George Frederic Watts, Hope,  1886, Oil on canvasTate Britain, London.

To be the last of the great is no guarantee that your greatness will last. The grandest of the English pompiers, Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830–1896), died the day after inheriting his peerage. The reputation of Leighton’s friend and longtime neighbor George Frederic Watts (1817–1904) has lasted better than most. This is not just because Watts spread his bets among Titianesque psychological portraits, discreetly radical social comment, and flagrant mysticism on the grand scale, not forgetting murky landscapes and a bit of monumental sculpture on the side. It is because Watts, like his age, built to last.


No other high Victorian painter worked so hard at his posterity.

No other high Victorian painter worked so hard at his posterity. In his last years, Watts, abetted by his wife Mary, designed and curated a museum to himself in the village of Compton, Surrey. Compton’s setting, its gentle hills and soft light, recur in the childhood memories of characters in the novels of Aldous Huxley, who grew up nearby and is buried in its ramshackle churchyard. At Compton, George Watts ruled a little island of ideal community, like Pala in Huxley’s Island (1962). Mary Watts marshaled the locals in art projects, a Lady Bountiful with a pot of glaze, as in an early Huxley novel. Still, by 2004, a century after Watts’s departure for the great atelier in the sky, the rotating collection in the Watts Gallery included some temporary twentieth-century installations: plastic buckets, to catch the rain.

The restoration of Watts’s studio at Compton, which reopened earlier this year, is another landmark on the long road of Victorian revival. This has been running for so long, and began so long ago, that it is now clear that the Victorian artists were only out of style for about fifty years, from 1914 to the early 1960s. The revival began with the Pre-Raphaelites, wound through Arts & Crafts and the Aesthetic Movement in the decorative Sixties and floppy Seventies, and then, in the Eighties, returned in triumph to the sitting room swathed in Laura Ashley. In the same decade, work began on returning Leighton’s house-museum, a jewel box of Aesthetic furniture and Izmir ceramics, to what Kipling would have called its “more than Oriental splendour.”

Next, it was Watts’s turn. In 2004, the National Portrait Gallery marked the centenary of his death by exhibiting his “Hall of Fame” portraits of the Victorian great and grand. This was a conditional rehabilitation of Watts the small-scale documentarian, not Watts the visionary Symbolist who painted massive philosophical cycles like “House of Life.” This aspect of the revival, more attuned to public taste, came next. In 2006, a bbc program depicted the disrepair of the Watts Gallery. Restoration work began in 2008 with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. In 2011, the Watts Gallery reopened, after an expenditure of some £11 million.

Much of the money came from private donors. Like Physical Energy (1907), his statue of a horse and rider in the middle of London’s Kensington Gardens, Watts had never gone away, but had been ignored by the critics, a blot on the landscape. As the history of the arts in the modern period shows, this is not the same as losing the public’s esteem. In 2005, a bbc poll for “The Greatest Painting in Britain” confirmed that the artistic ructions of the twentieth century had bounced off the British public like a teaspoon from a cold rice pudding.

The only twentieth-century work in the top ten was Hockney’s Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970–71). Like most Hockney works, this was not radical but fashionable, and thus less daring than it seemed. Hockney’s portrait referred to two other paintings in the top ten, The Arnolfini Wedding and The Rake’s Progress, and depicted a thoroughly English domestic interior: a tensely pregnant wife, a shifty bisexual husband, and a cat who, like a proper Victorian, averts his eyes from the domestic scandal and looks at the garden.

A few months after the bbc poll, the Watts revival was endorsed by the man who was to become the world’s most powerful art critic. Watts’s most popular painting is not Gladstone (1859), in which the Grand Old Man is neither grand nor old, but youthfully uncertain as to whether the new Liberal Party is going to work out. Nor is it The Court of Death (1870–1902), the massive mystical canvas that, retrieved from storage at the Tate, hangs again in Watts’s studio to baleful effect. It is Hope (1886). A blindfolded woman floats on the planet, like a survivor of a shipwreck on a beach ball. Sinking as much as bobbing, she is haloed in a blue mist of confusion. She holds a lyre, and plucks its last unbroken string.

G. K. Chesterton quipped that the painting should be called “Despair,” but Martin Luther King referred to Hope in a sermon. Nelson Mandela is said to have had a print of it in his cell at Robben Island. Jeremiah Wright picked up on it, and his praise of Hope’s courage supplied the title of one of Barack Obama’s various autobiographies, The Audacity of Hope.

The passage from the ambition of Watts to the temerity of Obama says something about the chasm between critical and popular taste, and the course and reception of modern art. Delacroix was a better painter than Watts, but no one compares life’s struggles to a lion hunt, or the rush hour crowd to the Sufi hordes jamming the streets in The Convulsionists of Tangier. Hope speaks to people, presumably in a way akin to the nebulous Symbolism and sticky accretions of Watts’s brushwork.

In Racine et Shakespeare (1823), Stendhal called Romanticism the art of pleasing one’s contemporaries, and Classicism the art of pleasing one’s grandfathers. What we call Modern is what pleased Stendhal’s grandchildren: the last generation of the nineteenth century, the first of the twentieth. In literature, the relationship between Symbolism and Modernism has been an open secret among English speakers since Pound and Eliot—if, that is, it ever was a secret, because the French Symbolists had been shouting it out from Axel’s Castle for years. In painting, the relationship was less clear, and remains so—hence the cautious rehabilitation of Moreau and Redon, Fantin-Latour and Puvis de Chavannes.

In art history, Modern painting arrives from Paris in Roger Fry’s luggage in 1910.

Symbolism, Edmund Wilson wrote in Axel’s Castle (1931), was “a literary revolution which occurred outside English literature.” The French critics were primed to understand the Symbolist provenance of Valéry and Proust but, Wilson wrote, “the battle of Symbolism has never been properly fought out in English.” Despite the work of Wilson, and then Maurice Bowra, it still has not. In art history, Modern painting arrives from Paris in Roger Fry’s luggage in 1910. This is true enough, but the truth has become mythologized. The myth is that modern art developed like modern politics, in a series of revolutionary breaches. But art forms, as Gombrich observed, develop by the gradual extension of existing vocabularies. The “primitive” faces in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Kirk Varnedoe wrote, emerge from a skeleton in one of Picasso’s sketchbooks, not from African masks.

Symbolist painting is literary painting; this is its great strength and weakness. Watts’s modernity lies in what he says, rather than how he says it. Watts’s style begins in Titian’s Venice, is inflated by the grand manner of Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Lawrence, and ends in a systematic arrangement of the senses. The abstraction of The Sower of the Systems (1902) is both decorous and alarming, like the murmur of a butler announcing God as an inappropriately attired guest. Yet as a would-be Gesamtkunstwerk, the “House of Life” sequence falls chronologically between Wagner and Joyce. The personifications in the cycle—Hope, Death, Evolution—are between the virtues of Bunyan, the sentiments of Dickens, and the archetypes of Jung; Watts revised his “House of Life” sequence after reading Max Müller. The mood and pose of Hope anticipate a later work, also blue and musical, Picasso’s The Old Guitarist (1903–04). Did not Dalí, that other Catalan renegade, try to rehabilitate Chassériau in what, for him at least, seems to have been total seriousness?

“The Eve Trilogy” shows why Watts is a better painter than we may think, and how he defies the received narrative of modern art. In the first painting, Eve Tempted (begun around 1868), Eve turns her face and torso away, and immerses herself in the erotic delight of the kind of floral arrangement familiar from the lobbies of large hotels, but with the addition of Satan, secreted in the shadows beneath the foliage like a randy bellboy. The third painting, Eve Repentant (1868–1903), is an epic toilette scene, exchanging the intimacy of a French interior for the privacy of the Garden. Eve, again hiding her face, walks away from us at twilight. She pins up her hair, and tramples white lilies, the symbol of innocence, under her feet. The sorrows of post-coital tristesse and philosophy are stark on her muscled back.

In the central panel, And She Shall Be Called Woman (1875–92), a full-frontal Eve rises with the slow, explosive force of a rocket hovering over its launch pad. Her neck is thrown back, not by the speed of her ascent, but by an ecstatic surge of inner power. She is slowly rising through a halo of brown smoke. The halo resembles the kind of fur stole that a wealthy Victorian might have worn to dinner, but with her breasts fully exposed in the style of the Minoan court. To us, it looks more like the cloud of toxic afflatus that arises from the ignition of a rocket’s engines. It is as though Eve’s transgression will cause her to break the sound barrier.

We forget that the generation raised on medieval dress-up and the myths of Ovid witnessed the greatest metamorphosis of all, the Theory of Relativity and the splitting of the atom. Eve arises from a turbulence of smoke and light, of paint layered on like mud and scraped away to the bare rock of canvas: the Big Bang of her transfiguration. As she ascends through the halo and into the atmosphere, she resembles the mushroom cloud of nuclear fission.

Wilson wrote that the literary history of his time was “to a great extent that of the development of Symbolism and its fusion or conflict with Naturalism.” Watts’s “Eve Trilogy” astonishes, a vision from the cusp of one age to another. Today, Physical Energy is under the flight path to Heathrow. The horse races the plane, the rider raises his hand to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun. In subject matter, who is more modern now? Delacroix, with his costumed Arabs and unreal lions? Or Watts, for whom the physical world emerges from a double helix swirl of light and power?

What really disqualifies Watts from critical recognition is not his paint, but his implications. The sottish eye of Mammon (1884–85), a half-naked cannibal gourmet composed of fat proto-modern globes, is identical to that of the portly, smirking bull in his Rape of Europa (1870–94). The arms of the dead woman in Found Drowned (ca. 1850) are splayed in a social realist Crucifixion. Mammon and Zeus are slaves to physical appetite, and the fallen woman a sacrifice to lust. This is Victorian morality in paint, and it goes down like cod liver oil. If Mary Poppins carried a picture in her carpetbag, it would have been a litho of Hope. Watts balanced his Hebraism and his Hellenism in the moralizing schema of the “House of Life”—and so well that the Philistines still love him.

We forgive the French immoralists for the sex tourism of Delacroix and Ingres, Flaubert and Maxime du Camp. We cannot forgive the Victorian moralists. Apart from eliciting all kinds of unpleasant sensations in the viewer—conscience, compassion, and other impediments to the purely sensual life—the moral response welds a painting to its social circumstances. Artworks are made by particular people in particular situations. Artworks become autonomous because, while people die and circumstances change, an object does neither. Instead, it slowly decays, like radioactive matter, or the lumpy smears and cracked glaze on Watts’s canvases. Which image has decayed faster into insubstantiality—the distress of readers at the death of Little Nell, or Oscar Wilde’s joke about it? And what does the answer say about us, and our insubstantial time?

There is another astounding epic at Compton. The Watts Chapel was the vision of Mary Watts, and the work of the villagers to whom she taught tilemaking and glazing. Set on a gentle slope in a cemetery so old that the graves are slowly sliding downhill, the chapel is early Christian in design, a cruciform superimposed on a circle. It is as though amateur enthusiasts have decided to replicate from memory the mausoleum of Galla Placidia at Ravenna, or if some rustic Byzantine chapel has been dismantled and shipped, only to arrive without the plans for reassembly.

While people die and circumstances change, an object does neither.

The English, the people who brought you Arts & Crafts, are still addicted to diy. Unlike in metropolitan America, an ignorance of basic plastering and painting is nothing to boast about in England, and a familiarity with electrical wiring is always admired. The strength and weakness of Arts & Crafts are its local and democratic principles. Anyone can have a go, given the basics of the vernacular. The results are all around you in England. They are not always pretty, though they are increasingly well preserved and cherished, usually by public demand.

The chapel at Compton may be the world’s greatest piece of diy. It reflects a powerfully authentic urge beneath the Victorian fondness for pantomime. Every now and then, the costumes worked. The player inhabited the role, and the performance became grander and deeper. Pugin’s Gothic revival preceded the Oxford Movement. The death of Little Nell preceded legislation against the exploitation of children.

If you visit the chapel on a wet winter afternoon, you can know what England felt like during the Dark Ages—another cusp between eras, when the memory of Rome was fading, the barbarians and the wildness were reclaiming the land, and Christianity was not the muscular machine of Watts’s time, but a fragile vessel in rough waters. The tiles gleam darkly in the cold chapel, their surfaces irregular like the rough walls of a catacomb. Outside, the wind is wet like ice, the windward sides of the trees are green with damp, and there are old puddles beneath the new ones. The whole island is swaying, and the waters keep rising.

This pastoral apocalypse, not untypical of a day in the English country, makes you believe in the end of the world. The roads will be washed away and you will be stranded, forgotten in this damp village while it rains forever. At times like this, you need an art of inchoate dread and audacious hope. And so the Watts Gallery and Chapel was refloated, by and for the people who, sedulously ignorant of the latest advances in critical taste, still think that art should be useful, and that there is no art without craft. When that I was and a little tiny boy/ With hey, ho the wind and the rain/ A foolish thing was but a toy/ For the rain it raineth every day.