' ears—the symbol that in spite of all his wealth and power he was very stupid ; his eyes are closed : he is dressed in scarlet and gold. He is the god whom men worship. Look at him near at hand, Watts seems to say, see for whom you have given up your lives.
Here is one of his worshippers, ` For he had great possessions' (1632). You remember the story in the gospel of the young man who came to Jesus and asked what he should do to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. ` He had kept the ten commandments ; what else could he do ?' The answer was : If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven : and come and follow me.' But when the young man heard that saying he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. In his gorgeous raiment, his head bent down, his back to us, he is passing wearily out into the world, away to his luxurious home, away to do business with the money-changers, for Mammon he had turned his back on Christ.
Here one, who also had to make the choice, lies in the dignity of death. This is what life ends in for all, ` Sic Transit Gloria Mundi ' (1638). The knight who lies on his bier is one of the great dead. The glory of the world has passed for him. On the floor and round him are strewn emblems of all that human life can give, of the pageant of war, of the beauty of music, of the greatness of learning. Written in the background of the picture is the legend ` What I spent I had ; what I saved I lost ; what I gave I have.' This knight had laid up a treasure for himself which will endure now that all else is taken from him. By noble deeds and generous acts he has won the laurel crown at his head.
Let us turn now to Watts's conception of the King of Terrors, ` Death Crowning Innocence' (1635). Death is a beautiful and compassionate angel, enfolding in the shelter of her wings a little child, wearing round its baby brow a golden halo. It nestles there safe out of reach of harm. If it has escaped the joy of life, it has also been rescued from its disappointment and tragedy.
In Watts's pictures there may seem to you to be a note of sadness, but there is also everlasting Hope. We see her (1640) in the faint twilight, her eyes bandaged, sitting above the earth. The cords of her lyre are all broken but one. She is listening to the music of the solitary string. At first sight you might think she was a study of despair, but as you look at her you will learn some-thing of the beautiful message she would convey, `That there is something in man which is always apparently on the eve of disappearing, but never disappears, an assurance which is always apparently saying farewell, and yet illimitably lingers, a string which is always stretched to snapping and yet never snaps.'
Watts has here a sequence of pictures, ` Love and Life' (1641); ` Love and Death' (1645), and ` Love Triumphant' (1692). Let us glance at the second of these. Death is represented as a tall mysterious figure, shrouded with flowing drapery, her face turned from us, her hand pressing against the door of the House of Life. Love stands there, a young boy, trying to bar her out. There is something inevitable in her beautiful figure, and though the roses fall in the struggle and the wings of love are bruised and crushed, she must pass in. It is a picture that reminds us of the saddest struggle in all the world, the hopeless struggle of love.
`We sing of love, and loveless death
But I would not have you leave these pictures with a feeling of gloom in your minds. Watts's message was never that. Love is stronger than Death, and he shows it to us, Love is immortal. We see the beautiful figure of ` Triumphant Love ' soaring to the skies—he has journeyed through the world with Time and Death—and now when Time and Death are overcome, their journey ended, Love alone lives on.