An Artistic Epiphany: Watts and Hope

I’m not generally that much into paintings.  I admire them and I like them and I’m familiar enough with the ones that those silly Ten Million Paintings You Must Lick Before Next Wednesday books say I should be, but I’ve never found them to be particularly fascinating.  More crucially, with the exception of Dalí, I’ve never had a painter who I personally liked more than others in the same way that I have certain musicians and authors whose works are a good rough approximation of my taste in those media.  Ah, but in the space of two days that has now changed enormously.  I now have not one but TWO ‘favourite’ painters, both – to no-one’s surprise except my own – British.

Number One: George Frederic Watts: Yesterday, for motives not entirely clear, I decided to walk the modest distance between my house and the Watts Gallery in Compton, Surrey, armed with nothing more than an Ordinance Survey Map and the recollection of some pictures I’d seen on Google Earth of a rather neat-looking circular mausoleum or chapel or something.  This, I thought, was the Watts Gallery.  However, I got to the actual Watts Gallery, which was closed for refurbishment, as my luck would have it, and had a look around their gift shop before proceeding to the chapel.
Watts lived in the area with his second wife, who was also an artist.  She sculpted, and for the project of building the chapel she designed hundreds of tiles, then paid the villagers to make them.  The result is an unexpectedly small, round, plump building, rather like a thumbtack made of brick, but with two sort of straight bars protruding along the top like a cross, and decorated in intricate clay tiles.  I don’t have enough time or enough knowledge to go into the tiles themselves (there was a book for sale which detailed the significance of the patterns but it was over 400 pages), but the fineness over a wide area reminded me very much of carved calligraphy around the entrances of various mosques and other Islamic religious sites in the Middle East and elsewhere, particular some of the inner rooms of the Alhambra.
The two very helpful ladies gave me a short introduction to Watts and his work.  The moment they said “late 18-century” and “portraits”, I switched off and resigned myself to half an hour of nodding and feigning interest.  If there’s one genre of art I cannot stand, it’s the portrait.  This may be connected with my general distaste for people.  And admittedly my own reaction to much of Watts’ portraits was boredom. “Oh, look, some woman in a dress.” The exception to this was his self-portrait at the age of 17 (it’s unclear whether he painted it when he was 17 or if it’s just how he seems to have remembered himself).
However, Watts also painted allegorical works, often inspired by Classical Greek and Roman tales, and these are infinitely more fascinating.  Some of are more standard, such as this one of Orpheus and Eurydice, and as far as I’m concerned could be by anybody.  But his most famous allegorical painting, and rightly so, is Hope.  It’s an image of a blind woman, seated on a golden globe with a lyre, of which only one string still works.  The whole canvas is misty and gloom-ridden, although light.  Watts was apparently criticised for this negative imagining of hope, particularly by G. K. Chesterton, who said it should be called Despair.  But one string is still working, and she is still playing.  That is hope, and it’s refreshing to find an depiction of hope not as something warm and cuddly, soft, reassuring, but as the circumstances in which hope is most urgently required.  It isn’t what is hoped for but who is hoping.  It’s a very simple, but still effective, reversal, and I liked it so much when I first saw it that I bought a print immediately.  And that hasn’t happened to me for a very long time.

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