The National Portrait Gallery Launches Online Catalogue of Artist George Frederic Watts' Letters

The National Portrait Gallery has completed a major online catalogue of the personal and professional correspondence of the renowned nineteenth-century British artist George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), enabling, for the first time, world-wide access to the stories behind his remarkable life and career.

The nine-month project, funded by the National Cataloguing Grants Programme for Archives, has included the transcription of 1,446 letters and notes written to, or received by, Watts. The Collection reveals the professional and personal relationships of one of Britain's most significant artists, providing an invaluable source of material for researchers, students and those with an interest in British art in the nineteenth century.

Watts is celebrated for his portraits of eminent Victorians, known as his 'Hall of Fame' series, and the letters in the Collection, held in the Gallery's Heinz Archive and Library, reflect the impressive artistic, political, academic and social circles in which he moved. From his London residence, Little Holland House, where he lived with the bohemian Prinsep family, Watts corresponded with the Victorian elite and counted many 'celebrities' of the time his close friends, including William Ewart Gladstone, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Alfred Tennyson, John Everett Millais, Cecil Rhodes, Cardinal Manning, Julia Margaret Cameron and James Martineau.

Other highlights of the Collection include letters revealing the ideas behind his magnificent symbolist paintings; hundreds of letters between Watts and his art supplier, Winsor and Newton, detailing the secrets of his artistic practice and unusual techniques; and correspondence regarding his exhibitions, including one of over 200 of his works in 1881-82, which was the first ever retrospective of any living British artist, and another in New York in 1884-85. Other letters of interest record appointments for sittings, social engagements and his physical health.

The letters were compiled by Watts's second wife Mary Seton Watts (1849-1938) following her husband's death, in preparation for her biography of him, published in 1912. In July 1905, Mary Watts advertised for the loan of Watts's letters, intending to make copies for biographical research. The correspondence, both original and copied, was arranged and pasted into 15 albums, of which the National Portrait Gallery acquired 14, plus many loose letters.

The Heinz Archive and Library of the National Portrait Gallery, London, documents the history of the institution and its activities, and is the leading centre for research in the field of British portraiture. It also includes archive collections acquired from external sources, including the papers of key portrait artists and art historians. The Watts Collection is one of the most significant of these collections.




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by Barry Kostrinsky