G. F. Watts by G. K. Chesterton

GK meets GF sounds like the title of one of those mid-twentieth century albums when a producer with an eye for a buck teamed up some ancient crooner with an equally aged instrumentalist to perform newly arranged standards. In this case it’s a book from early in the 20th century when the Christianity-inspired art-trained writer G. K. Chesterton put pen to paper to analyse the work of G. F. Watts, the renowned Victorian painter. Chesterton´s style has been described as dealing in popular sayings, proverbs and allegories, and then turning them inside out. Basically, he follows this form in presenting the reputation of George Frederick Watts in this biography.

Watts was a grandee of English painting during the Victorian era. Chesterton starts by claiming Welsh roots for the painter, along with Celtic sentiments, but the theory is vague and frankly contradicted by the eventual location of the Watts museum, close to Guilford in the utterly English Home Counties.

In many ways, it is easier to describe Watts by starting with what he was not. He was not a Pre-Raphaelite, but probably sympathized with many of the group’s artistic aims. He was not an Impressionist, preferring always the classical, centrally placed, consistently-lit subject. He was not a modernist in any sense, but many of his images have a curiously modern feel. Perhaps he comes closest to being an English Symbolist, but that is not what Chesterton thinks.

Watts was a Romantic. He was an formation figure who was also arguably anti-formation. He took commissions from the state, often donated works to grand projects and painted the high, famous and meaningful. But he also refused national honours and used the earnings from his celebrity portraits to fund projects to depict the social conditions of his age. He was not a member of the Arts and Crafts movement, but his wife was, and he was clearly a sympathizer. Next to the Watts museum is arguably Britain’s finest example of Arts and Crafts Celtic Revival architecture, the Watts Chapel at Compton, which essentially was his wife’s project. We may return to Chesterton´s opening at this point to record the fact that Watts, himself, did not claim this connected to his own heritage.

Watts’s work is highly individualistic within a framework that might appear at first sight to be traditional. Chesterton, in his characteristic obfuscation, defines three basic characteristics of this work. “… first, the sceptical idealism, the belief that recondite 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 with reference to a general good.” seemingly, such things as cosmic utilitarianism can be gleaned directly from the visual image, though a modern reader of this biography might find that rather difficult.

Chesterton, as ever, cannot resist moralizing about his own opinions. “So far the consequence would painfully appear to be that while men in the earlier times said unscientific things with the vagueness of gossip and legend, they now say unscientific things with the plainness and the certainty of science.” Perhaps, as a writer, GK should have read this quote before writing the examination just quoted. The author, nevertheless, does sometimes deal with the visual content. Watts did have a inclination, perhaps a proclivity for 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 man that he knows nothing of; like an outlying province forgotten by an emperor”

Chesterton does describe some of Watts´s noticable work. He concentrates on the portraiture and the poetic, dreamlike works, such as Hope. What is missing is any description of the social comment. But, after a hundred pages of embroidering the artist and his work with his own brand of prolixity, Chesterton concludes with “And this brings me to my last information. 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 complete 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 nevertheless deeper in the dark and things came right. As I have already pointed out, the vague lines which his insignificant physical instinct would make him draw, have in them the curves of the Cosmos. His automatic manual action was, 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 information of meekness and truth and of righteousness. And his right hand has taught him terrible things.” Not really talented, GF, it seems, got lucky, at the minimum according to GK. One hopes the meeting was cordial.

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