Records Associated with George Frederic Watts

Scope and Content

The collection contains material relating to George Frederic Watts. The collection is arranged as follows:

- GFW/1 contains the personal and business correspondence of George Frederic Watts and manuscript material pertaining to his ideas and theory. The material was collected and assembled by Watts' widow, Mary Seton Watts, following his death. G. F. Watts' personal and business correspondence and personal manuscript notes including drafted letters and ideas. The volumes and loose material includes original letters to and from Watts and numerous handwritten or typed transcriptions of his letters. Most of the transcriptions relate to privately owned letters, the whereabouts of which may be unknown. The letters record appointments for sittings and everyday matters such as invitations to dinner, visits to and from friends, concert performances and other social engagements as well as more notable parts of the collection which include correspondence with persons within Watts' inner circle and subjects of his portraiture including William Ewart Gladstone, Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson, Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Baronet, PRA, Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, 1st Duke of Westminster, Cecil Rhodes, George Meredith, Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, James Martineau, Henry Austin Bruce Aberdare, 1st Baron, Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke, 2nd Baronet PC, Henry Edward Manning, Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and Sir Antonio Genesio Maria Panizzi; correspondence with principal patrons including the Manchester merchant Charles Hilditch Rickards and the Ionides family; correspondence with the art suppliers Winsor and Newton and J. Scott Taylor of the North London Colour Works concerning technical matters, including pigments, canvasses, paint stability, varnishes, oils and brushes; correspondence with his circle of female friends including Mrs Jane Nassau Senior, Mrs Percy Wyndham, Lady Anne Isabella Ritchie and Julia Margaret Cameron; correspondence with Mary Gertrude Mead, who organised the exhibition of his paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York 1884-1885.

-GFW/2 contains an album of photographs of portraits by George Frederic Watts, taken and compiled by photographer, Frederic Hollyer.

Administrative / Biographical History

George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), painter and sculptor was born on 23 February 1817 at 52 Queen Street, Bryanstone Square, Marylebone, the eldest child of the second marriage of George Watts (1775-1845), pianoforte maker and tuner, and his wife Harriet Anne (1786/7-1826). The family moved to Star Street, Paddington when Watts was a boy and there poor health prevented him from attending school regularly, but his talent for drawing emerged in sketches and copies which his father encouraged. In 1827 Watts entered the studio of the sculptor William Behnes (1795-1865) who held a studio on Dean Street, Soho. Watts also befriended Behnes' younger brother Charles, a miniature painter.

Watts entered the Royal Academy on 30 April 1835. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1837 with 'The Wounded Heron' and two portraits, from 33 Upper Norton Street, Marylebone. By 1838 Watts had taken his own studio at Clipstone Street. In April 1842 the Fine Arts Commission announced an important competition to promote large scale historical paintings to decorate the new Palace of Westminster. Watts selected the work 'Caractacus Led in Triumph through the Streets of Rome', the exhibition opened in June 1843 in Westminster Hall. Watts won one of the highest prizes of £300, enabling him to travel abroad to study the techniques of the fresco painters in Italy, and embarked on his travels in July 1843. Watts began spending six weeks in Paris before travelling to Florence where he visited Lord Holland's (1802-1859) house, Casa Feroni, and befriended Holland's childless wife, Lady Mary Augusta Holland (1812-1889). At Casa Feroni Watts was at the heart of a cosmopolitan circle of rich aristocrats and expatriates, and made many personal friends, painting portraits, landscapes and fresco paintings. Watts left Florence in mid April 1847, with the intention of returning. In 1847 Watts prepared to enter a competition for the new Houses of Parliament with 'Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Prevent the Landing of the Danes by encountering them at Sea' and won the first premium of £500. Watts lodged at 48 Cambridge Street until 1849.

By 1850 Watts was sharing a studio at 30 Charles Street with his friend Charles Couzens (c. 1821-1889), a miniature painter. There he met Sara Prinsep (1816-1887) and her husband Thoby (1792-1878). Watts persuaded Lord and Lady Holland to grant them a 21 year lease on the dower house, Little Holland House, from 25 December 1850. Watts soon moved in with the Prinseps as a guest and a resident, he had a private studio space. It was at Little Holland House that Sara Prinsep dubbed Watts 'Signor'. In the 1850s Watts began to formulate a plan to paint portraits of eminent men of the day for his own collection, destined to be presented to the nation. In 1852 he received a commission to paint a mural in the new Palace of Westminster, painting 'The Triumph of the Red Cross Knight', and offered to paint a mural at the Great Hall of Lincoln's Inn, which was completed in 1859 and called 'Justice: a Hemicycle of Lawgivers'.

In the 1860s Tom Taylor (1817-1880) introduced two young actresses, Kate (1844-1924) and Ellen Terry (1847-1928) to the Little Holland House circle in order for Watts to paint their portraits. Watts was particularly taken with Ellen Terry and with the encouragement of Sara Prinsep they married at St. Barnabas Church, Kensington on 20 February 1864. Ellen Terry inspired Watts in several painting, including 'Choosing', (RA, 1864). Their marriage did not last and they separated in 1865. Watts later petitioned for divorce, which was awarded 13 March 1877.

Watts returned to the forum of the Royal Academy and he was elected Associate on 31 January 1867, and was elevated to full membership on 18 December 1867. In 1871 Watts bought a property on the Isle of Wight where Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) and Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) had homes. At this time Watts adopted a young relation of the Prinsep's called Blanche Clogstoun (later Somers Cocks) (1862-1895). By 1875 Little Holland House was knocked down and Watts bought a parcel of land at 6 Melbury Road which was known as New Little Holland House, and moved into the property in February 1876. At New Little Holland House Watts became friendly with his neighbour Emilie Barrington (1841-1933), an amateur painter and writer on art.

In 1880 Watts' most prolific patron, Charles Hilditch Rickards (1812-1886) held an exhibition of his collection of Watts' work at the Royal Manchester Institution, this led to Sir Coutts Lindsay (1824-1913) staging an exhibition in the winter on 1881-1882 of over 200 works, called the 'Collection of the Works of G. F. Watts, R. A.', the first retrospective of any living British artist. In 1884, with the encouragement of a young American, Mary Gertrude Mead (later Mrs Edwin Austin Abbey) (1851-1931), Watts showed a group of works at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. After a retrospective of Watts' work at the Grosvenor Gallery, 1882-1883, Watts received honours: Oxford University made him DCL and Cambridge University awarded him an honorary degree of LLD in 1882. In 1885, W. E. Gladstone, Prime Minster (1809-1898), offered baronetcies to Watts, which were declined.

Watts remarried on 20 November 1886 in Epsom, Surrey to Mary Seton Fraser Tytler (1849-1938). They honeymooned in the winter of 1886-1887 in Egypt, Constantinople, Athens and Messina. In 1890, encouraged by his friend Andrew Hichens (1833-1906), Watts agreed to the purchase of land in Compton, for a house to be built by Ernest George. Watts and his wife named it Limnerslease. By 1890 he and his wife were introduced to a young orphan Lilian Mackintosh (later Mrs Michael Chapman) (c. 1879-1972), who came to live with them. In the 1890s Watts began to bequest his work to the nation, in 1895 he gave a group of portraits to the National Portrait Gallery, and in 1896 he became a Trustee of the gallery, in 1897 the new National Gallery of British Art, known as the Tate Gallery opened with seventeen paintings forming the first instalment of the Watts gift. In 1902 Watts bought a further three acres in Compton with the intention of opening a picture gallery. Opening in April 1904 was the Watts Gallery. Watts died at 6 Melbury Road on 1 July 1904 from cystitis, bronchitis and a weak heart.

Please note this biography was based on Barbara Coffey Bryant, 'Watts, George Frederic (1817-1904)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2007 [, accessed 16 Sept 2013]

Access Information

Available to view by appointment in the Heinz Archive and Library Public Study Room, to make an appointment contact Archive Reception . Although records are generally available for public consultation, some information in them, such as personal data or information supplied to the Gallery in confidence, may be restricted.

Other Finding Aids

The complete catalogue for this archive can be searched via the NPG Archive Catalogue .

Conditions Governing Use

Personal photography is permitted for research purposes only. Photocopying is not permitted.