Witley, May 6, 1917

Sunday   Visited the Art Gallery today

The visit of Lady Byng, (wife of Sir Julian Byng, commander of the Canadian divisions at Vimy) to the camp doesn’t rate a mention in Percy’s book. (1)

He has used his Sunday to visit Compton, seven or so miles north-northeast of Witley. Here George Frederic Watts and his second wife, Mary Seton Fraser-Tytler, built a house and a gallery for his own works. Well-respected, even revered by the Victorians, “England’s Michelangelo”  suffered in the anti-Victorian reaction that followed. His claim to paint “ideas not things” and to paint poems on canvas was a long way from the sensibility of impressionism and then modernism.  (2) His portraits continued to be admired, even as the grand allegorical canvases fell from favour.

watts progress compton.jpg
It is these canvases that affected Percy, who had left school at twelve and therefore had no fancy ideas about art criticism. He was sufficiently moved to include a special note about the excursion at the end of his pocket diary.

“The pictures were great especially ‘Progress’ and ‘Industry & Greed’. I was greatly taken up by these two every picture was a study. The picture of ‘Chaos’ was great I intend going again probably this weekend.”

In “Progress,” Watts saw the rider on the white horse, as representing “the progress of spiritual and intellectual ideals, enveloped in a golden glory along his path to the realization of the Divine ideal.” (3) Oblivious to the glory of progress are the figures described as the scholar, the rich man, and the sluggard. (3)

wats chaos tate.jpg

“Chaos” in Watts’s painting is nothing like the early stages of Creation according to Genesis 1:2, when “the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters”. For Watts,  the origins of humanity (on the left) is accompanied by “the eruption of uncontrollable energies, as bodily forms struggle to release themselves from fiery elements. In the middle surging waves cover mountain peaks, while in the foreground a single figure rises from the watery mass marking ‘the beginning of the strides of time’. To the right the sea gives way to an elevated plateau upon which rest colossal giants with a chain of flying female figures showing the now ‘continuous stream of time.'” (4)

The afternoon was well spent, said Percy.

(1) War Diary of the Fifth Canadian Divisional Artillery. Vol. 4 (May 1917): 2. May 6, 1917. Library and Archives of Canada.
(2) “The Watts Story” on the website of the Watts Gallery.
(3) The description comes from the website of the Watts Gallery.
(4) Smith, Alison. “The Sublime in Crisis: Landscape after Turner,” an essay in one of the Tate Gallery’s research publications on the Art of the Sublime. The quoted description draws on G.F. Watts: Reminiscences by Emilie Isabel Barrington (1905):131–3.

“Progress” can be seen on the website of the Watts Gallery; “Chaos” on the site of the Tate.

Copyright 2017. See “More about this project.”

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