GF Watts: England's Michelangelo
20 June – 26 November 2017
To celebrate the bicentenary of the artist's birth, the gallery brings together some of his most remarkable works.
Making the case for why Watts was declared by his contemporary Frederic Lord Leighton as 'England's Michelangelo', this exhibition explores the variety of talents he showcased during his career – from his depictions of social realism and spirituality, to his forays into portraiture.
Watts would often make portraits of the other male artists and writers that he knew, and on display are his painting of Lord Leighton adorned in his magnificent presidential robes and his portrayal of the eccentric poet Algernon Swinburne.
Other works — many of which have never been exhibited at Watts Gallery before — include the masterpiece Love and Life, which was given to the American people by Watts and displayed in the White House, and a newly discovered portrait of Marie Fox, the Princess of Liechtenstein and adopted daughter of Watts' patrons, Lord and Lady Holland.
In 1863 teenage starlet Ellen Terry and her sister Kate took on roles at London’s Haymarket Theatre. Kate's performance was met with great success and she was invited to sit for Watts, who had established himself as the leading portraitist of the day. Ellen accompanied her on the visit and Watts decided he would paint both of them instead.
Over the following months Watts made Ellen the star of a series of paintings and drawings, and in 1864 – when Ellen was aged just 16 and Watts 46 – the pair married. She said that the experience of sitting for Watts made the stage seem 'a poor place' and so she renounced her stage career and became his muse.
Their relationship lasted for less than a year, but Watt’s paintings of his young wife have been described as 'his most glorious visions on canvas'. An example of which, Choosing, was voted one of the top ten British paintings during our Art Everywhere campaign in 2014, and is on display here.