Two portraits of G.F.Watts by Julia Margaret Cameron
I recently had occasion (as they say in police reports) to visit the Watts Gallery, in Surrey, outside London. The Watts Gallery is dedicated to the work of George Frederic Watts, a superstar painter of the Victorian period. Watts had something of a Dickensian social conscience and also a shameless energy at what would today be called networking. I had a nice time and came away thinking that galleries which revolve around the work of a single artist are often more interesting to a non-specialist than one might expect, provided the artist was good enough to give the curators even a little toehold for imaginative thinking. A small but amazing temporary display at the Watts Gallery, for example, is devoted to his fierce opposition (in Victorian England) to the unnecessary cruelty of killing birds for plumage to use in fashion, particularly as decoration on hats. Who knew that he cared? Hooray for the Watts Gallery, and hooray for smaller galleries and museums in general.
That reminded me of something I noticed a long time ago, which might best be expressed as a question:
Where do these names (below), which include that of Watts, appear in this order?
J. M. W. Turner
They appear on the first floor of the two street facades of the Victoria and Albert Museum, titling the seven-foot (or so) sculptures which together add up to a three-dimensional National Portrait Gallery of artists. We think of celebrity as a modern obsession, but it is one that dates from the Victorian period at least. Watts worked for years on his Hall of Fame (much of which ended up in the National Portrait Gallery, itself a uniquely British expression of the cult of celebrity) and he encouraged Julia Margaret Cameron to do something very similar. By the 1890s a popular magazine like the Strand Magazine was publishing Portraits of Celebrities as a regular feature, plying a line half-way between prurience and high-minded example.
The names down to Grinling Gibbons line the Cromwell Road façade, in groups respectively of architects, painters (two groups of six) and sculptors. The two lower groups of five are of craftsmen, and they line the Exhibition Road façade. Interesting that Gibbons makes it into the high art crowd. You could just as well call him a great craftsman. But where should art and high craft meet and mix if not on the façade of the V&A, a museum devoted almost by definition to blurring precisely that boundary?
It is always easy (and never very profitable) to pick holes in other people’s Best Of… lists.
Still, various sorts of points can be made about this list. Here are just a few, for starters:
St. Dunstan was a tenth century goldsmith, silversmith and also a blacksmith (as well as being Archbishop of Canterbury and in effect the principal minister of several English kings). Dunstan is credited as a musician and a fine draughtsman and letterer of manuscripts. Although no doubt obscure today, he could hardly deserve a place on the façade more. William of Wykeham’s place is more open to question. His contribution to architecture is as a patron and client. He was (in the fourteenth century) a great administrator who served twice as Lord Chancellor, and his inclusion here may best be explained by the fact that what was for many years the standard biography (by George Herbert Moberley) was published in 1887, only a couple of years before Aston Webb won the competition to design the Cromwell Road façade in 1891. (It was not to be completed until 1909).
The main door — with sculptures of Victoria and Albert positioned centrally above the arch, and others of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra to each side, as well as the allegorical figures of Knowledge and Inspiration — falls in the list above between Turner and Cosway. This has the odd effect of giving the place of honour, to the right hand of the monarch, to Richard Cosway, who is always described as a notorious libertine. Cosway had caused himself to be appointed Painter to the Prince of Wales (the future George IV), a title held by nobody either before or after. He was a libertine, and also a fop, but he was also an extraordinarily successful self-promoter, a social climber of prodigious ambition, so perhaps it is not so surprising to find him elbowing his figurative way to the middle of the façade. Cosway’s speciality is unfashionable now, because he was miniaturist, but he was a wonderful painter.
William Torel was commissioned by Edward I to make the effigy of Henry III in Westminster Abbey, which is still there (a copy is in the V&A). There’s not much surviving work by Torel. What is recorded, in the words of the Dictionary of National Biography (itself another extraordinary Victorian institution devoted to the cult of celebrity), is that he was a receiver of stolen goods: “His documented career ends on a picaresque note. In 1303, after the burglary in that year of the king’s treasury at Westminster Abbey, William Torel aurifaber is noted as having bought two gold rings from one of the principal suspects in the case.” Again, an odd record for high-minded Victorian and Edwardian committee-men to ignore when agreeing to give him a place on the façade. But he was then more highly considered than now: he is also listed on the Albert Memorial among the sculptors in the Frieze of Parnassus.
While nobody doubts the eminence of Roger Payne, eighteenth century bookbinder, it is worth noting that he made a habit, as few bookbinders have, of signing his work, so that he, too, contributed deliberately to a renown which his works alone might not have guaranteed. Again, his habits so tended to strong liquor that he died penniless; another example where the quality of the work must have appealed to the Office of Works (in charge of commissioning the sculptures) more than the example given by the life.
I’m not – in spite of their prestigious positioning on the outside of the V&A – quite sure of the quality of all of the Cromwell Road sculptures. Several of them were made by students of Professor Edouard Lanteri at the Royal College of Art under a peculiar agency agreement whereby he took a commission for getting his pupils the work. But several of them are very fine. It’s a good museum that starts its work in the street outside.
Thomas Tompion was a clockmaker, by the way. I just looked him up on Wikipedia.