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Full text of "G. F. Watts"

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G. F. WATTS 




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THE HABIT DOES NOT MAKE THE MONK 



G. F. WATTS 
BY G. K. CHESTERTON 


LONDON 
Due K W 0 R T H & C o. 
HENRIETTA ST. COVENT GARDEN 



Publishtd 1904 
Reprinted 190 6 , 1909, 19 1 3, 1914 


PRINTED AT 
THE BALLANTYNE PRESS 
LONDON 



LIST OF PHOTOGRAVURES 


Facing p. 
THE HABIT DOES NOT MAKE THE MONK Frontispiece 
G. F. WATTS, R.A. 8 
THE RIDER ON THE WHITE HORSE 10 
LESLIE STEPHEN 14- 
WALTER CRANE 16 
THE SLUl\1BER OF THE AGES 18 
CARDINAL MANNING 20 
CHAOS 22 
" FOR HE HAD GREAT POSSESSIONS" 26 
AN IDLE CHILD OF FANCY 28 
THE MINOTAUR 3 2 
THE COURT OF DEATH 34- 
MATTHEW ARNOLD 3 6 
JOHN STUART MILL 3 6 
ROBERT BROWNING 3 8 
LORD TENNYSON 3 8 
THE DWELLER IN THE INNERMOST 4 0 
GEORGE MEREDITH 4 2 
ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE 44- 
HOPE 4- 6 
JONAH +8 



LIST OF PHOTOGRA \YURES 


MAMMON 
DEATH CROWNING INNOCENCE 
A STORY FR01\1 BOCCACCIO 
LORD LYTTON 
DAWN 
EVE REPENTANT 
LOVE AND DEATH 
WILLIAM MORRIS 
DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI 
THOMAS CARLYLE 
GOOD LUCK TO YOUR FISHING 


Fating þ. 
52 
54 
56 
58 
60 
62 
64- 
66 
68 


7 0 
74 


t'fhe Photogravures are from photographs hy Fredk. Hollyer. 
Permanent photographs of works of TVatls, Rossetit", Burne- 
Jones, Holhein, and of pÙtures 1:n the Duhlin and Hagu
 
Galleries can he obtained of Fredk. BoUyer, 9 Pemhroke 
Square, Kensington. 


8 



, 



 


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. 


G. F. W A TIS. R.A. 
Photograph from Life by Frederick Hollyer. 


\\ 



G EORGE FREDERICK \VATTS was born 
on 23rd February 1817. His whole rise and 
career synchronizes roughly with the rise 
and career of the nineteenth century. As a rule, 
no doubt, such chronological parallels are peculiarly 
fanciful and unmeaning. Nothing can be imagined 
more idle, in a general way, than talking about a 
century as if it were some kind of animal with a head and 
tail, instead of an arbitrary length cut from an un- 
ending scroll. N or is it less erroneous to assume that 
even if a period be definitely vital or disturbing, art 
must be a mirror of it; the greatest political storm 
flutters only a fringe of humanity; poets, like brick- 
layers, work on through a century of wars, and Bewick's 
birds, to take an instance, have the air of persons 
unaffected by the French Revolution. But in the 
case of Watts there are two circumstances which 
render the dates relevant. The first is that the nine- 
teenth century was self-conscious, believed itself to 
be an idea and an atmosphere, and changed its name 
from a chronological almost to a philosophical term. 
I do not know whether all centuries do this or whether 
an advanced and progressive organ called "The 
Eleventh Century" was ever in contemplation in the 
dawn of the Middle Ages. But with us it is clear 
that a certain spirit was rightly or wrongly associated 
with the late century and that it called up images and 
thoughts like any historic or ritual date, like the Fourth 
9 


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GEORGE FREDERICK \\TATTS 
of July or the First of April. \ Vha t these images and 
thoughts were we shall be obliged in a few minutes 
and in the interests of the subject to inquire. But 
this is the first circumstance which renders the period 
important; and the second is that it has always been 
so regarded by \ Va tts himself. He, more than any 
other modern man, more than politicians who thun- 
dered on platforms or financiers who captured con- 
tinen ts, has sought in the midst of his quiet and hidden 
life to mirror his age. He was born in the white and 
austere dawn of that great reforming century, and he 
has lingered after its grey and doubtful close. He 
is above all things a typical figure, a survival of the 
nineteenth century. 
It will appear to many a somewhat grotesque 
matter to talk about a period in which most of us 
were born and which has only been dead a year or 
two, as if it were a primal Babylonian empire of which 
only a few columns are left crumbling in the desert. 
And yet such is, in spirit, the fact. There is no more 
remarkable psychological element in history than the 
way in which a period can suddenly become unin- 
telligible. To the early Victorian period we have in 
a moment lost the key: the Crystal Palace is the 
temple of a forgotten creed. The thing always 
ha ppens sharply: a whisper runs through the salons, 
l\1r. Max Beerbohm waves a wand and a whole gene- 
ration of great men and great achievement suddenly 
looks mildewed and unmeaning. \Ve see precisely the 
same thing in that other great reaction towards art 
and the vanities, the Restoration of Charles II. In 
that hour both the great schools of faith and valour 
which had seemed either angels or devils to all men: 
the dreams of Strafford and the great High Churchmen 
on the one hand; the lVloslem frenzy of the English 
Commons, the worship of the English law upon the 
10 



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rHE RIDER O
 THE WHITE HORSE 



GEORGE FREDERICK \VATTS 
other; both seemed distant and ridiculous. The new 
Cavalier despised the old Cavalier even more than he 
despised the Roundhead. The last stand of English 
chivalry dwindled sharply to the solitary figure of the 
absurd old country gentleman drinking wine out of an 
absurd old flagon. The great roar of Roundhead 
psalms which cried out that the God of Battles was 
loose in English meadows shrank to a single snuffle. 
The new and polite age saw the old and serious one 
exactly as we see the early Victorian era: they saw it, 
that is to say, not as splendid, not as disastrous, not as 
fruitful, not as infamous, not as good or bad, but 
simply as ugly. Just as we can see nothing about 
Lord Shaftesbury but his hat, they could see nothing 
about Cromwell but his nose. There is no doubt 
of the shock and sharpness of the silent transition. 
The only difference is that accordingly as we think 
of man and his nature, according to our deepest 
intuitions about things, we shall see in the Restoration 
and the fin de siècle philosophy a man waking from a 
turbid and pompous dream, or a man hurled from 
hea ven and the wars of the angels. 
G. F. Watts is so deeply committed to, and so 
unalterably steeped in, this early Victorian seriousness 
and air of dealing with great matters, that unless we 
sharply apprehend that spirit, and its difference from 
our own, we shall misunderstand his work from the 
outset. Splendid as is the art of V\Tatts technically 
or obviously considered, we shall yet find much in 
it to perplex and betray us, unless we understand his 
original theory and intention, a theory and intention 
dyed deeply with the colours of a great period which 
is gone. The great technical inequalities of his work, 
its bursts of stupendous simplicity in colour and 
design, its daring failures, its strange symbolical 
portraits, all will mislead or bewilder if we have not 
II 



GEORGE FREDERICK '" A TTS 
the thread of intention. In order to hold that, 
we must hold something which runs through 
and supports, as a string supports jewels, all the 
wars and trea ties and reforms of the nineteenth 
century. 
There are at least three essential and preliminary 
points on "vhich "Tatts is so completely at one with 
the nineteenth century and so completely out of 
accord with the twentieth, that it may be advisable 
to state them briefly before \ve proceed to the narrower 
bu t not more cogent facts of his life and growth. 
The first of these is a nineteenth-century atmosphere 
which is so difficult to describe, that we can only 
convey it by a sort of paradox. It is difficult to 
know whether it should be called doubt or faith. 
For if, on the one hand, real faith would have been 
more confident, real doubt, on the other hand, would 
have been more indifferent. The attitude of that 
age of which the middle and best parts of \'Tatts' 
"vork is most typical, was an attitude of devouring 
and concentrated interest in things which were, by 
their own system, impossible or unknowable. Men 
were, in the main, agnostics: they said, ""T e do 
not know"; but not one of them ever ventured to 
say, "'Ve do not care." In most eras of revolt 
and question, the sceptics reap something from their 
scepticism: if a man were a believer in the eighteenth 
century, there was Heaven; if he were an unbeliever, 
there was the Hell- Fire Club. But these men re- 
strained themselves more than hermits for a hope 
tha t was more than half hopeless, and sacrificed hope 
itself for a liberty which they would not enjoy; they 
were rebels without deliverance and saints without 
reward. There may have been and there "vas some- 
thing arid and over-pompous about them: a newer 
and gayer philosophy may be passing before us and 
12 



GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
changing many things for the better; but we shall 
not easily see any nobler race of men, and of them 
all most assuredly there was none nobler than \\Tatts. 
If anyone wishes to see that spirit, he will see it in 
pictures painted by \Vatts in a form beyond expression 
sad and splendid. Hope that is dim and delicate 
and yet immortal, the indestructible minimum of 
the spirit; Love and Death that is awful and yet 
the reverse of horrible; cr he Court of Death that is 
like a page of Epictetus and might have been dreamt 
by a dead Stoic: these are the visions of that spirit 
and the incarnations of that time. I ts faith was 
doubtful, but its doubt was faithful. And its supreme 
and acute difference from most periods of scepticism, 
from the la ter Renaissance, from the Restora tion 
and from the hedonism of our own time was. this, 
that when the creeds crumbled and the gods seemed 
to break up and vanish, it did not fall back, as we 
do, on things yet more solid and definite, upon 
art and wine and high finance and industrial 
efficiency and vices. I t fell in love with abstrac- 
tions and became enamoured of great and desolate 
words. 
The second point of rapport between \Vatts and his 
time was a more personal matter, a matter more 
concerned with the man, or, at least, the type; but 
it throws so much light upon almost every step of 
his career that it may with advantage be suggested 
here. Those who know the man himself, the 
quaint and courtly old man down at Limnerslease, 
know that if he has one trait more arresting 
than another, it is his almost absurd humility. He 
even disparages his own talent that he may insist 
rather upon his aims. His speech and gesture are 
simple, his manner polite to the point of being depre- 
cating, his soul to all appearance of an almost con- 
13 


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GEO RGE FREDERICK WATTS 
founding clarity and innocence. But although these 
appearances accurately represent the truth about 
him, though he is in reality modest and even fan- 
tastically modest, there is another element in him, 
an element which was in almost all the great men of 
his time, and it is something which many in these 
days would call a kind of splendid and inspired impu- 
dence. It is that wonderful if simple power of 
preaching, of claiming to be heard, of believing in 
an internal message and destiny: it is the audacious 
faculty of mounting a pulpit. Those would be 
very greatly mistaken who, misled by the child-like 
and humble manner of this monk of art, expected to 
find in him any sort of doubt, or any sort of fear, 
or any sort of modesty about the aims he follows or 
the cause he loves. He has the one great certainty 
which marks off all the great Victorians from those 
who have come after them: he may not be certain 
that he is successful, or certain that he is great, or 
certain that he is good, or certain that he is ca pa ble : 
but he is certain that he is right. It is of course 
the very element of confidence which has in our 
day become least common and least possible. 
T e 
know we are brilliant and distinguished, but we do 
not know we are right. We swagger in fantastic 
artistic costumes; we praise ourselves; we fling 
epigrams right and left; we have the courage to play 
the egoist and the courage to play the fool, but we 
have not the courage to preach. If we are to deliver 
a philosophy it must be in the manner of the late 
Mr. \Vhistler and the ridentem dicere verum. If our 
heart is to be aimed at it must be with the rapier of 
Stevenson which runs us through without either 
pain or puncture. It is only just to say, that good 
elements as well as bad ones have joined in making 
this old 'Tictorian preaching difficult or alien to us. 
If 



'" 


LESLIE STEPHEN. 




GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
Humility as well as fear, camaraderie as well as cyni- 
cism, a sense of complexity and a kind of gay and 
worldly charity have led us to avoid the pose of the 
preacher, to be moral by ironies, to whisper a word 
and glide away. But, whatever may be the accidental 
advantage of this recoil from the didactic, it certainly 
does mean some loss of courage and of the old and 
athletic simplicity. Nay, in some sense it is really a 
loss of a fine pride and self-regard. Mr. \\llistler 
coquetted and bargained about the position and sale 
of his pictures: he praised them; he set huge prices 
on them ; but still under all disguise, he treated them 
as trifles. \Vatts, when scarcely more than a boy 
and comparatively unknown, started his great custom 
of offering his pictures as gifts worthy of a great nation. 
Thus we came to the conclusion, a conclusion which 
may seem to some to contain a faint element of 
paradox, that Mr. \\Thistler suffered from an exces- 
sive and exaggerated modesty. And this unnatural 
modesty of Mr. \Vhistler can scarcely be more typically 
sym bolized than in his horror of preaching. The new 
school of art and thought does indeed wear an air of 
audacity, and breaks out everywhere into blasphemies, 
as if it required any courage to say a blasphemy. 
There is only one thing that it requires real courage 
to say, and that is a truism. 
Lastly, it would be quite impossible to complete 
this prefatory suggestion of the atmosphere in which 
the mind of Watts grew and prevailed; without 
saying something about that weary and weather- 
beaten question of the relation of art to ethics on 
which so much has been said in connexion with him 
and his contemporaries. About the real aim and the 
real value of \Vatts' allegorical pictures I shall speak 
later't but for the moment it is only desirable to point 
out what the early and middle Victorian view of 
15 


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GEORGE FREDERICK \V A TTS 
the matter really was. According to the ]a ter 
æsthetic creed which ]\Ir. \\7histler and others did 
so much to preach, the state of the arts under the 
reign of that Victorian view v;as a chaos of every- 
one minding everyone else's business. I t was a 
world in which painters were trying to be novelists, 
and novelists trying to be historians, and musicians 
doing the work of schoolmasters, and sculptors doing 
the work of curates. That is a view which has some 
truth in it, both as a description of the actual state of 
things and as involving an interesting and suggestive 
philosophy of the arts. But a good deal of harm 
may be done by ceaselessly repeating to ourselves 
even a true and fascinating fashionable theory, and a 
great deal of good by endeavouring to realize the real 
truth about an older one. The thing from which 
England suffers just now more than from any other 
evil is not the assertion of falsehoods, but the endless 
and irrepressible repetition of half-truths. There is 
another side to every historic situation, and that 
often a startling one; and the other side of the 
Victorian view of art, now so out of mode, is too 
little considered. The salient and essential charac- 
teristic of \\Tatts and men of his school was that they 
regarded life as a whole. They had in their heads, as 
it were, a synthetic philosophy which put everything 
into a certain relation with God and the wheel of 
things. Thus, psychologically speaking, they were 
inca pable not merely of holding such an opinion, 
but actually of thinking such a thought as that of art 
for art's sake; it was to them like talking about 
voting for voting's sake, or amputating for amputating's 
sake. To them as to the ancient Jews the Spirit of 
the unitv of existence declared in thunder that 
" 
they should not make any graven image, or have any 
gods but Him. Doubtless, they did not give art a 
16 



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WALTER CRANE. 



GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 


rela tion of unim peacha ble correctness: in their 
scheme of things it may be true, or rather it is true, 
that the æsthetic was confused with the utilitarian, 
that good gardens were turned so to speak into bad 
cornfields, and a valuable temple into a useless post- 
office. But in so far as they had this fundamental 
idea that art must be linked to life, and to the strength 
and honour of nations, they were a hundred times 
more broad-minded and more right than the new 
ul tra - technical school. The idea of following art 
through everything for itself alone, through extrava- 
gance, through cruelty, through morbidity, is just 
exactly as superstitious as the idea of following theology 
for itself alone through extravagance and cruelty and 
morbidity. To deny that Baudelaire is loathson1e, or 
Nietzsche inhuman, because we stand in awe of beauty, 
is just the same thing as denying that the Court of 
Pope Julius was loathsome, or the rack inhuman, 
beca use we stand in a we of religion. I t is not necessary 
and it is not honest. The young critics of the Green 
Carnation, with their nuances and technical mysteries, 
would doubtless be surprised to learn that as a class 
they resemble ecstatic nuns, but their principle is, 
in reality, the same. There is a great deal to be said 
for them, and a great deal, for that matter, to be said 
for nuns. But there is nothing to be surprised at, 
nothing to call for any charge ot inconsistency or lack 
of enlightenment, about the conduct of "latts and 
the great men of his age, in being unable to separate 
art from ethics. They were nationalists and uni- 
versalists: they thought that the ecstatic isolation 
of the religious sense had done incalculable harm to 
religion. It is not remarkable or unreasonable that 
they should think that the ecsta tic isolation of the 
artistic sense would do incalculable harm to art. 
rrhis, then, was the atmosphere of \Vatts and 
B 17 


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GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
Victorian idealism: an atmosphere so completely 
vanished from the world of art in which \ve now live 
that the above somewhat long introduction is really 
needed to make it vivid or human to us. These three 
elements may legitimately, as I have said, be predicated 
of it as its main characteristics: first, the sceptical 
idealism, the belief that abstract verities remained the 
chief affairs of men when theology left them; second, 
the didactic simplicity, the claim to teach other men 
and to assume one's own value and rectitude; third, 
the cosmic utilitarianism, the consideration of any 
such thing as art or philosophy perpetually \vith 
reference to a general good. They may be right or 
wrong, they may be returning or gone for ever; 
theories and fashions may change the face of humanity 
again and yet again; but at least in that one old man 
at Limnerslease, burned, and burned until death, these 
convictions, like three lamps in an old pagan temple 
of stoicism. 
Of the ancestry of \\Tatts so little is known that it 
resolves itself into one hypothesis: a hypothesis \vhich 
brings \vith it a suggestion, a suggestion employed 
by almost all his existing biographers, but a suggestion 
which cannot, I think, pass unchallenged, although 
the matter may appear somewhat theoretic and 
remote. '\'atts was born in London, but his family 
had in the previous generation come from Hereford. 
The vast amount of '\Telsh blood which is by the 
nature of the case to be found in Herefordshire has 
led to the statement that \Vatts is racially a Celt, 
which is very probably true. But it is also said, in 
almost every notice of his life and \vork, that the 
Celtic spirit can be detected in his painting, that the 
Celtic principle of mysticism is a characteristic of 
his artistic conceptions. It is in no idly antagonistic 
spirit that I venture to doubt this most profoundly. 
18 




 


THE SLUMBER OF THE AGES 



GEORGE FREDERICK 
TATTS 
Watts mayor may not be racially a Celt, but there is 
nothing Celtic about his mysticism. The essential 
Celtic spirit in letters and art may, I think, be defined 
as a sense of the unbearable beauty of things. The 
essential spirit of '\Tatts may, I think, be much better 
expressed as a sense of the joyful austerity of things. 
The dominant passion of the artistic Celt, of l\1r. 
\tV. B. Yeats or Sir Edward Burne-Jones, is in the 
word "escape": escape into a land \vhere oranges 
grow on plum-trees and men can sow \vhat they like 
and reap what they enjoy. To 'Vatts the very word 
" escape" \vould be horrible, like an obscene word: 
his ideal is altogether duty and the great \vheel. 
To the Celt frivolity is most truly the most serious 
of things, since in the tangle of roses is ahvays the 
old serpent \vho is wiser than the world. To \,\'att5 
seriousness is most truly the most" joyful of things," 
since in it \ve come nearest to that ultimate equili- 
brium and reconciliation of things \vhereby alone 
they live and endure life and each other. It is difficult 
to imagine that amid all the varieties of noble temper 
and elemental desire there could possibly be two 
exhibiting a more total divergence than that bet\veen 
a kindly severity and an almost cruel love of sweetness; 
than that bet\\cen a laborious and open-air charity 
and a kind of Bacchic asceticisn1; bet\veen a joy in 
peace and a joy in disorder; bet\veen a reduction of 
existence to its simplcst formula and an extension of 
it to its most frantic corollary; bet\veen a lover of 
justice \vho accepts the rcal \yorId more submissively 
than a slave and a lover of pleasure \vho despises 
the real \vorld more bitterly than a hcrlnit; bet\vecn 
a king in battle-harness and a vagabond in elf-land; 
between \\'atts and Sir Ed\vard Burne-Jones. 
I t i
 remarkable that even the technical style of 
\V.1tts gives .1 contradiction to this Celtic theory. 
19 


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GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
\Vatts is strong precisely where the Celt is weak, and 
weak precisely where the Celt is strong. The only 
thing that the Celt has lacked in art is that hard 
mass, that naked outline, that àPXlTEKTOVlK);, which 
makes Watts a sort of sculptor of draughtsmanship. 
I t is as well for us that the Celt has not had this: if 
he had, he would rule the world with a rod of iron; 
for he has everything else. There are no hard black 
lines in Burke's orations, or Tom Moore's songs, or the 
plays of l\1r. \V. B. Yeats. Burke is the greatest of 
political philosophers, because in him only are there 
distances and perspectives, as there are on the real 
earth, with its mists of morning and evening, and its 
blue horizons and broken skies. Moore's songs have 
neither a pure style nor deep realization, nor origi- 
nality of form, nor thought nor wit nor vigour, but 
they have something else vvhich is none of these things, 
which is nameless and the one thing needful. In Mr. 
Yeats' plays there is only one character: the hero 
\vho rules and kills all the others, and his name is 
Atmosphere. Atmosphere and the gleaming distances 
are the soul of Celtic greatness as they were of Burne- 
Jones, who was, as I have said, weak precisely where 
\Vatts is strong, in the statuesque quality in drawing, 
in the love of heavy hands like those of 
Iammoll, 
of a strong back like that of Eve Repentant, in a single 
fearless and austere outline like that of the angel in 
'[he Court of Death, in the frame-filling violence of 
1onah, in the half-witted brutality of 
 he Al inotaur. 
He is deficient, that is to say, in what can only be called 
the god-like materialism of art. \\1atts, on the other 
hand, is peculiarly strong in it. Idealist as he is, 
there is nothing frail or phantasmal about the things 
or the figures he loves. '-rhough not himself a robust 
man, he loves robustness; he loves a great bulk of 
shoulder, an abrupt bend of neck, a gigantic stride, 
20 



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CARDINAL MANNING. 


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GEORGE FR..EDERICK \V A TTS 
a large and swinging limb, a breast bound as with 
bands of brass. Of course the deficiency in such a 
case is very far from being altogether on one side. 
There are abysses in Burne-Jones which \Vatts could 
not understand, the Celtic madness, older than any 
sanity, the hunger that will remain after the longest 
feast, the sorrow that is built up of stratified delights. 
From the point of view of the true Celt, Watts, the 
\Vatts who painted the great stoical pictures Love 
and Death, :rime, Death and Judgment, :rhe Court of 
Death, A/ammon, and Cain, this pictorial ,"Vatts would 
probably be, must almost certainly be, simply a sad, 
sane, strong, stupid Englishman. He mayor may 
not be \Velsh by extraction or by part of his extraction, 
but in spirit he is an Englishman, with all the faults 
and all the disadvantages of an Englishman. He is a 
great Englishman like I\lilton or Gladstone, of the 
type, that is to say, that were too much alive for 
anything but gravity, and who enjoyed themselves 
far too much to trouble to enjoy a joke. Matthew 
Arnold has come near to defining that kind of idealism, 
so utterly different from the Celtic kind, which is to be 
found in l\lilton and again in \Vatts. He has called 
it, in one of his finest and most accurate phrases, " the 
imaginative reason." 
1'his racial legend about the \\Tatts family does not 
seem to rest upon any certain foundations, and as 
I have said, the deduction drawn from it is quite 
loose and misleading. 
rhe vvhole is only another 
example of that unfortunate, if not infamous, modern 
habit of talking about such things as heredity with 
a vague notion that science has closed the question 
when she has only just opened it. Nobody kno\vs, 
as a matter of fact, whether a Celtic mysticism can be 
inherited any more than a theory on the Education 
Bill. But the eagerness of the popular nlind to snatch 
21 


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GEORGE FREDERICK 'VATTS 


a t a certainty is too im pa tien t for the tardy processes 
of real hypothesis and research. Long before heredity 
has become a science, it has become a su rcrsti tion. 
And this curious though incidental case of the 
origin of the \\Tatts genius is just one of those cases 
,vhich make us ,vonder ,vhat has been the real result 
of the great rise of science. So far the result "vould 
rainfully appear to be that ,vhercas men in the earlier 
times said unscientific things "vith the vagueness of 
gossip and legend, they now say unscientific things 
,yith the plainness and the certainty of science. 
1
he actual artistic education of \Vatts, though 
thorough indeed in its ,vay, had a son1e,vhat peculiar 
character, the air of something detached and private, 
and to the external eye something even at random. 
He works hard, but in an elusive and personal manner. 
He does not ren1en1ber the time \yhen he did not 
draw: he was an artist in his babyhood as he is an 
artist still in his old age. Like Ruskin and many other 
of the great and serious men of the century, he would 
seem to have been brought up chiefly on ,,,hat may be 
called the large legendary literature, on such as Homer 
and Scott. Among his earliest recorded works was 
a set of coloured illustrations to the \\Taverley Novels, 
and a sketch of the struggle for the body of Patroclus. 
He went to the Academy schools, but only stayed 
there about a month; never caring for or absorbing 
the teaching, such as it \vas, of the place. He wan- 
dered perpetually in the Greek galleries of the British 
Museum, staring at the Elgin marbles, from which 
he always declared he learnt all the art he knew. 
" There," he said, stretching out his hand towards 
the Ilyssus in his studio, "there is my master." 
\Ve hear of a friendship between him and the sculptor 
\Villiam Behnes, of \Vatts lounging about that artist's 
studio, playing vvith clay, modelling busts, and staring 
22 



cñ 
o 
< 
J: 
u 


. 



GEORGE FREDERICK ,V ATTS 


at the work of sculpture. His eyes seemed to have 
been at this time the largest and hungriest part of 
him. Even when the great chance and first triumph 
of his life arrived a year or t\\70 later, even \vhen he 
gained the great scholarship which sent him abroad 
to work amid the marbles of Italy, when a famous 
ambassador was his patron and a brilliant circle his 
encouragement, \ve do not find anything of the 
conventional student about him. He never painted 
in the galleries; he only dreamed in them. This 
must not, of course, be held to mean that he did 
not work; though one or t\VO people who have 
\vritten memoirs of \\ratts have used a phraseology, 
probably without noticing it, \vhich might be held 
to imply this. Not only is the thing ludicrously 
incongruous with his exact character and morals; 
but anyone who knows anything whatever about the 
nature of pictorial art \vill kno\v quite \vell that a 
man could not paint like that \vithout having \vorked ; 
just as he would know that a man could not be the 
Living Serpent without any previous practice with 
his joints. To say that he could really learn to paint 
and draw with the technical merit of \,ratts, or \vith 
any technical merit at all, by simply looking at other 
people's pictures and statues will seem to anyone, 
\vith a small technical sense, like saying that a man 
learnt to be a sublime violinist by staring at fiddles in 
a shop window. I t is as near a physical impossibility 
as can exist in these matters. \\Tork \\ratts must 
have done and did do; it is the only conclusion 
possible \vhich is consistent either \vith the nature 
of \'T atts or the nature of painting; and it is fully 
supported by the facts. But \vhat the facts do reveal 
is that he worked in this curiously individual, this 
curiously invisible way. He had his own notion 
of \vhen to dream and when to dra\v; as he shrank 
23 



GEORGE FREDERICK 'V A TTS 
from no toil, so he shrank from no idleness. He was 
something \vhich is one of the most powerful and 
successful things in the world, something which is far 
more powerful and successful than a legion of students 
and prizemen: he was a serious and industrious 
truant. 
I t is worth while to note this in his boyhood, 
partly, of course, because from one end of his life to 
the other there IS this queer note of loneliness and 
liberty. But it is also more immediately and prac- 
tically important because it throws some light on the 
development and character of his art, and even 
especially of his technique. The great singularity 
of \Vatts, considered as a mere artist, is that he stands 
alone. He is not connected wi th any of the groups 
of the nineteenth century: he has neither followed a 
school nor founded one. He is not mediæval; but 
no one could exactly call him classical: we have only 
to compare him to Leighton to feel the difference at 
once. His artistic style is rather a thing more primi- 
tive than paganism; a thing to which paganism 
and mediævalism are alike upstart sects; a style of 
painting there might have been upon the tower ot 
Babel. He is mystical; but he is not mediæval: 
\ve have only to com pare him to Rossetti to feel the 
difference. \Vhen he emerged into the artistic world, 
that world \vas occupied by the pompous and his- 
torical school, that school which was so exquisitely 
caricatured by Thackeray in Gandish and his 
" Boadishia "; but 'Vatts was not pompous or 
historical: he painted one historical picture, vvhich 
brought him a youthful success, and he has scarcely 
painted another. He lived on through the great 
Pre-Raphaelite time, that very noble and very much 
undervalued time, when men found again what had 
been hidden since the thirteenth century under loads 
24- 



GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
of idle civilization, the truth that simplicity and a 
monastic laboriousness is the happiest of all things; 
the great truth that purity is the only atmosphere 
for passion; the great truth that silver is more beautiful 
than gold. But though there is any quantity of this 
sentiment in Watts himself, 'Vatts never has been a 
Pre-Raphaelite. He has seen other fashions come 
and go; he has seen the Pre- Ra phaelites overwhelmed 
by a heavy restoration of the conventional, headed 
by Millais with his Scotch moors and his English 
countesses; but he has not heeded it. He has seen 
these again overturned by the wild lancers of 'lFhistler ; 
he has seen the mists of Impressionism settle down 
over the world, making it weird and delicate and non- 
committal: but he thinks no more of the wet mist 
of the Impressionist than he thought of the dry glare 
of the Pre- Ra phaeli tee 
He, the most mild of men, has yet never been 
anything but \Vatts. He has followed the gleam" 
like some odd modern Merlin. He has escaped all 
the great atmospheres, the divine if deluding intoxi- 
cations, which have whirled one man one way and 
one another; which flew to the head of a perfect 
stylist like Ruskin and made him an insane scientist; 
which flew to the head of a great artist like 'Vhistler 
and made him a pessimistic dandy. He has passed 
them "\vith a curious immunity, an immunity which, 
if it were not so nakedly innocent, might almost be 
called egotism; but \vhich is in fact ra thcr the single 
eye. He said once that he had not cvcn consented 
to illustrate a book; his limitation was that he could 
express no ideas but his own. He admired 1"cnnyson ; 
he thought him the greatest of poets; he thought 
him a far greater man than himself; he read him, he 
adored him, but he could not illustrate him. This 
is the curious secret strength which kept him in de- 
25 



GEORG E FREDERICK 'VA TTS 
pendent in his youth and kept him independent 
through the great roaring triumph of the Pre- 
Raphaelite and the great roaring triumph of the 
Impressionist. He stands in the world of art as he 
stood in the studio of Behnes and in the Uffizi Gallery. 
He stands gazing, but not copying. 
Of \Vatts as he was at this time there remains a 
very interesting portrait painted by himself. It 
represents him at the age of nineteen, a dark, slim, 
and very boyish-looking creature. Something in 
changed conditions may no doubt account for the 
flo\ving and voluminous dark hair: \ve see such a 
mane in many of the portraits of the most distin- 
guished men of that time; bu t if a man appeared 
now and \valked down Fleet Street with so neglected 
a hure, he would be mistaken for an advertisement 
of a hair-dresser, or by the more malicious for a 
minor poet. But there is about this picture not a 
trace of affectation or the artistic immunity in these 
matters: the boy's dress is rough and ordinary, 
his expression is simple and unconscious. From a 
modern standpoint we should say without hesitation 
tha t if his hair is long it is because he has forgotten. 
to have it cut. And there is something about this 
contrast between the unconsciously leonine hair 
and the innocent and almost bashful face, there is 
something like a parable of \Vatts. I-lis air is artistic, 
if you will. His famous skull cap, which makes him 
look like a Venetian senator, is as pictorial and effective 
as the boyish mane in the picture. But he belongs 
to that older race of .Bohemians, of which even 
Thackeray only sa\v the sunset, the great old race of 
art and literature \vho \vere ragged because they 
\yere really poor, frank because they were really free, 
and untidy because they were really forgetful. It will 
not do to confuse lVatts with these men; there is 
26 



........... 


...... 


............. 


.... 


\
 


.. FOR HE HAD GREAT POSSESSIONS:- 



GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
much about him that is precise and courtly, and 
which, as I shall have occasion to remark, belongs 
really to a yet older period. But it is more right to 
reckon \Vatts along with them in their genuine 
raggedness than to suppose that the unquestionable 
picturesqueness with \vhich he fronts the \vorld has 
any relation with that new Bohemianism which is 
untidy because it is conventional, frank because it 
follows a fashion, careless because it \vatches for all 
its effects, and ragged and coarse in its tastes because 
it has too much money. 
The first definite encouragement, or at least the 
first encouragement nu\v ascertainable, probably came 
to the painter from that interesting Greek amateur, 
Ivlr. Constantine Ionides. It \vas under his encourage- 
ment that \Vatts began all his earlier work of the more 
ambitious kind, and it \vas the portrait of 1\lrs. Con- 
stantine Ionides which ranks among the earliest of his 
definite successes. He achieved immediate profes- 
sional success, however, at an astonishingly early age, 
judged by modern standards. \Vhen he was barely 
twenty he had three pictures in the Royal Academy: 
the first two were portraits, and the third a picture 
called 'The Wounded lIeroll. There is always a very 
considerable temptation to fantasticality in dealing 
with these artistic origins: no doubt it does not 
always follow that a man is destined to be a military 
conqueror because he beats other little boys at school, 
nor endued with a passionate and clamorous nature 
because he begins this mortal life \vith a yell. But 
\Vatts has, to a rather unusual degree, a sincere and 
consistent and homogeneous nature; and this first 
exhibit of his has really a certain amount of symbolism 
about it. Portraiture, \vith \vhich he thus began, he 
was destined to raise to a level never before attained 
in English art, so far as significance and humanity 
27 


. 



GEORGE FREDERICK "'T A TTS 


are concerned; and there is really something a little 
fascinating about the fact that along with these pictures 
went one picture which had, for all practical purposes, 
an avowedly humanitarian object. The picture of 
'The TPounded Heron scarcely ever attracts attention, 
I imagine, in these days, but it may, of course, have 
been recalled for a moment to the popular mind 
by that curious incident which occurred in connexion 
wi th it and \vhich has often been told. Long after 
the painter who produced that picture in his struggling 
boyhood had lost sight of it and in all probability for- 
gotten all about its existence, a chance traveller with 
a taste in the arts happened to find it in the dusty 
curiosity-shop of a north-country town. He bought 
it and gave it back to the now celebrated painter, 
who hung it among the exhibits at Little Holland 
House. It is, as I have said, a thing painted clearly 
\vith a humanitarian object: it depicts the suffering of 
a stricken creature; it depicts the helplessness of life 
under the cruelty of the inanimate violence; it 
depicts the pathos of dying and the greater pathos 
of living. Since then, no doubt, \Vatts has improved 
his machinery of presentation and found larger and 
more awful things to tell his tale with than a bleeding 
bird. The wings of the heron have widened till 
they embrace the world with the terrible wings of 
r-rime or Death: he has summoned the stars to help 
him and sent the angels as his ambassadors. He has 
changed the plan of operations until it includes Heaven 
and Tartarus. He has never changed the theme. 
The relations of \Vatts to Constantine Ionides 
either arose or became important about this time. 
The painter's fortunes rose quickly and steadily, 
so far as the Academy was concerned. He continued 
to exhibit with a fair amount of regularity, chiefly in 
the form of subjects from the great romantic or 
28 



t 


...... " 


AI\J IDLE CHILD OF FANCY. 



GEO RGE FREDERICK \V \ T C } 
historic traditions which were then the \vhole pabulum 
of the young idealistic artist. In the Academy of 
1840 came a picture on the old romantic subject of 
Ferdinand and Isabella; in the following year but 
one, a picture on the old romantic subject of Cymbe- 
line. The portrait of Mrs. Constantine Ionides 
appeared in 1842. 
But \Vatts' mode of thought from the very begin- 
ning had very little kinship \vith the Academy and very 
little kinship with this kind of private and conventional 
art. An event was shortly to occur, the first success 
of his life, but an event far less important when con- 
sidered as the first success of his life than it is when 
considered as an essential characteristic of his mind. 
The circumstances are so extremely characteristic of 
something in the \vhole spirit of the man's art that 
it may be permissible to dwell at length on the sig- 
nificance of the fact rather than on the fact itself. 
The great English Parliament, the Senate that 
broke the English kings, had just moved its centre of 
existence. The new Houses of Parliament had opened 
with what seemed to the men of that time an opening 
world. A competition was started for the decoration 
of the halls, and \Vatts suddenly sprang into impor- 
tance: he won the great prize. The cartoon of 
Caractacus led in triu1/lph through the streets of R01Jlt 
was accepted from this almost nameless man by the 
great central power of English history. And until 
we have understood that fact we have not under- 
stood \Vatts: it was (one may be permitted to fancy) 
the supreme hour of his life. For Watts' nature is 
essentially public-that is to say, it is modest and 
noble, and has nothing to hide. His art is an out- 
door art, like that of the healthy ages of the \vorld.. 
like the statuesque art of Greece, like the ecclesiastical 
and external Gothic art of Christianity: In art that 
29 



GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
can look the sun in the face. He ought to be em- 
ployed to paint factory chimneys and railway 
stations. I know that this \vill sound like an inso- 
lence: my only answer is that he, in accordance 
with this great conception of his, actually offered to 
paint a railway station. "Tith a splendid and truly 
religious imagination, he asked permission to decorate 
Euston. The railway managers (not perceiving, in 
their dull classical routine, the \vild poetry of their 
own station) declined. But until we have understood 
this immense notion of publicity in the soul of Watts, 
we have understood nothing. The fundamental 
modern fallacy is that the public life must be an arti- 
ficia] life. I t is like saying that the public street 
must be an artificial air. I\Ien like \Vatts, men like 
all the great heroes, only breathe in public.. \\Jhat is 
the use of abusing a man for publicity \vhen he utters 
in public the true and the enduring things? \"hat is 
the use, above all, of prying into his secrecy when he 
has cried his best from the house-tops ? 
This is the real argument which makes a detailed 
biography of \\Tatts unnecessary for all practical 
purposes. It is in vain to climb \valls and hide in 
cupboards in order to show \vhether 'Vatts eats mus-- 
tard or pepper with his curry or whether \\'atts takes 
sugar or salt with his porridge. These things mayor 
may not become public: it matters little. The 
innermost that the biographer could at last discover, 
after all possible creepings and capers, would be \vhat 
\\Tatts in his inmost soul believes, and that \Vatts 
has splashed on twenty feet of canvas and given to 
the nation for nothing. I.like one of the great orators 
of the eighteenth century, his public virtues, his 
public ecstasies are far more really significant than 
his private \veaknesses. The rest of his life is so 
simple that it is scarcely worth telling. He \vent 
3 0 



GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
with the great scholarship he gained with his Caractacus 
to Italy. There he found a new patron-the famous 
Lord Holland, with the whole of whose great literary 
circle he rapidly became acquainted. He painted 
many of his most famous portraits in connexion with 
this circle, both in Italy and afterwards in Paris. But 
this great vision of the public idea had entered his 
blood. He offered his cartoons to E uston Station; 
he painted St. George and the Dragon for the House 
of Lords; he presented a fresco to the great hall 
at Lincoln's Inn. Of his life there is scarcely more 
to say, except the splendid fact that he three times 
refused a title. Of his character there is a great deal 
more to say. 
There is unquestionably about the personal attitude 
of Watts something that in the vague phraseology 
of modern times would be called Puritan. Puritan, 
however, is very far from being really the right word. 
The right word is a word which has been singularly 
little used in English nomenclature because historical 
circumstances have separated us from the origin 
from which it sprang. The right word for the spirit 
of Watts is Stoicism. \Vatts is at one with the Puritans 
in the actual objects of his attack. One of his deepest 
and most enduring troubles, a matter of \vhich he 
speaks and writes frequently, is the prevalence of 
gambling. With the realism of an enthusiast, he 
has detected the essential fact that the problem of 
gam bling is even more of a pro blelll in the case of the 
poorer classes than in the case of the richer. I tis, 
as he asserts, a far worse danger than drink. There 
are many other instances of his political identity 
with Puritanism. He told Mr. \V. T. Stead that 
he had defended and was prepared to defend the 
staggering publications of the "Maiden Tribute" ; 
it was the only ,vay, he said, to stem the evil. A 
3 1 



GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
picturesque irradiation asserts indeed that it was under 
the glow of Hebraic anger against these Babylonian 
cruelties of Piccadilly and the Strand that he painted 
as a symbol of those cruelties that brutal and mag- 
nificent picture The Minotaur. 'fhe pictures them- 
selves of course bear sufficient attestation to this 
general character: l'rf anlmon is what we call a Puritan 
picture, and 'Jonah, and Fata Morgana, and For he had 
Great Possessions. I t is not difficult to see that 
\Vatts has the Puritan vigilance, the Puritan realism, 
and the Puritan severity in his attitude towards 
public affairs. Nevertheless, as I have said, he is to 
be described rather as a Stoic than a Puritan. The 
essential difference between Christian and Pagan 
asceticism lies in the fact that Paganism in renouncing 
pleasure gives up something which it does not think 
desirable; whereas Christianity in giving up pleasure 
gives up something which it thinks very desirable 
indeed. Thus there is a frenzy in Christian asceticism ; 
its follies and renunciations are like those of first love. 
There is a passion, and as it were a regret, in the 
Puritanism of Bunyan; there is none in the Puri- 
tanism of \Vatts. He is not Bunyan, he is Cato. 
The difference may be a difficult one to convey, 
but it is one that must not be ignored or great mis- 
understandings will follovv. r-fhe one self-abnegation 
is more reasonable but less joyful. 'I'he Stoic casts 
away pleasure like the parings of his nails; the Mystic 
cuts it off like his right hand that offends him. In 
Watts we have the noble self-abnegation of a noble 
type and school; but everything, however noble, 
that has shape has limitation, and we must not look 
in \Vatts, \vith his national self-mastery, either for 
the nightmare of Stylites or the gaiety of Francis of 
Assisi. 
It has already been remarked that the chief note 
3 2 



"" 


, 


THE MI
OT AUR. 



GEO RGE FREDERICK WATTS 
of the painter's character is a certain mixture of 
personal delicacy and self-effacement with the most 
immense and audacious aims. But it is so essential 
a trait that it will bear a repetition and the intro- 
duction of a curious example of it. \Vatts in his 
quaint and even shy manner of speech often let 
fall in conversation words which hint at a certain 
principle or practice of his, a principle and practice 
which are, when properly apprehended, beyond 
expression impressive and daring. The spectator 
who studies his allegorical paintings one after another 
will be vaguely impressed with something uniquely 
absent, something which is usual and familiar in such 
pictures conspicuous by its withdrawal; a blank or 
difference which makes them things sundered alto- 
gether from the millions of allegorical pictures that 
throng the great and small galleries of painting. At 
length the nature of this missing thing may suddenly 
strike him: in the whole range of \Vatts' symbolic 
art there is scarcely a single example of the ordinary 
and arbitrary current symbol, the ecclesiastical symbol, 
the heraldic symbol, the national symbol. A primeval 
vagueness and archaism hang over all the canvases 
and cartoons, like frescoes from some prehistoric 
temple. There is nothing there but the eternal 
things, clay and fire and the sea, and motherhood 
and the dead. \Ve cannot imagine the rose or the 
lion of England; the keys or the tiara of Rome; the 
red cap of Liberty or the crescent of Islam in a picture 
by \Vatts; we cannot imagine the Cross itself. And in 
light and broken phrases, carelessly and humbly ex- 
pressed, as I have said, the painter has admitted that 
this great omission was observed on principle. Its 
object is that the pictures may be intelligible if they 
survive the whole modern order. Its object is, that 
is to say, that if some savage in a dim futurity dug 
C 33 


.. 



G E 0 R G E F RED E R I C K \V A T T S 
up one of these dark designs on a lonely mountain, 
though he worshipped strange gods and served laws 
yet unwritten, it might strike the same message to 
his soul that it strikes upon clerks and navvies from 
the ,valls of the Tat.e Gallery. It is impossible not to 
feel a movement of admiration for the magnitude of 
the thought. Here is a man whose self-depreciation 
is internal and vital; whose life is cloistered, whose 
character is childlike, and he has yet within such an 
unconscious and colossal sense of greatness that he 
paints on the assumption that his work may outlast 
the cross of the Eternal City. As a boy he scarcely 
expected worldly success: as an old man he still said 
that his worldly success had astonished him. But in 
his nameless youth and in his silent old age he paints 
like one upon a tower looking down the appalling per- 
spective of the centuries towards fantastic temples 
and inconceivable republics. 
This union of small self-esteem with a vast ambition 
is a paradox in the very soul of the painter; and when 
we look at the symbolic pictures in the light of this 
theory of his, it is interesting and typical to observe 
how consistently he pursues any intellectual rule 
tha t he laid down for himself. An æsthetic or 
ethical notion of this kind is not to him, as to most 
men with the artistic temperament, a thing to talk 
about sumptuously, to develop in lectures, and to 
observe when it happens to be suitable. It is a thing 
like his early rising or his personal conscience, a thing 
which is either a rule or nothing. And we find this 
insistence on universal symbols, this rejection of all 
symbols that are local or temporary or topical, even 
if the locality be a whole continent, the time a stretch 
of centuries, or the topic a vast civilization or an 
undying church-we find this insistence looking out 
very clearly from the allegories of 'Va tts. I t would 
3+ 



" 


&, 


\ \ . 


\ 


- . 


fHE COURT OF DEATH. 


'Ii 



GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
have been easy and effective, as he himself often 
said, to make the meaning of a picture clear by the 
introduction of some popular and immediate image: 
and it must constantly be remembered that Watts 
does care very much for making the meaning of his 
pictures clear. His work indeed has, as I shall suggest 
shortly, a far more subtle and unnamable quality 
than the merely hard and didactic; but it must not 
be for one moment pretended that \"Vatts does not 
claim to teach: to do so would be to falsify the man's 
life. And it would be easy, as is quite obvious, to 
make the pictures clearer: to hang a crucifix over 
the Happy TVarrior, to give A/ammon some imperial 
crown or typical heraldic symbols, to give a theo- 
logical machinery to 'The Court of Death. But this 
is pu t on one side like a tern pta tion of the flesh, 
because it conflicts with this stupendous idea of 
painting for all peoples and all centuries. I am not 
saying that this extraordinary ambition is necessarily 
the right view of art, or the right view of life. I am 
only reiterating it as an absolute trait of men of the 
time and type and temper of Watts. It may plausibly 
be maintained, I am not sure that it cannot more 
truly be maintained, that man cannot achieve and 
need not achieve this frantic universality. A man, 
I fancy, is after all only an animal that has noble 
preferences. I t is the very difference between the 
artistic mind and the ma thema tical that the former 
sees things as they are in a picture, some nearer and 
larger, some smaller and further away: while to the 
mathematical mind everything, every unit in a million, 
every fact in a cosmos, must be of equal value. That 
is why mathematicians go maq; and poets scarcely 
ever do. A man may have as wide a view of life as 
he likes, the wider the better; a distant view, a bird's- 
eye view, if he will, but still a view and not a map. 
35 


" 



GEORGE FREDERICK \V A TTS 
The one thing he cannot attempt in his version of 
the universe is to draw things to scale. I have put 
myself for a moment outside this universalism and 
doubted its validity because a thing always appears 
more sharp and personal and picturesque if we do 
not wholly agree with it. And this universalism is 
an essential and dominant feature of such great men 
as "Tatts and of his time as a whole. Mr. Herbert 
Spencer is a respectable, almost a dapper, figure, his 
theory is agnostic and his tone polite and precise. 
And yet he threw himself into a task more insane and 
gigantic than that of Dante, an inventory or plan of 
the universe itself; the awful vision of existence as a 
single organism, like an amæba on the disc of a micro- 
scope. He claimed, by implication, to put in their 
fight places the flaming certainty of the martyrs, the 
'\Jvild novelties of the modern world; to arrange the 
eternal rock of Peter and the unbroken trance of 
Buddhism. It is only in this age of specialists, of 
cryptic experiences in art and faith like the present, 
that we can see how huge was that enterprise; but 
the spirit of it is the spirit of "Tatts. The man of that 
aggressive nineteenth century had many wild thoughts, 
but there was one thought that never even for an 
instant strayed across his burning brain. He never 
once thought, "\Vhy should I understand the cat, 
any more than the cat understands me ?" He never 
thought, "\\7hy should I be just to the merits of a 
Chinaman, any more than a pig studies the mystic 
virtues of a camel ?" He affronted heaven and the 
angels, but there was one hard arrogant dogma that 
he never doubted even when he doubted Godhead: 
he never doubted that he himself was as central and 
as responsible as God. 
This paradox, then, we call the first element in 
the artistic and personal claim of \,ratts, that he 
3 6 



"" 
-. 


" 


.. 


MATTHEW ARNOLD. 



, 


JOHN STUART MILL. 




GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
realizes the great paradox of the Gospel. He is 
meek, but he claims to inherit the earth. But there 
is, of course, a great deal more to be said before this 
view of the matter can be considered complete. 
The universalism preached by Watts and the other 
great Victorians was of course subject to certain 
specialisations; it is not necessary to call them limi- 
tations. Like l\latthew Arnold, the last and most 
sceptical of them, who expressed their basic idea in its 
most detached and philosophic form, they held that 
conduct was three-fourths of life. They were in- 
grainedly ethical; the mere idea of thinking anything 
more important than ethics would have struck them 
as profane. In this they were certainly right, but 
they were nevertheless partial or partisan; they did 
not really maintain the judicial attitude of the uni- 
versalist. The mere thought of \Vatts painting a 
picture called 'l he 17 ictory of 10y over AIorality, 
or Nature rebuking Conscience, is enough to show the 
definite limits of that cosmic equality. This is not, 
of course, to be taken as a fault in the attitude of 
Watts. He simply draws the line somewhere, as all 
men, including anarchists, draw it somewhere; he is 
dogmatic, as all sane men are dogmatic. 
r-rhere is another phase of this innocent audacity. 
It may appear to be more fanciful, it is certainly 
more completely a matter of inference; but it 
throws light on yet another side of the character of 
\Vatts. 
Watts' relation to friends and friendship has 
something a bou tit very typical. He is not a man 
desirous or ca pa ble of a very large or rich or varied 
circle of acquaintance. There is nothing Bohemian 
about him. He belongs both chronologically and 
psychologically to that period which is earlier even 
than Thackeray and his Cave of I Iarmony : he belongs 
37 


. 



GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
to the quiet, struggling, self-created men of the 
forties, with their tradition of self-abnegating indi- 
vidualism. Much as there is about him of the artist 
and the poet, there is something about him also of the 
industrious apprentice. That strenuous solitude in 
which Archbishop Temple as a boy struggled to carry 
a bag of ironmongery which crushed his back, in \vhich 
Gladstone cut down trees and John Stuart Mill read 
half the books of the world in boyhood, that strenuous 
solitude entered to some degree into the very soul 
of Watts and made him independent of them. But 
the friends he made ha ve as a general rule been 
very characteristic: they have marked the strange 
and haughty fastidiousness that goes along with his 
simplicity. His friends, his intimate friends, that 
is, have been marked by a certain indescribable and 
stately worthiness: more than one of them have 
been great men like himself. The greatest and most 
intimate of all his friends, probably, was Tennyson, 
and in this there is something singularly characteristic 
of Watts. About the actuality of the intellectual 
tie that bound him to Tennyson there can be little 
doubt. He painted three, if not four, portraits 
of him; his name was often on his lips; he invoked 
him always as the typical great poet, excusing his 
faults and expounding his virtues. He invoked 
his authority as that of the purest of poets, and invoked 
it very finely and well in a sharp controversial inter- 
view he had on the nature and ethics of the nude in art. 
At the time I write, there is standing at the end 
of the garden at Limnerslease a vast shed, used for 
a kind of sculptor's studio, in \vhich there stands a 
splendid but unfinished statue, on which the veteran 
of the arts is even now at work. It represents 
Tennyson, wrapped in his famous mantle, with his 
magnificent head bowed, gazing at something in the 
3 8 



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ROBERT BROWNING. 


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LORD TE:'\J NYSON 



GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
hollow of his hand. The subject is Flower in the 
Crannied Wall. There is something very charac- 
teristic of Watts in the contrast between the colossal 
plan of the figure and the smallness of the central 
object. 
But while the practical nature of the friendship 
between Watts and Tennyson is clear enough, there 
is something really significant, something really rele- 
vant to \Vatts' attitude in its ultimate and psycho- 
logical character. It is surely most likely that \Vatts 
and Tennyson were drawn together because they 
both represented a certain relation towards their 
art which is not common in our time and \vas scarcely 
properly an attribute of any artists except these two. 
Watts could not have found the thing he most believed 
in Browning or Swinburne or Morris or any of the 
other poets. Tennyson could not have found the 
thing he most believed in Leighton or Millais or any 
of the other painters. They \vere brought together, 
it must be supposed, by the one thing that they had 
really in common, a profound belief in the solemnity, 
the ceremoniousness, the responsibility, and what 
most men would now, in all probability, call the 
pomposity of the great arts. 
Watts has always a singular kind of semi-mystical 
tact in the matter of portrait painting. His portraits 
are commonly very faultless comments and have the 
same kind of superlative mental delicacy that \ve see 
in the picture of Hope. And the whole truth of this 
last matter is very well expressed in \Vatts' famous 
portrait of Tennyson, particularly if we look at it in 
conjunction with his portrait of Browning. The 
head of Browning is the head of a strong, splendid, 
joyful, and anxious man who could write magnificent 
poetry. The head of Tennyson is the head of a 
poet. \Vatts has painted 'fennyson with his dark 
39 



GEORGE FREDERICK \VATTS 
dome-like head relieved against a symbolic green and 
blue of the eternal sea and the eternal laurels. He 
has behind him the bays of Dante and he is wrapped 
in the cloak of the prophets. Bro\vning is dressed 
like an ordinary modern man, and ,ve at once feel 
that it should and must be so. To dress Browning 
in the prophet's robe and the poet's wreath would 
strike us all as suddenly ridiculous; it \vould be like 
sending him to a fancy-dress ball. It \vould be like 
attiring l\1atthew Arnold in the slashed tights of an 
Elizabethan, or putting 1\1r. Lecky into a primitive 
Celto-Irish kilt. But it does not strike us as absurd 
in the casc of Tcnnyson: it does not strike us as even 
eccentric or outlandish or remotc. "1 e think of 
Tennyson in that way; \ve think of him as a lordly 
and conscious bard. Some part of this fact may, 
of course, be due to his possession of a magnificent 
physical presence; but not, I think, all. Lord 
Kitchener (let us say) is a handsome man, but we 
should laugh at him very much in silver armour. 
It is much more due to the fact that Tennyson 
really assumed and ,vas granted this stately and epic 
position. It is not true that Tennyson was more of 
a poet than Browning, if \ve mean by that statement 
that Browning could not compose forms as artistic 
and well-managed, lyrics as light and poignant, and 
rhythms as swelling and stirring as any in English 
letters. But it is true that Tennyson \vas more of a 
poet than Browning, if we mean by that statement 
that Tennyson was a poet in person, in post and cir- 
cumstance and conception of life; and that Browning 
was not, in that sense, a poet at all. Bro\vning first 
inaugurated in modern art and letters the notion or 
tradition, in many ways perhaps a more \vholesome 
one, that the fact that a man pursued the trade or 
practice of poetry "Tas his o\vn affJir Jnd a thing apart, 
4 0 




 


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THE DWELLER IN THE INNERMOST. 




GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
like the fact that he collected coins or earned his 
living as a hatter. But Tennyson really belonged 
to an older tradition, the tradition that believed that 
the poet, the appointed "V ates," was a recognized 
and public figure like the bard or jester at the mediæval 
courts, like the prophet in the old Commonwealth of 
Israel. In Tennyson's work appeared for the last 
time in English history this notion of the stately and 
public and acknowledged poet: it was the lay of the 
last minstrel. 
Now there is in \Vatts, gentle and invisible as he is, 
something that profoundly responds to that spirit. 
Lcighton, like Browning, was a courtier and man of 
the world: Millais, like Browning, \vas a good fello\v 
and an ordinary gentleman: but Watts has more of 
rrennyson in him; he believes in a great priesthood of 
art. He believes in a certain pure and childish 
publicity. If anyone suggested that before a man 
ventured to paint pictures or to daub with plaster 
he should be initiated with some awful rites in some 
vast and crowded national tern pIe, should swear to 
work worthily before some tremendous altar or over 
some symbolic flame, Millais would have laughed 
heartily at the idea and Leighton also. But it would 
not seem either absurd or unreasonable to \Vatts. In 
the thick of this smoky century he is living in a clear 
age of heroes. 
VVatts' relations to Tennyson were indeed very 
characteristic of what was finest, and at the same 
time quaintest, in the two men. The painter, with 
a typical sincerity, took the poet seriously, I had 
almost said literally, in his daily life, and liked him to 
live up to his poetry. The poet, with that queer sulky 
humour which gave him, perhaps, more breadth 
than \\1atts, but less strength, said, after reading 
some acid and unjust criticisms, " I wish I had ne\ cr 
4 1 


. 



GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 


,vritten a line." "Come," sai
l \Y'atts, " you ,vouldn't 
like 'King Arthur' to talk like that." Tennyson 
paused a moment and then spread out his fingers. 
"\Vell," he said, "what do you expect? It's all 
the gout." The artist, with a characteristic power of 
juvenile and imnlortal hero-worship, tclls this story 
as an instance of the fundamental essence of odd 
magnanimity and sombre geniality in Tennyson. 
I t is such an instance and a very good one: but it is 
also an instance of the sharp logical idealism, of the 
prompt poetic candour of Watts. He asked Tcnnyson 
to be King Arthur, and it never occurred to him to 
think that he was asking Addison to be Cato, or 
Massinger to be Saint Dorothy. The incident is a 
fine tribute to a friendship. 
The real difficulty which many cultivated people 
have in the matter of \\Tatts' allegorical pictures is 
far more difficult. It is indeed nothing else but the 
great general reaction against allegorical art which 
has arisen during the last artistic period. The only 
way in ,vhich \ve can study, with any real sincerity, the 
allegoric art of \Vatts is to ask to what is really due 
the objection to allegory which has thus arisen. The 
real objection to allegory is, it may roughly be said
 
founded upon the conception that allegory involves 
one art imitating another. This is, up to a certain 
point, true. To paint a figure in a blue robe and 
call her Necessity, and then paint a sman figure in a 
yellow robe and can it Invention; to put the second 
on the knee of the first, and then say that you are 
enunciating the sublime and eternal truth, that 
Necessity is the mother of Invention, this is indeed an 
idle and foolish affair. I t is saying in six weeks' work 
with brush and palette knife what could be said much 
better in six words. And there can be no reasonable 
dispute that of this character were a considerable 
4 2 



GEORGE MEREDITH. 



GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
n urn ber of the allegorical pictures that have crowded 
the galleries and sprawled over the ceilings of ancient 
and modern times. Of such were the monstrous 
pictures of Rubens, which depicted a fat Religion and 
a bloated Temperance dancing before some foreign 
conqueror; of such were the florid designs of the 
eighteenth century, which showed Venus and Apollo 
encouraging Lord Peterborough to get over the 
inconvenience of his breastplate; of such, again, were 
the meek Victorian allegories which showed Mercy 
and Foresight urging men to found a Society for the 
Preservation of Young Game. Of such were almost 
all the allegories \vhich have dominated the art of 
Europe for many centuries back. Of such, most 
emphatically, the allegories of Watts are not. They 
are not mere pictorial forms, combined as in a kind 
of cryptogram to express theoretic views or relations. 
They are not proverbs or verbal relations rendered 
with a cumbrous exactitude in oil and Chinese white. 
They are not, in short, the very thing that the oppo- 
nen ts of Watts and his school say that they are. They 
are not merely literary. There is one definite current 
conception on which this idea that \Vatts' allegorical 
art is merely literary is eventually based. It is based 
upon the idea that lies at the root of rationalism, at 
the root of useless logomachies, at the root, in no small 
degree, of the whole modern evil. I t is based on the 
assumption of the perfection of language. Every 
religion and every philosophy must, of course, be based 
on the assumption of the authority or the accuracy 
of something. But it may well be questioned whether 
it is not saner and more satisfactory to ground our 
faith on the infallibility of the Pope, or the infalli- 
bility of the Book of Mormon, than on this astounding 
modern dogma of the infallibility of human speech. 
Every time one man says to another, "'fell us plainly 
4-3 


. 



GEORGE FREDERIC K 'V A TTS 


what you mean?" he is assuming the infallibility 
of language: that is to say, he is assuming that 
there is a perfect scheme of verbal expression for all 
the internal moods and meanings of men. \Vhenever 
a man says to another, "Prove your case; defend 
your faith," he is assuming the infallibility of lan- 
guage: that is to say, he is assuming that a man has a 
,vord for every reality in earth, or heaven, or hell. 
He knows that there are in the soul tints more 
bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless 
than the colours of an autumn forest; he knows that 
there are abroad in the world and doing strange and 
terrible service in it crimes that have never been 
condemned and virtues that have never been christened. 
Yet he seriously believes that these things can every 
one of them, in all their tones and semi-tones, in an 
their blends and unions, be accurately represented 
by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. lIe 
believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really 
produce out of his own inside noises which denote all 
the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire. 
\Vhenever, on the other hand, a man rebels faintly or 
vaguely against this way of speaking, whenever a 
man says that he cannot explain what he means, and 
tha t he hates argument, that his enemy is misrepre- 
senting him, but he cannot explain how; that man is 
a true sage, and has seen into the heart of the real 
nature of language. \Vhenever a man refuses to be 
caught by some dilemma about reason and passion, 
or about reason and faith, or about fate and free-will, 
he has seen the truth. V\?henever a man declines to be 
cornered as an egotist, or an altruist, or any such 
modern monster, he has seen the truth. For the truth 
is that language is not a scientific thing at all, but 
wholly an artistic thing, a thing invented by hunters, 
and killers, and such artists long before science ,vas 
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dreamed of. The truth is simply that-that the 
tongue is not a reliable instrument, like a theodolite 
or a camera. The tongue is most truly an unruly 
mem ber, as the wise saint has called it, a thing poetic 
and dangerous, like music or fire. 
Now we can easily imagine an alternative state of 
things, roughly similar to that produced in \Vatts' 
allegories, a.system, that is to say, whereby the moods 
or facts of the human spirit were conveyed by some- 
thing other than speech, by shapes or colours or some 
such things. As a matter of fact, of course, there are 
a great 'many other languages besides the verbal. 
Descriptions of spiritual states and mental purposes 
are conveyed by a variety of things, by hats, by bells, 
by guns, by fires on a headland, or by jerks of the head. 
In fact there does exist an example which is singu- 
larly analogous to decorative and symbolic painting. 
This is a scheme of æsthetic signs or emblems, simple 
indeed and consisting only of a few elemental colours, 
which is actually employed to convey great lessons in 
human safety and great necessities of the common- 
wealth. It need hardly be said that I allude to the 
railway signals. They are as much a language, and 
surely as solemn a language, as the colour sequence of 
ecclesiastical vestments, which sets us red for martyr- 
dom, and white for resurrection. For the green and 
red of the night-signals depict the two most funda- 
mental things of all, which lie at the back of all lan- 
guage. Yes and no, good and bad, safe and unsafe, 
life and death. I t is perfectly conceivable that a 
degree of flexibility or subtlety might be introduced 
into these colours so as to suggest other and more 
complex meanings. We might (under the influence 
of some large poetic station-masters) reach a state 
of things in which a certain rich tinge of purple in 
the crimson light would mean "Travel tOJ; a few 
15 



G EO RGE F REDER I CK \V A TTS 
seconds at a slightly more lingering pace, that a 
romantic old lady in a first-class carriage may admire 
the scenery of the forest. " A tendency towards 
peacock blue in the green might mean "An old 
gen tleman with a black necktie has just drunk a glass 
of sherry at the station restaurant." But however 
much we modified or varied this colour sequence 
or colour language, there would remain one thing 
\vhich it would be quite ridiculous and untrue to say 
about it. It would be quite ridiculous and untrue 
to say that this colour sequence ,vas simply a symbol 
representing language. It would be another lan- 
guage: it would convey its meaning to aliens who 
had another word for forest, and another word for 
sherry, and another word for old lady. I t would not 
be a symbol of language, a symbol of a symbol; it 
would be one symbol of the reality, and language 
,vould be another. That is precisely the true position 
touching allegorical art in general, and, above all, the 
allegorical art of \Vatts. 
So long as ,ve conceive that it is, fundamentally, 
the symbolizing of literature in paint, we shall certainly 
misunderstand it and the rare and peculiar merits, 
both technical and philosophical, which really charac- 
terize it. If the ordinary spectator at the art galleries 
finds himself, let us say, opposite a picture of a dancing 
flower-crowned figure in a rose-coloured robe, he 
feels a definite curiosity to know the title, looks it up 
in the catalogue, and finds that it is called, let us say, 
"Hope." He is immediately satisfied, as he would 
have been if the title had run "Portrait of Lady 
\Varwick," a "View of Kilchurn Castle." It repre- 
sents a certain definite thing, the word "hope." 
But what does the word "hope" represent? It 
represents only a broken instantaneous glimpse of 
something tha t is immeasurably older and wilder 
4 6 



. 


\... 


.... 


HOPE. 



GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
than language, that is immeasurably older and wilder 
than man; a mystery to saints and a reality to wol ves. 
To suppose that such a thing is dealt with by the word 
"hope," any more than America is represented by a 
distant view of Cape Horn, would indeed be ridiculous. 
I t is not merely true that the word itself is, like any 
other word, arbitrary; that it might as well be " pig" 
or "parasol"; but it is true that the philosophical 
meaning of the word, in the conscious mind of man, 
is merely a part of something immensely larger in the 
unconscious mind, that the gusty light of language 
only falls for a moment on a fragment, and that 
obviously a semi-detached, unfinished fragment of a 
certain definite pattern on the dark tapestries of 
reality. It is vain and worse than vain to declaim 
against the allegoric, for the very word" hope" is an 
allegory, and the very word " allegory" is an allegory. 
Now let us suppose that instead of coming before 
that hypothetical picture of Hope in conventional 
flowers and conventional pink robes, the spectator 
came before another picture. Suppose that he found 
himself in the presence of a dim canvas with a bowed 
and stricken and secretive figure cowering over a 
broken lyre in the twilight. What would he think? 
His first thought, of course, would be that the picture 
was called Despair; his second (when he discovered 
his error in the catalogue), that it has been entered 
under the wrong number; his third, that the painter 
was mad. But if we imagine that he overcame these 
preliminary feelings and that as he stared at that 
queer twilight picture a dim and powerful sense of 
meaning began to grow upon him-\vhat would he 
see? He would see something for which there is 
neither speech nor language, which has been too vast 
for any eye to see and too secret for any religion to 
utter, even as an esoteric doctrine. Standing before 
47 



G E 0 R G E F RED E R I C K 'V A T T S 
tha t picture, he finds himself in the presence of a grea t 
truth. I:Je perceives that there is something in man 
\vhich 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. He perceives that the queerest and 
most delicate thing in us, the most fragile, the most 
fantastic, is in truth the backbone and indestructible. 
He kno\vs a great moral fact: that there never was an 
age of assurance, that there never was an age of faith. 
Faith is always at a disadvantage; it is a perpetually 
defeated thing which survives all its conquerors. 
The desperate modern talk about dark days and reeling 
altars, and the end of Gods and angels, is the oldest 
talk in the world: lamentations over the growth of 
agnosticism can be found in the monkish sermons 
of the dark ages; horror at youthful impiety can be 
found in the Iliad. This is the thing that never 
deserts men and yet always, with daring diplomacy, 
threatens to desert them. It has indeed dwelt among 
and controlled all the kings and crowds, but only 
with the air of a pilgrim passing by. It has indeed 
warmed and lit men from the beginning of Eden with 
an unending glow, but it was the glow of an eternal 
sunset. 
Here, in this dim picture, its trick is almost 
betrayed. Noone can name this picture properly, 
but Watts, who painted it, has named it Hope. But 
the point is that this title is not (as those think who 
call it "literary") the reality behind the symbol, 
but another symbol for the same thing, or, to speak 
yet more strictly, another symbol describing another 
part or aspect of the same complex reality. Two 
men felt a swift, violent, invisible thing in the world: 
one said the word "hope," the other painted a 
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GEORGE FREDERÍCK WATTS 
picture in blue and green paint. The picture is 
inadequate; the word "hope" is inadequate; but 
between them, like two angles in the calculation 
of a distance, they almost locate a mystery, a mystery 
that for hundreds of ages has been hunted by men 
and evaded them. And the title is therefore not so 
much the substance of one of \Vatts' pictures, it is 
rather an epigram upon it. It is merely an approxi- 
mate attempt to convey, by snatching up the tool of 
another craftsman, the direction a ttem pted in the 
painter's own craft. He calls it Hope, and that is 
perhaps the best title. It reminds us among other 
things of a fact which is too little remembered, that 
faith, hope, and charity, the three mystical virtues 
of Christianity, are also the gayest of the virtues. 
Paganism, as I have suggested, is not gay, but rather 
nobly sad; the spirit of vVatts, which is as a rule 
nobly sad also, here comes nearer perhaps than any- 
where else to mysticism in the strict sense, the mysti- 
cism which is full of secret passion and belief, like that 
of Fra Angelico or Blake. But though \Vatts calls 
his tremendous reality Hope, we may call it many other 
things. Call it faith, call it vitality, call it the will 
to live, call it the religion of to-morrow morning, 
call it the immortality of man, call it self-love and 
vanity; it is the thing that explains why man survives 
all things and why thére is no such thing as a pessi- 
mist. It cannot be found in any dictionary or 
rewarded in any commonwealth: there is only one 
way in which it can even be noticed and recognized. 
If there be anywhere a man who has really lost it, 
his face out of a whole crowd of men will strike us 
like a blow. He may hang himself or become 
Prime Minister; it matters nothing. The man is 
dead. 
Now, of course the ordinary objection to allegory, 
D 49 



GEORGE FREDERICK \V A TTS 


and it is a very sound objection, can be sufficiently 
\vell stated by saying that the pictorial figures are mere 
arbitrary symbols of the words. An allegorist of the 
pompous school might paint some group of Peace 
and Commerce doing something to Britannia. There 
might be a figure of Commerce in a Greek robe with 
a cornucopia or bag of gold or an argosy or any other 
conventional symbol. But it is surely quite evident 
that such a figure is a mere sign like the word com- 
merce: the word might just as well be " dandelion," 
and the Greek lady with the cornucopia might just 
as well be a Hebrew prophet standing on his head. 
It is scarcely even a language: it is a cipher-code. 
Nobody can maintain that the figure, taken as a figure, 
makes one think of commerce, of the forces that 
effect commerce, of a thousand ports, of a thousand 
streets, of a thousand warehouses and bills of lading, 
of a thousand excited men in black coats who certainly 
would not know what to do with a cornucopia. If 
we find ourselves gazing at some monument of the 
fragile and eternal faith of man, at some ruined chapel, 
at some nameless altar, at some scrap of old Jacobin 
eloquence, we might actually find our own minds 
moving in certain curves that centre in the curved 
back of \\Tatts' Hope: we might almost think for 
ourselves of a bowed figure in the twilight, holding 
to her breast something damaged but undestroyed. 
But can anyone say that by merely looking at the 
Stock Exchange on a busy day we should think of a 
Greek lady with an argosy? Can anyone say that 
Threadneedle Street, in itself, would inspire our minds 
to move in the curves which centre in a cornucopia? 
Can anyone say that a very stolid figure in a very 
outlandish drapery is anything but a purely arbitrary 
sign, like x or y, for such a thing as modern commerce, 
for the savagery of the rich, for the hunger of the 
50 



GEORGE FREDERICK "'ATTS 
satisfied, for the vast tachycardia or galloping of the 
heart that has fallen on all the great new centres of 
civilization, for the sudden madness of all the mills of 
the world? 
Watts' Hope does tell us something more about 
the nature of hope than we can be told by merely 
noticing that hope is shown in individual cases: 
that a man rehearses successful love speeches when he 
is in love, and takes a return ticket when he goes out 
to fight a duel. But the figure of Commerce with 
the cornucopia gives us less insight into what is behind 
commerce than we might get from reading a circular 
or staring out into the street. In the case of Com- 
merce the figure is merely a symbol of commerce, 
which is a symbol. In the case of Hope the matter 
is quite the other way; the figure brings us nearer 
to something which is not a symbol, but the reality 
behind symbols. In the one case we go further 
down towards the river's delta; in the other, further 
up towards its fountain; that at least may be called 
a difference. And now, suppose that our imaginary 
sight-seer who had seen so much of the pompous 
allegory of Commerce in her Grecian draperies were 
to see, for the second time, a second picture. Suppose 
he saw before him a throned figure clad in splendid, 
heavy scarlet and gold, above the lustre and dignity 
of which rose, in abrupt contrast, a face like the face 
of a blind beast. Suppose that as this impcrjal thing, 
with closed eyes and fat, sightless face, sat upon his 
magnificent seat, he let his heavy hand and feet fall, 
as if by a mere pulverizing accident, on the naked 
and god-like figures of the young, on men and ,vornen. 
Suppose that in the background there rose straight 
into the air a raw and turgid smoke, as if from some 
invisible and horrible sacrifice, and that by one final, 
fantastic, and triumphal touch this all-destroying god 
51 


. 



GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
and king were adorned with the ears of an ass, declaring 
that he was royal, imperial, irresistible, and, when all 
is said, imbecile. Suppose that a man sick of argosies 
and cornucopias came before that picture, would he 
not say, perhaps even before he looked in the catalogue 
and found that the painter had called it lJIam7J10n, 
would he not say, "This is something which in spirit 
and in essence I have seen before, something which in 
spirit and in essence I have seen every\vhere. That 
bloated, unconscious face, so heavy, so violent, so 
"vicked, so innocent, have I not seen it at street 
corners, in billiard-rooms, in saloon bars, laying do\vn 
the law about Chartered shares or gaping at jokes 
about women? Those huge and smashing limbs, 
so weighty, so silly, so powerless, and yet so powerful, 
have I not seen them in the pompous movements, the 
morbid health of the prosperous in the great cities? 
The hard, straight pillars of that throne, have I not 
seen them in the hard, straight, hideous tiers of modern 
warehouses and factories? That tawny and sulky 
smoke, have I not seen it going up to heaven from all 
the cities of the coming world? This is no trifling 
with argosies and Greek drapery. This is commerce. 
This is the home of the god himself. This is \vhy men ha te 
him, and why men fear him, and why men endure him." 
Now, of course, it is at once obvious that this yiew 
would be very unjust to commerce; but that n10di- 
fication, as a matter of fact, very strongly supports 
the general theory at the moment under consideration. 
Commerce is really an arbitrary phrase, a thing 
including a million motives, from the motive which 
makes a man drink to the motive which makes him 
reform; from the motive that makes a starving man 
eat a horse to the motive which makes an idle man 
chase a butterfly. But whatever other spirits there 
a re in commerce, there is, beyond all reasonable 
52 



MAMMON 



GEORGE FREDERICK ,V A TTS 


question, in it this po\verful and enduring spirit 
which \Vatts has painted. There is, as a ruling element 
in modern life, in all life, this blind and asinine 
appetite for mere power. There is a spirit abroad 
among the nations of the earth which drives men 
incessantly on to destroy what they cannot under- 
stand, and to capture what they cannot enjoy. This, 
and not commerce, is what \Vatts has painted. He has 
painted, not the allegory of a great institution, but the 
vision of a great appetite, the vision of a great motive. 
I t is not true that this is a picture of Commerce; 
but that Commerce and "ratts' picture spring from 
the same source. There does exist a ce!"tain dark and 
driving force in the \vorld; one of its products is 
this picture, another is Commerce. The picture is 
not Commerce, it is 1\ lammon. And, indeed, so 
powerfully and perfectly has "'atts, in this case, 
realized the awful being \vhom he was endeavouring 
to call up by his artistic incantation, that we may 
even say the common positions of allegory and reality 
are reversed. 1
he fact is not that here we have an 
effective presentation under a certain symbol of red 
robes and smoke and a throne, of \vhat the financial 
world is, but rather that here we have something 
of the truth that is hidden behind the symbol of 
white waistcoats and hats on the back of the head, of 
financial papers and sporting prophets, of butter 
closing quiet and Pendragon being meant to ván. 
'fhis is not a symbol of commerce: commerce is a 
symbol of this. 
In sketching this general and necessary attitude 
towards the art of \Vatts, particularly in the matter 
of allegory, I have taken deliberately these two very 
famous and obvious pictures, and I have occupied, 
equally deliberately, a considerable amount of space 
in expounding them. It is far better in a subject so 
53 


" 



G E 0 I{ G E F RED E R I C K "T A T T S 
subtle and so bevdldering as the relation bet\\'een 
art and philosophy, that "Te should see ho\v our con- 
ceptions and hypotheses really get on \vhen a prlied 
systematically and at some length to some perfectly 
familiar and existent object. j\ philosopher cannot 
talk about any single thing, down to a pumpkin, 
\vithout sho\ving \vhether he is wise or foolish; but 
he can easily talk about everything \vith anyone having 
any views about him beyond gloomy suspicions. 
But at this point I become fully conscious of another 
and most important kind of criticism, which has 
been and can be levelled against the allegories of 
"T atts; and which must be, by the nature of things, 
evoked by the particular line of discussion or reflection 
that I have here adopted. 
It may be admitted that \Vatts' art is not merely 
literary in the sense in \vhich I have originally used the 
term. It may be admitted that there is truth in the 
general position I have sketched out-that "Tatts 
is not a man copying literature or philosophy, but 
rather a man copying the great spiritual and central 
realities \vhich literature and philosophy also set out 
to copy. It may be admitted that 111ammon is ob- 
viously an attempt to portray, not a twopenny phrase, 
but a great idea. But along with all these admissions 
it will certainly be said, by the most powerful and 
recent school in art criticism, that all this amounts 
to littl
 more than a difference between a mean and 
a magnificent blunder. Pictorial art, it will be said, 
has no more business, as such, to portray great ideas 
than small ideas. Its affair is with its own technique, 
wi th the love of a great billowing line for its own 
sake, of a subtle and perfect tint for its own sake. 
If a man mistakes his trade and attends to the tech- 
nique of another, the sublimity of his mind is only a 
very slight consolation. If I summon a paperhanger 
54- 



\. 
- " 


Of_r\TH CROW:\IING INNOCENCE. 


" 



G EO R G E F RED E R I C K \V A T T S 
to cover the walls, and he insists on playing the piano, 
it matters little whether he plays Beethoven or 
"The Y achmak." If I charter a pianist, and he is 
found drinking in the wine cellar, it matters little 
whether he has made his largest hole in good Burgundy 
or bad Marsala. If the whole of this question of 
grea t ideas and small ideas, of large atmospheres 
and superficial definitions, of the higher and the 
lower allegory-if all this be really irrelevant to the 
discussion of the position of a painter, then, indeed, 
we have been upon an idle track. As I think I shall 
show in a moment, this is a very inadequate view of the 
matter. But it does draw our attention to an aspect 
of the matter which must, without further delay, be 
discussed. That aspect, as I need hardly say, is the 
technique of \Vatts. 
There is of course a certain tendency among all 
interesting and novel critical philosophers to talk 
as if they had discovered things which it is perfectly 
impossible that any human being could ever have 
denied; to shout that the birds fly, and declare 
that in spite of persecution they will still assert that 
cows have four legs. In this way some raw pseudo- 
scientists talk about heredity or the physical basis 
of life as if it were not a thing embedded in every 
creed and legend, and even the very languages of men. 
In this way some of the new oligarchists of to-day 
imagine they are attacking the doctrine of human 
equality by pointing out that some men are stronger 
or cleverer than others; as if they really believed 
that Danton and \"Vashington thought that every 
man was the same height and had the same brains. 
And something of this preliminary cloud of folly or 
misunderstanding attaches doubtless to the question 
of the technical view-that is, the solely technical 
view-of painting. If the principle of "art for art's 
5S 



GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 


sake" means simply that there is a solely technical 
view of painting, and that it must be supreme on its 
own ground, ita ppears a piece of pure madness to 
suppose it other than true. Surely there never ,vas 
really a man who held that a picture that ,vas vile in 
colour and weak in drawing was a good picture because 
it was a picture of Florence Nightingale! Surely 
there never was really a man who said that when 
one leg in a drawing was longer than another, yet 
they were both the same length because the artist 
painted it for an altar-piece! \Vhen the new critics 
with a burst of music and a rocket shower of epigrams 
enunciated their new criticism, they must at any rate 
have meant something more than this. Undoubtedly 
they did mean something more; they meant that a 
picture was not a good vehicle for moral sentiment 
at all; they meant that not only was it not the better 
for having a philosophic meaning, but that it was 
worse. This, if it be true, is beyond all question a 
r
al indictment of \Vatts. 
About the vvhole of this \Vatts controversy about 
didactic art there is at least one perfectly plain and 
preliminary thing to be said. I t is said that art 
cannot teach a lesson. This is true, and the only 
proper addition is the statement that neither, for the 
matter of that, can morality teach a lesson. For a 
thing to be didactic, in the strict and narrow and 
scholastic sense, it must be something about facts or 
the physical sciences: you can only teach a lesson 
about such a thing as Euclid or the making of paper 
boats. The thing is quite inapplicable to the great 
needs of man, whether moral or æsthetic. Nobody 
ever held a class in philanthropy with fifteen million- 
aires in a ro,v writing cheques. Nobody ever held 
evening continuation classes in martyrdom, or drilled 
boys in a playground to die for their country. A 
56 



... 


0 
ü 
u 
<( 
u 
u 
0 
c:c 

 
0 
0:: 
t.L. 
'v >- 
0:: 
..... 0 
f- 
en 
<( 


.. 


" 
'--- 




GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 


picture cannot give a plain lesson in morals; neither 
can a sermon. A didactic poem was a thing known 
indeed among the ancients and the old Latin civili- 
zation, but as a matter of fact it scarcely ever professed 
to teach people how to live the higher life. I t taught 
people how to keep bees. 
Since we find, therefore, that ethics is like art, a 
mystic and intuitional affair, the only question that 
remains is, have they any kinship? If they have not, 
a man is not a man, but two men and probably more: 
if they have, there is, to say the least of it, at any rate 
a reasonable possibility that a note in moral feeling 
might have affinity with a note in art, that a curve 
in law, so to speak, may repeat a curve in draughts- 
manship, that there may be genuine and not artificial 
correspondences between a state of morals and an 
effect in painting. This would, I should tentatively 
suggest, appear to be a most reasonable hypothesis. 
I t is not so much the fact that there is no such thing 
as allegorical art, but rather the fact that there is 
no art that is not allegorical. But the meanings 
expressed in high and delicate art are not to be classed 
under cheap and external ethical form ulæ, they deal 
with strange vices and stranger virtues. Art is 
only unmoral in so far as most morality is immoral. 
Thus Mr. \Vhistler when he drops a spark of perfect 
yellow or violet into some glooming pool of the 
nocturnal Thames is, in all probability, enunciating 
some sharp and wholesome moral comment. \Vhen 
the young Impressionists paint dim corners of meado\vs 
or splashes of sunlight in the wood, this does not mean 
necessarily that they are unmoral; it may only mean 
tha t they are a very original and sincere race of stern 
young moralists. 
N ow if we adopt this general theory of the exist- 
ence of genuine correspondences between art and 
57 



G E 0 R G E F RED E R I C K \V A T T S 
moral beauty, of the existence, that is to say, of 
genuine allegories, it is perfectly clear wherein the 
test of such genuineness must consist. It must 
consist in the nature of the technique. If the tech- 
nique, considered as technique, is calculated to evoke 
in us a certain kind of pleasure, and there is an analogous 
pleasure in the meaning considered as meaning, then 
there is a true wedding of the arts. But if the pleasure 
in the technique be of a kind quite dissimilar in its 
o,vn sphere to the pleasure in the spiritual suggestion, 
then it is a mechanical and unlawful union, and 
this philosophy, at any rate, forbids the banns. If 
the intellectual conceptions uttered in Michel Angelo's 
Day of 1udgment in the Sistine Chapel were the effect 
of a perfect and faultless workmanship, but the work- 
manship such as \ve should admire in a Gothic missal 
or a picture by Gerard Dow, we should then say 
that absolute excellence in both departments did not 
excuse their being joined. The thing \vould have 
been a mere accident, or convenience. Just as two 
plotters might communicate by means of a bar or 
t,vo of music, so these subtle harmonies of colour and 
form would have been used for their detached and 
private ends by the dark conspirators of morality. 
Now there is nothing in the world that is really 
so thoroughly characteristic of "ratts' technique as 
the fact that it does almost startlingly correspond 
to the structure of his spiritual sense. If such pictures 
as 'I he Dweller in the I nnermost and Al ammon and 
Diana and Endyrnion and Eve Repentant had neither 
title nor author, if no one had heard of \Vatts or 
heard of Eve; if, for the matter of that, the pic- 
tures had neither human nor animal form, it would be 
possible to guess something of the painter's attitude 
from the mere colour and line. If "\Tatts painted an 
arabesque, it would be moral; if he designed a Turkey 
58 



LORD LYITON. 



GEORGE FREDERICK ,V A TTS 
carpet, it \vould be stoical. So individual is his 
handling that his very choice and scale of colours 
betray him. A man with a keen sense of the spiritual 
and symbolic history of colours could guess at some- 
thing about "Tatts from the mess on his palette. He 
\\rould see giants and the sea and cold primeval dawns 
and bro\vn earth-men and red earth-women lying 
in the heaps of greens and whites and reds, like forces 
in chaos before the first day of creation. A certain 
queer and yet very simple blue there is, for instance, 
which is like Titian's and yet not like it, which is 
more lustrous and yet not less opaque, and which 
manages to suggest the north rather than Titian's 
south, in spite of its intensity; which suggests also 
the beginning of things rather than thcir maturity; 
a hot spring of the earth rather than Titian's opulent 
summer. Then there is that tremendous autoch- 
thonous red, which "vas the colour of Adam, whose 
name was Red Earth. I t is, if one may say so, the 
clay in which no one works, except \Vatts and the 
Eternal Potter. There are other colours that have 
this character, a character indescribable except by 
saying that they come from the palette of Creation 
-a green especially that reappears through portraits, 
allegories, landscapes, heroic designs, but always has 
the same fierce and elfish look, like a green that has 
a secret. It may be seen in the signet ring of Owen 
l'v1eredith, and in the eyes of the Dweller in the I nner- 
11l0St. But all these colours have, as I say, the first 
and most characteristic and most obyious of the 
mental qualities of 'Vatts; they are simple and like 
things just made by God. Nor is it, I think, altogether 
fanciful to push this analogy or harmony a step 
further and to see in the colours and the treatnlent 
of them the other side or typical trait which I have 
frequently mentioned as making up the identity 
59 



GEO RGE FREDERICK ,V A TTS 


of the painter. He is, as I say, a stoic; therefore to 
some extent, at least, a pagan; he has no special 
sympathy \vith Celtic intensity, \yith Catholic mysti- 
cism, with Romanticism, with all the things that deal 
with the cells of the soul, with agonies and dreams. 
And I think a broad distinction between the finest 
pagan and the finest Christian point of view may be 
found in such an approximate phrase as this, that 
paganism deals always with a light shining on things, 
Christianity with a light shining through them. 
That is why the whole Renaissance colouring is 
opaque, the \\'hole Pre-Raphaelite colouring trans- 
parent. The very sly of Rubens is more solid than 
the rocks of Giotto: it is like a noble cliff of imme- 
morial blue marble. The artists of the devout age 
seemed to regret that they could not make the light 
show through everything, as it shows through the 
little \\Tood in the wonderful Nativity of Botticelli. 
And that is why, again, Christianity, ,vhich has been 
attacked so strangely as dull and austere, invented 
the thing which is more intoxicating than an the wines 
of the world, stained-glass \vindows. 
Now \Vatts, with all his marvellous spirituality, 
or rather because of his peculiar type of marvellous 
spirituality, has the Platonic, the philosophic, rather 
than the Catholic order of mysticism. And it can 
scarcely be a coincidence that here again we feel 
it to be something that could almost be deduced from 
the colours if they were splashed at random about a 
canvas. The colours are mystical, but they are not 
transparent; that is, not transparent in the very 
curious but unmistakable sense in which the colours 
of Botticelli or Rossetti are transparent. \Vhat they 
are can only be described as iridescent. A curious 
lustre or glitter, conveyed chiefly by a singular and 
individual brush\vork, lies over all his great pictures. 
60 




- 
\ 
\ 
þ \. 
, "'\ \. 
'\ 

' .. 
, 
.. 


DAWN, 




GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
I t is the dawn of things: it is the glow of the primal 
sense of wonder; it is the sun of the childhood of 
the world; it is the light that never was on sea or 
land; bu t still it is a light shining on things, not 
shining through them. I t is a light which exhibits 
and does honour to this world, not a light that breaks 
in upon this world to bring it terror or comfort, 
like the light that suddenly peers round the corner 
of some dark Gothic chapel with its green or golden 
or blood-red eyes. The Gothic artists, as I say, 
would have liked men's bodies to become like burning 
glass (as the figures in their windows do), that the 
light might pass through them. There is no fear of 
light passing through "7 
tts' Cain. 
These analogies must inevitably appear fantastic 
to those who do not accept the general hypothesis 
of a possible kinship between pictorial and moral 
harmonies in the psychology of men; but to those 
who do accept this not very extravagant hypothesis, 
it may, I think, be repeated by way of summary, 
that the purely technical question of \Vatts' colour 
scheme does provide us, at least suggestively, with 
these two parallels. \Vatts, so far as his moral and 
mental attitude can be expressed by any phrases of 
such brevity, has two main peculiarities: first, a 
large infantile poetry which delights in things fresh, 
raw, and gigantic; second, a certain Greek restraint 
and agnostic severity, which throws a strong light on 
this world as it is. 1
he colours he uses have also 
two main peculiarities: first, a fresh, raw, and, as it 
were, gigantic character; secondly, an opaque reflected 
light, unlike the mediæval lighting, a strong light 
thrown on this world as it is. 
Similar lines of comparison, so far as they appear 
to possess any value, could, of course, be very easily 
pointed out in connexion with the character of 
61 



GEO RGE FREDERICK ,V A TTS 
Watts' draughtsmanship. That his lines are simple 
and powerful, that both in strength and weakness 
they are candid and austere, that they are not Celtic, 
not Catholic, and not romantic lines of draughts- 
manship, would, I think, appear sufficiently clear to 
anyone \vho has any instinct for this mode of judgment 
at all. In the matter of line and composition, of course, 
the same general con ten tion applies as in the case of 
colour. 1'he curve of the bent figure of [lope, con- 
sidered simply as a curve, half repeating as it does the 
upper curve of the globe, suggests a feeling, a sense of 
fear, of simplicity, of something which lies near to 
the nature of the idea itself, the idea \vhich inspires 
the title of the picture. The splendid rushing 
whirlpool of curves which constitutes, as it were, the 
ellipse of the two figures in Diana and E ndymion 
is a positive inspiration. It is, simply as a form for 
a picture, a mere scheme of lines, the very soul of 
Greece. It is simple; it is full and free; it follows 
great laws of harmony, but it follows them swiftly 
and at will; it is headlong, and yet at rest, like the 
solid arch of a \vaterfall. It is a rushing and passionate 
meeting 01 two superb human figures; and it is 
almost a mathematical harmony. Technically, at 
least, and as a matter of outlines, it is probably the 
artist's masterpiece. 
Before \ve quit this second department of the 
temperament of \\Tatts, as expressed in his line, 
mention must be made of what is beyond all question 
the most interesting and most supremely personal 
of all the elements in the painter's designs and 
draughtsmanship. 'That is, of course, his magnificent 
discovery of the artistic effect of the human back. 
The back is the most awful and mysterious thing in 
the universe: it is impossible to speak about it. It is 
the part of Inan that he knows nothing of; like an 
62 



, 


- 


- 


EVE REPENTANT. 



GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
outlying province forgotten by an emperor. I t is 
a common saying that anything may happen behind 
our backs: transcendentally considered the thing 
has an eerie truth about it. Eden may be behind 
our backs, or Fairyland. But this mystery of the 
human back: has again its other side in the strange 
impression produced on those behind: to walk 
behind anyone along a lane is a thing that, properly 
speaking, touches the oldest nerve of awe. Watts 
has realized this as no one in art or letters has realized 
it in the whole history of the world: it has made him 
great. There is one possible exception to his monopoly 
of this magnificent craze. Two thousand years 
before, in the dark: scriptures of a nomad people, 
it had been said that their prophet saw the immense 
Creator of all things, but only saw Him from behind. 
I do not know whether even Watts would dare to 
paint that. But it reads like one of his pictures, 
like the most terrific of all his pictures, which he has 
kept veiled. 
I need not instance the admirable and innumerable 
cases of this fine and individual effect. Eve Repentant 
(that fine picture), in which the agony of a gigantic 
womanhood is conveyed as it could not be conveyed 
by any power of visage, in the powerful contortion of 
the muscular and yet beautiful back, is the first that 
occurs to the mind. The sad and sardonic picture 
painted in later years, For He had Great Possessions- 
showing the young man of the Gospel loaded with 
his intolerable pomp of garments and his head sunken 
out of sight-is of course another. Others are 
slighter instances, like Good Luck to your Fishing. He 
has again carried the principle, in one instance, to 
an extreme seldom adopted, I should fancy, either 
by artist or man. He has painted a very graceful 
portrait of his wife, in which that lady's face is entirely 
63 



GEORGE FREDERICK Wl\.TTS 
omitted, the head being abruptly turned away. 
But it is indeed idle to multiply these instances of 
the painter's hobby (if one may use the phrase) of 
the \vorship of the human back, when all such in- 
stances have been dwarfed and overshadowed by the 
one famous and tremendous instance that everyone 
knows. Love and Death is truly a great achievement: 
if it stood alone it would have made a man great. 
And it fits in \vith a peculiar importance \vith the 
general view I am suggesting of the \Vatts technique. 
F or the whole picture really hangs, both technically 
and morally, upon one single line, a line that could 
be drawn across a blank canvas, the spine-line of the 
central figure of Death with its great falling garment. 
The whole composition, the whole conception, and, 
I was going to say, the whole moral of the picture, 
could be deduced from that single line. The moral 
of the picture (if moral were the right phrase for 
these things) is, it is scarcely necessary to point out, 
the monument of about as noble a silence and sup- 
pression as the human mind ever bent itself to in its 
pride. It is the great masterpiece of agnosticism. 
In that picture agnosticism-not the cheap and queru- 
lous incredulity which abuses the phrase, but loyal 
and consistent agnosticism, \vhich is as willing to 
believe good as evil and to harbour faith as doubt- 
has here its great and pathetic place and symbol 
in the house of the arts. It is the artistic embodiment 
of reverent ignorance at its highest, fully as much as 
the Divine Comedy is the artistic embodiment of 
Christianity. 
Technically, in a large number of cases, it is probably 
true that Watts' portraits, or some of them at least, 
are his most successful achievements. But here also 
we find our general conclusion: for if his portraits 
are his best pictures, it is certainly not because they 
6+ 



..... 


. 
... 


LOVE AND DEATH. 


,. 



 


.. 



GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
are merely por
raits; if they are in some cases better 
than his symbolic designs, it is certainly not because 
they are less symbolic. In his gallery of great men, 
indeed, we find \Va tts almost more himself than 
anywhere else. 1\lost men are' allegorical when 
they are painting allegories, but \Vatts is allegorical 
when he is painting an old alderman. A change 
passes over that excellent being, a change of a kind 
to which aldermen are insufficiently inured. He 
begins to resolve into the primal elements, to become 
dust and the shadow, to become the red clay of 
Adam and the wind of God. His eyes become, in 
spite of his earnest wish, the fixed stars in the sky of 
the spirit; his complexion begins to show, not 
the unmeaning red of portraits and miniatures, but 
that secret and living red which is within us, and 
which is the river of man. The astounding manner 
in which Watts has, in some cases, treated his sitters 
is one of the most remarkable things about his 
character. He is not (it is almost absurd to have to 
mention such a thing about the almost austere old 
democrat) a man likely to flatter a sitter in any 
worldly or conventional sense. Nor is he, for the 
matter of that, a man likely to push compliments 
far from any motive: he is a strict, and I should 
infer a candid, man. The type of virtues he chiefly 
admires and practises are the reverse of those which 
would encourage a courtier or even a universalist. 
But he scarcely ever paints a man without making 
him about five times as magnificent as he really 
looks. The real men appear, if they present them- 
selves afterwards, like mean and unsympathetic sketches 
from the \Vatts original. 
The fact is that this indescribable primalism, 
which we have noted as coming out in the designs, 
in the titles, and in Watts' very oil-colours, is present 
E 65 



GEORGE FREDERICK ,V A TTS 


in this matter in a most extraordinary way. \\Tatts 
does not copy men at all: he makes them over again. 
He dips his hand in the clay of chaos and begins to 
model a man named \Yilliam l\Iorris or a man named 
Richard Burton: he is assisted, no doubt, in some 
degree by a quaint old text-book called Reality, 
,vith its stiff but suggestive woodcuts and its shrewd 
and <;imple old hints. But the most that can be said 
for the portraiture is that \\'atts asks a hint to come 
and stop with him, puts the hint in a chair in his 
studio and stares at him. The thing that comes out 
at last upon the canvas is not generally a very precise 
picture of the sitter, though, of course, it is almost 
always a very accurate picture of the universe. 
And yet while this, on the one side, is true enough, 
the portraits are portraits, and very fine portraits. 
But they are dominated by an element which is the 
antithesis of the whole tendency of modern art, that 
tendency which for want of a better word we have 
to call by the absurd name of optimism. I t is not, 
of course, in reality a question of optimism in the 
least, but of an illimitable worship and wonder 
directed towards the fact of existence. There is a 
great deal of difference between the optimism which 
says that things are perfect and the optimism which 
merely says (with a more primeval modesty) that they 
are very good. One optimism says that a one-legged 
man has two legs because it would be so dreadful 
if he had not. The other optimism says that the fact 
that the one-legged was born of a woman, has a 
soul, has been in love, and has stóod alive under 
the stars, is a fact so enormous and thrilling that, in 
comparison, it does not matter whether he has one 
leg or five. One optimism says that this is the best 
of all possible worlds. The other says that it is 
certainly not the best of all possible worlds, but 
66 



" 


WILLIAM MORRIS. 


- 



 


\ 



GEORGE FREDERICK \V A TTS 
it is the best of all possible things that a world should 
be possible. Watts, as has been more than once 
more or less definitely suggested, is dominated 
throughout by this. prehistoric wonder. A man to 
him, especially a great man, is a thing to be painted 
as Fra Angelico painted angels, on his knees. He 
has indeed, like many brilliant men in the age that 
produced Carlyle and Ruskin, an overwhelming 
tendency to hero-worship. That worship had not, 
of course, in the case of these men any trace of that 
later and more denaturalized hero-worship. the 
tendency to worship madmen-to dream of vast 
crimes as one dreams of a love-affair, and to take 
the malformation of the soul to be the only originality. 
To the Carlylean (and Watts has been to some by 
no means inconsiderable extent a Carlylean), to the 
Carlylean the hero, the great man, was a man more 
human than humanity itself. In worshipping him 
you were worshipping humanity in a sacrament: 
and Watts seems to express in almost every line of 
his brush this ardent and reverent view of the great 
man. He overdoes it. Tennyson, fine as he was 
both physically and mentally, was not quite so much 
of a demi-god as Watts' splendid pictures would 
seem to suggest. Many other sitters have been sub- 
jected, past all recognition, to this kind of devout 
and ethereal caricature. But the essential of the 
whole matter was that the attitude of Watts was 
one which might almost be called worship. It was 
not, of course, that he always painted men as handsome 
in the conventional sense, or even as handsome as 
they were. William Morris impressed most people 
as a very handsome man: in \Vatts' marvellous 
portrait, so much is made of the sanguine face, the 
bold stare, the almost volcanic suddenness of, the 
emergence of the head from the dark green background, 
E2 67 



GFORGE FREDERICK \V A TTS 
that the effect of ordinary good looks, on which many 
of Morris's intimates would probably have prided 
themselves, is in some degree lost. Car lyle, again, 
\vhen he saw the painter's fine rendering of him, said 
with characteristic surliness that he "looked like a 
mad labourer." Conventionally speaking, it is of 
course, therefore, to be admitted that the sitters 
did not always come off ,veIl. But the exaggeration 
or the distortion, if exaggeration or distortion there 
were, was always effected in obedience to some 
almost awestruck notion of the greatness or goodness 
of the great or good sitter. The point is not whether 
\Vatts sometimes has painted men as ugly as they 
were painted by the primary religious painters; the 
point is, as I have said, that he painted as they did, 
on his knees. Now no one thinks that Mr. Sargent 
paints the Misses \Vertheimer on his knees. His 
grimness and decision of dravving and colouring are 
not due to a sacred optimism. But those of \Vatt
 
are due to this: are due to an intense conviction 
that there is within the sitter a great reality which 
has to gi ve up its secret before he leaves the seat or 
the model's throne. Hence come the red violent 
face and minatory eyes of \Villiam Morris: the 
painter sought to express, and he did most successfully 
express, the main traits and meaning of Morris- 
the appearance of a certain plain masculine passion 
in the realm of decorative art. Morris was a man 
who wanted good wall-papers, not as a man \vants 
a coin of the Emperor Constantine, \vhich was the 
cloistered or abnormal way in which men had commonly 
devised such things: he wanted good ,vall-papers as 
a man \vants beer. He clamoured for art: he brawled 
for it. He asserted the perfectly virile and ordinary 
character of the appetite for beauty. And he possessed 
and developed a power of moral violcnce on pure 
68 



. 


DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETfI. 




GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
matters of taste which startled the flabby world of 
connoisseurship and opened a new era. He grew 
furious with furniture and denounced the union 
of wrong colours as men denounce an adultery. All 
this is expressed far more finely than in these clumsy 
sentences in that living and leonine head in the 
National Portrait Gallery. It is exactly the same with 
Carlyle. \Vatts' Carlyle is immeasurably more subtle 
and true than the Carlyle of 1Ylillais, which simply 
represents him as a shaggy, handsome, magnificent 
old man. The uglier Carlyle of \'Tatts has more of 
the truth about him, the strange combination of 
a score of sane and healthy visions and views, with 
something that was not sane, which bloodshot and 
embittered them all, the great tragedy of the union 
of a strong countryside mind and body with a dÌ$ease 
of the vitals and something like a disease of the spirit. 
In fact, \Vatts painted Carlyle" like a mad labourer" 
because Carlyle was a mad labourer. 
This general characteristic might of course be 
easily traced in all the portraits one by one. If 
space permitted, indeed, such a process might be 
profitable; for while we take careful note of all the 
human triviality of faces, the one thing that we all 
tend to forget is that divine and common thing which 
\Vatts celebrates. It is the misfortune of the non- 
religious ages that they tend to cultivate a sense of 
individuality, not only at the expense of religion, but 
at the expense of humanity itself. For the" modern 
portrait-painter not only does not see the image of 
God in his sitters, he does not even see the image of 
man. His object is not to insist on the glorious and 
solemn heritage which is common to Sir \Villiam 
Harcourt and Mr. Albert Chevalier, to Count Tolstoy 
and Mr. \Vanklyn, that is the glorious and solemn 
heritage of a nose and t\VO eyes and a mouth. The 
69 



GEORGE FREDERICK \\'ATTS 
effort of the dashing modern is rather to make each 
of these features individual almost to the point of 
being incredible: it is his desire to paint the mouth 
whose grimace is inimitable, the eyes that could 
be only in one head, and the nose that never was on 
sea or land. There is value in this purely personal 
treatment, but something in it so constantly lost: 
the quality of the common humanity. The new art 
gallery is too like a museum of freaks, it is too wild 
and wonderful, like a realistic novel. \Vatts errs 
undoubtedly on the other side. He makes all his 
portraits too classical. I t may seem like a paradox 
to say that he makes them too human; but humanity 
is a cIa ss is and therefore classical. He recurs too 
much to the correct type which includes all men. 
He has, for instance, a worship of great men so com- 
plete that it makes him tend in the direction of 
painting them all alike. There may be too much 
of Browning in his Tennyson, too much of Tennyson 
in his Browning. There is certainly a touch of 
Manning in his John Stuart Mill, and a touch of the 
Minotaur in many of his portraits of Imperial po}i- 
ticians. \Vhile he celebrates the individual with a 
peculiar insight, it is nevertheless always referred to 
a general human type. "'e feel when we look at 
even the most extraordinary of Watts' portraits, 
as, for instance, the portrait of Lord Stratford de 
Redcliffe, that before Lord Stratford de Redcliffe 
was born, and apart from that fact, there was such a 
thing as a human being. "Then we look at a brilliant 
modern canvas like that of Mr. Sargent's portrait of 
Wertheimer, we do not feel that any human being 
analogous to him had of necessity existed. \Ve feel 
that Mr. Wertheimer might have been created before 
the stars. \Vatts has a tendency to resume his char- 
acters into his background as if they \\'ere half returning 
7 0 



THOMAS CARLYLE. 



GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 


to the forces of nature. In his more successful por- 
traits the actual physical characteristics of the sitter 
appear to be something of the nature of artistic 
creations; they are decorative and belong to a whole. 
We feel that he has filled in the fiery orange of Swin- 
burne's hair as one might fill in a gold or copper 
panel. \Ve know that he was historically correct in 
making the hair orange, but we cannot get rid of a 
haunting feeling that if his scheme had been a little 
different he would have made it green. This inde- 
scribable sentiment is particularly strong in the case 
of the portrait of Rossetti. Rossetti is dressed in a 
dark green coat which perfectly expresses his sumptuous 
Pre- Raphaelite affectation. But we do not feel that 
Rossetti has adopted the dark green coat to suit his 
dark red beard. 'Ve rather feel that if anyone had 
seized Rossetti and forcibly buttoned him up in the 
dark green coat he would have grown the red beard 
by sheer force of will. 
Before we quit the subject of portraiture a word 
ought to be said about two exceedingly noble portraits, 
those of Matthew Arnold and Cardinal Manning. 
The former is interesting because, as an able critic 
said somewhere (I wish I could remember who he was 
or where he wrote), this is the one instance of Watts 
approaching tentatively a man whom he in all reason- 
able probability did not understand. In this par- 
ticular case the picture is a hundred times better for 
that. The portrait-painter of Matthew Arnold ob- 
viously ought not to understand him, since he did 
not understand himself. And the bewilderment 
which the artist felt for those few hours reproduced 
in a perfect, almost in an immortal, picture the 
bewilderment which the sitter felt from the cradle to 
the grave. The bewilderment of Matthew Arnold 
was more noble and faithful than most men's certainty, 
7 1 



G E 0 R G E F RED E R I C K \V A T T S 
and \Vatts has not failed to give that nobility a place 
even greater perhaps than that which he would have 
given to it had he been working on that fixed theory of 
admiration in which he dealt with Tennyson or 
l\lorris. The sad sea-blue eyes of Matthew Arnold 
seemed to get near to the fundamental sadness of blue. 
I t is a certain eternal bleakness in the colour which 
may for all I know have given rise to the legend of 
blue devils. There are times at any rate when the 
bluest heavens appear only blue with those devils. 
The portrait of Cardinal Manning is worth a further 
and special notice, because it is an illustration of the 
fact to which I have before alluded: the fact that 
while \Vatts in one sense always gets the best out of 
his sitters, he does not by any means always get the 
handsomest out of them. Manning was a singularly 
fine-looking man, even in his emaciation. A friend of 
mine, who was particularly artistic both by instinct and 
habits, gazed for a long time at a photograph of the 
terrible old man clad in those Cardinal's robes and 
regalia in which he exercised more than a Cardinal's 
power, and said reflectively, "He would have made his 
fortune as a model." A great many of the photo- 
graphs of Manning, indeed almost any casual glimpses 
of him, present him as more beautiful than he appears 
in \Vatts' portrait. To the ordinary onlooker there 
was behind the wreck of flesh and the splendid skeleton 
the remains of a very handsome English gentleman; 
relics of one who might have hunted foxes and married 
an American heiress. "'Tatts has no eyes for anything 
except that sublime vow which he would himself 
repudiate, that awful Church which he would himself 
disown. He exaggerates the devotionalism of Man- 
ning. He is more ascetic than the ascetics; more 
Catholic than Catholicism. Just so, he would be, if 
he were painting the Sheik-el-Islam, more lVloslem 
7 2 



GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
than the Mohammedans. He has no eyes but for 
ideas. 
vVatts' allegories and vVatts' portraits exhaust 
the subject of his art. It is true that he has on rare 
occasions attempted pictures merely reproducing 
the externals of the ordinary earth. I t is characteristic 
of him that he should have once, for no apparent 
reason in particular, painted a picture of two cart- 
horses and a man. It is still more characteristic 
of him that this one picture of a trivial group in the 
street should be so huge as to dwarf many of his 
largest and most transcendental canvases; that the 
incidental harmless drayman should be more gigantic 
than the Prince of this vVorld or Adam or the Angel 
of Death. He condescends to a detail and makes the 
detail more vast than a cosmic allegory. One picture, 
called "The First Oyster," he is reported to have 
painted in response to a challenge which accused him 
or his art of lacking altogether the element of humour. 
The charge is interesting, because it suggests a com- 
parison with the similar charge commonly brought 
against Gladstone. In both charges there is an element 
of truth, though not complete truth. Watts proved 
no doubt that he was not wholly without humour 
by this admirable picture. Gladstone proved that 
he was not wholly without humour by his reply to 
Mr. Chaplin, by his singing of "Doo-dah," and by 
his support of a grant to the Duke of Coburg. But 
both men were singularly little possessed by the mood 
or the idea of humour. To them had been in peculiar 
fullness revealed the one great truth which our modern 
thought does not know and which it may possibly 
perish through not knowing. They knew that to 
enjoy life means to take it seriously. There is an 
eternal kinship between solemnity and high spirits, 
and almost the very name of it is Gladstone. Its other 
ï3 



G EO R G E F RED E R I C K 'V.L\ T T S 
name is \Vatts. They knew that not only life, but 
every detail of life, is most a pleasure when it is 
studied with the gloomiest intensity. They knew 
tha t the men who collect beetles are j oIlier than the 
men who kill them, and that the men who worshipped 
beetles (in ancient Egypt) were probably the jolliest 
of all. The startling cheerfulness of the old age of 
Gladstone, the startling cheerfulness of the old age 
of \Vatts, are both entirely redolent of this exuberant 
seriousness, this uproarious gravity. They were as 
ha ppy as the birds, because, like the birds, they ,vere 
untainted by the disease of laughter. They are as 
awful and philosophical as children at play: indeed 
they remind us of a truth true for all of us, though 
capable of misunderstanding, that the great aim of a 
man's life is to get into his second childhood. 
Of his work we have concluded our general survey. 
I t has been hard in conducting such a survey to 
avoid the air of straying from the subject. But the 
greatest hardness of the subject is that we cannot 
stray from the subject. This man has attempted, 
whether he has succeeded or no, to paint such pictures 
of such things that no one shall be able to get outside 
them; that everyone should be lost in them for ever 
like wanderers in a mighty park. \Vhether we strike 
a match or win the Victoria Cross, we are still giants 
sprawling in Chaos. Whether we hide in a monastery 
or thunder on a platform, we are still standing in the 
Court of Death. If any experience at all is genuine, 
it affects the philosophy of these pictures; if any 
halfpenny stamp supports them, they are the better 
pictures; if any dead cat in a dust-bin contradicts 
them, they are the worse pictures. 
rhis is the great 
pathos and the great dignity of philosophy and 
theology. Men talk of philosophy and theology as 
if they were something specialistic and arid and 
ï+ 



... 


--- 


t
OOD LUCK TO YOUR FISHING 




GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS 
ácademic. But philosophy and theology are not only 
the only democratic things, they are democratic to 
the point of being vulgar, to the point, I was going 
to say, of being rowdy. They alone admit all matters; 
they alone lie open to all attacks. All other sciences 
may, while studying their own, laugh at the rag-tag 
and bobtail of other sciences. An astronomer may 
sneer at animalculæ, which are very like stars; an 
entomologist may scorn the stars, which are very like 
animalculæ. Physiologists may think it dirty to 
grub about in the grass; botanists may think it dirtier 
to grub about in an animal's inside. But there is 
nothing that is not relevant to these more ancient 
studies. There is no detail, from buttons to kangaroos, 
that does not enter into the gay confusion of philosophy. 
rrhere is no fact of life, from the death of a donkey 
to the General Post Office, which has not its place to 
dance and sing in, in the glorious Carnival of theology. 
Therefore I make no apology if I have asked the 
reader, in the course of these remarks, to think about 
things in general. It is not I, but George Frederick 
Watts, who asks the reader to think about things in 
general. If he has not done this, he has failed. If he 
has not started in us such trains of reflection as I am 
now concluding and many more and many better, he 
has failed. And this brings me to my last word. 
Now and again Watts has failed. I am afraid that it 
may possibly be inferred from the magniloquent 
language which I have frequently, and with a full 
consciousness of my act, applied to this great man, 
that I think the whole of his work technically 
triumphant. Clearly it is not. For I believe that 
often he has scarcely known what he was doing; I 
believe that he has been in the dark when the lines 
came wrong; that he has been still deeper in the dark 
and things came right. As I have already pointed out, 
is 



GEORGE FREDERICK 'V A TTS 
the vague lines '\vhich his mere physical instinct \vould 
make him dra,v, have in them the curves of the Cosmos. 
His automatic manual action ,vas, I think, certainly 
a revelation to others, certainly a revelation to himself. 
Standing before a dark canvas upon some quiet 
evening, he has made lines and something has happened. 
In such an hour the strange and splendid phrase of 
the Psalm he has literally fulfilled. He has 'gone on 
because of the word of meekness and truth and of 
righteousness. And his right hand has taught him 
terri ble things. 



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