Few, if any, descriptions of an artistic role squash the joy in your heart as brutally as that grim combination of two enfeebling v-words – Victorian visionary. Ouch. On its own, either of these gloomy encapsulations would be reason enough for depression, but to combine both in one handynom de terreur is an act of cultural cruelty. Yet that is what exhibition organisers habitually do to GF Watts. That is what they are calling him in the sprawling show that has descended on London like a particularly wet February – GF Watts: Victorian Visionary. Ouch.
What is it about Watts? Or, let me put it another way – what isn’t it about Watts? Everything that matters in art, every precious grace, every delicate touch and independent thought, every subtle nuance and lyrical turn, every brighter colour and every genuinely deep thought – as opposed to every shallow and pretentious big idea – missed him out or avoided him. He could paint, I suppose. Nobody should accuse him of lacking all talent. But his ideas were so batty, his approach so bumptious, his sense of self so grotesquely oversized, that the resulting visions – ouch – are horrible to behold and impossible to take seriously. So, why do we keep trying?
In this case, it is because the repository of the most ponderous Wattsenilia – the Watts Gallery in Compton, Surrey – has closed for a big refurbishment. The building, which houses the artist’s bequest of his own work to the nation, was falling apart and, rather than let it crumble into welcome ruins – which would have constituted an act of civilisation – the heritage lottery fund has stupidly diverted £4.3m, which would surely have been far better spent on training a swimmer for the Olympics, to this depressingfolie de grandeur. While it is closed, the art inside it has, alas, been sent on tour.
Watts was a bully. Nobody else would have built him a museum, so he built one himself, then forced the nation to take it on. His coarse and relentless promotion of his own art was totally in character and would not have surprised anyone who knew him. His own wife was made to call him “Signor”. That is, the second wife.
The first wife – Ellen Terry – was only 16 when Watts forced her to marry him. He was 46. The hints of paedophilia that creep into various corners of his work are part of an array of regrettable tastes. At least Terry, unable to cope with the grotesque role of child bride, escaped after a year and became one of the nation’s finest actresses. Poor Mary Fraser-Tytler, who was 36 when Watts married her (he was 69), stayed loyal to the end to this bombastic Victorian loony. He died in 1904 and the Watts Gallery was immediately left to the nation.
I find it helps to put everything into perspective. In the year Watts died, Picasso was about to invent cubism. Inventing cubism is the act of a true visionary. Droning on about Hope and Time and Death and Judgment, working only in the colours of beef fat and human excrement, lusting after naked 16-year-olds and attaching chunks of the Bible to your titles for symbolic might is not being a visionary. It is being a nutcase.
Anyone seeking to gain an overall sense of this regrettable career – which somehow ended up with Watts being dubbed “the English Michelangelo” – should hurry through the Guildhall Art Gallery, to which the Watts Gallery’s most important hold-ingshave been temporarily relocated. The show adds up to a retrospective. You can see how much promise Watts showed at the outset of his career with his momentous Wounded Heron of 1837 – painted when he was 20 and immediately accepted by the Royal Academy – but also how much incipient silliness there was in him. The heron was actually bought from a local poulterer on Watts’s way home. It was a typical slab of Victorian dinner. Yet he chose to paint it as if it were involved in an important act of the Apocalypse and as if its fate were somehow tragically involved with yours.
The career that follows grows ever more tremulous and demented as Watts slides ever nearer the precipice of pretension. His best subject was probably old men, in whose portraits he seems to find some genuine thoughtfulness. But his women are always tragic wallflowers, gazing hopelessly into a dark distance, and when he gets them to take off their clothes – which happens a lot – they turn creepily girlish and undeveloped.
It is the big set-piece displays of Wattsonian symbolism, however, that are most regrettable. There are many ways to be deep in art, but the least effective and convincing is to pack your palette with browns and head for the fog. Trawling classical mythology and the Bible for portentous subjects, Watts is recurrently guilty of pretentious vagueness. His most famous painting, Hope, shows a blindfolded girl sitting on a giant sphere and plucking away at the one string left on her lyre as she floats mysteriously through the sky. Or is it the sea? Hope is, of course, a painting about hopelessness. If it were a bad poem, instead of a bad painting, it would have been written in capital letters, with exclamation marks at the end of every line.
Watts had a talent for pushing himself forward, and, just as he ensured that the nation was saddled with his Watts Gallery, so he ensured that St Paul’s Cathedral was the long-term home of one of his doomiest allegories. For nearly a century, Time, Deathand Judgment used to hang on one of the piers leading into the crossing under the dome of the cathedral. It shows the angel of judgment weighing up the contributions of a mad-eyed figure of Time and the deathly-pale corpse of Death. So, which is more significant: time or death? Beats me.
Having crushed the enthusiasm of too many hopeful Christians, Time, Death and Judgment was finally taken down in 1977 and replaced by a ghastly piece of bright blue, happy-clappy Anglican modernism that was, believe it or not, even worse than the Watts. The Watts painting is now back on temporary loan to the cathedral, alongside another gloomy wrist-slitter featuring a zombie mother and her baby. I hate to admit it, but they look at home here.