1858 Who was F.W. George?
Jostling for position at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition of 1858, among over 1,300 works of art, were three portraits in oils by a painter named in the catalogue as F.W. George: two full lengths, Mrs. Nassau Senior (Fig. 1) and Miss Senior, and one smaller work titled Miss Eden.
When the exhibition opened in May 1858 in Trafalgar Square, it was an open secret that George Frederic Watts, then aged forty-one years old, had painted these portraits. His address, listed in the published catalogue, was there for all to see. The pseudonym he chose was simply a teasing variant of his own name. Several reviewers gave the game away. William Michael Rossetti in The Spectator revealed that the artist “gives the pseudonym George in the catalogue, but we break no incognito in restoring to him a name already eminent”.1 One writer considered it “a nom de guerre of a famous and noble historical artist”; another called his gesture a “mere masquerade”.2 But why did Watts use a pseudonym and seem to seek anonymity? A key reason was his fraught relationship with the Academy itself. He had in fact avoided exhibiting there since 1850, when his major oil The Good Samaritan was poorly positioned. For two years after, he only sent portrait drawings and then nothing at all until 1858.
Watts had opted out at a critical stage in his career. Living in Italy for four years, he returned in 1847 to find he had a tenuous foothold in London’s art establishment. After 1851, he resided with the Prinsep family at Little Holland House in Kensington where his lifestyle removed him from the day-to-day concerns of most of his professional colleagues. Here, geographically apart from metropolitan London and its social framework, Watts pursued an independent, and non-commercial, course with sufficient private commissions to keep him going. As a luminary of an artistic and literary salon, he cultivated his persona as “Signor”, becoming as much a draw as any of the politicians, writers, or artists, including the young Pre-Raphaelites, who frequented Little Holland House. William Holman Hunt recounted Watts’s pseudonymous appearance at the Academy in 1858 as being prompted by the derisory treatment his pictures had previously received at the hands of the Academy, when the hangers would say “Oh, there’s a Watts, let us sky it”.3
So certainly one explanation of Watts’s ruse in 1858 was simply to get past the Academy’s Council and the Committee of Arrangement, and in this it succeeded. No one would have heard of F.W. George, one of some 800 artists submitting that year. The Hanging Committee, comprising Alfred Elmore, F.R. Pickersgill, and Daniel Maclise, decided to place all F.W. George’s works prominently in the East Room, a superior site that included the sensation of the year, William Powell Frith’s Derby Day, a work so popular that it required a railing in front of it to control the crowds (Fig. 2).4 Furthermore, reading the Council Minutes, it is worth noting that the Academy’s committee, as early as April, considered that there was “a scarcity of female portraits … deficiency of interest caused thereby,” so Watts’s timing was fortuitously good.5
Beyond a distrust of the Academy, Watts had also arrived at a critical juncture in his career. After 1855, he embarked on a renewed exploration of the genre of portraiture, inspired by the British School and old master precedents. This decision to elevate his portraiture “to produce pictures that shall be valuable in all times both as faithful records and as works of art” also had him confident in the expectation of receiving payment equal to that commanded by the portrait painter Francis Grant, who then dominated the field.6 In 1858, Grant’s Countess of Errol—scene, The Camp of the Rifle Brigade, Bulgaria, a female equestrian portrait, had a prime position on the line above Frith’s Derby Day. And, identified here for the first time, Watts’s Miss Eden could be seen not far away, to the left in the corner.
In 1858, Watts returned to the Academy fold under his assumed name, ostensibly “in accordance with the wishes of certain friends”, and indeed his social networks included connoisseurs, the aristocracy, and the literary elite.7 But it was also necessary that he re-enter the premier exhibition venue of the Academy to further his career. Mrs Nassau Senior and Miss Senior were exercises in the grand manner for modern times. In addition, they were experimental in their technique of glazing and intense high key colour, revealing a close link with Pre-Raphaelite art, and were seen as such by many critics. Some commented negatively: The Illustrated London News remarked on the “absurdity of colour” and “stiffness of outline”.8 But informed critics, such as the young G.W. Thornbury in The Athenaeum, considered the full-lengths “the two best portraits in the exhibition … great and daring experiments of introducing a pre-Raphaelite finish of accessories into portraits” by Mr. George “(assumed name)”.9 For William Michael Rossetti in The Spectator, Watts’s portraiture “sets plain life, so to speak, to music”.10 Tom Taylor (admittedly a great friend of the artist) commented in The Times on how these works could be seen as “rather pictures than portraits”.11 These “elaborate performances”, with echoes of the English grand manner and infused with modern styling, brought a completely new dimension to portraiture in the 1850s.12
Both professional advancement and the experimental nature of the works prompted Watts’ not-so-subtle subterfuge in 1858. In that same year, another artist, with very different motivations, used an alias. Rosa Brett, the sister of the artist John Brett, devised the pseudonym “Rosarius”, a tactic that made her submissions gender neutral. Two years previously, the young George Dunlop Leslie may have wanted to distance himself from his Academician father Charles Robert Leslie when he sent his picture with a false name, and the young F.G. Stephens also resorted to a pseudonym at a time when Pre-Raphaelitism was controversial. The question of artistic anonymity in submissions to the Summer Exhibitions is doubtlessly more extensive; each case reflects the changing relationship between artists and the Academy at a given time.
In terms of Watts’ reputation, his gambit as “F.W. George” in 1858 remained in the collective artistic memory, as Hunt’s published recollections fifty years later showed. It further reinforced that Watts (as his long delayed election to the Academy in 1867 later demonstrated) was an artist who did not play by the Academy’s rules and was ready to circumvent them.
The Spectator, 5 June 1858, 19.↩︎
Dublin University Magazine, 53 (1859), 154; The Athenaeum, 1 May 1858, 365.↩︎
William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (London: Macmillan, 1905), Vol. 2, 180.↩︎
The crowds thronging the East Room can be seen in the watercolour, The Private View of the Royal Academy, 1858, by William Payne.↩︎
Royal Academy of Arts Archive, Council minutes, RAA/PC/1/11, Vol. 11 (1853–60), 251.↩︎
Quoted in Barbara Bryant, G.F. Watts Portraits: Fame & Beauty in Victorian Society (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2004), 19 from a letter of February 1858.↩︎
Quoted in Bryant, G.F. Watts Portraits, 102.↩︎
The Illustrated London News, 17 July 1858, 68.↩︎
The Athenaeum, 15 May 1858, 630.↩︎
The Spectator, 5 June 1858, 19.↩︎
The Times, 13 May 1858, 9.↩︎
Quoted in Bryant, G.F. Watts Portraits, 19 from a letter of February 1858.↩︎
Thematic categories: art criticism - portraits, barriers for artworks, boycotting of exhibition, display and location of exhibits, genre painting, hanging of exhibits, innovative art techniques, Line (hanging line), narrative art, portraits, Pre-Raphaelites, pseudonym use, railings, Selection and Hanging Committee, skying of paintings, Victorian narrative painting, women artists, picture of the year