1817 - 1904
Portrait of Herbert Fisher

Oil on canvas
c.1855 – 1860
Image size: 19 x 14 inches (48.25 x 37.25 cm)
Original Watts frame

POA

 

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The Sitter

Herbert William Fisher (1826 – 1903) was a British historian, best known for his ‘Considerations on the Origin of the American War’ (1865). Fisher was tutor to the future King Edward VII, and served as Private Secretary to the 5th Duke of Newcastle. in 1863 he became Private Secretary to the Prince of Wales, his former pupil, before being appointed to the position of Vice-Warden of the Stannaries in 1870. One of his daughters, Adeline, married Ralph Vaughan Williams.

 

 

George Frederick Watts

Watts (1817 – 1904) was a British painter and sculptor associated with the Symbolist movement. He is known to have said ‘I paint ideas, not things’. Watts became famous in his lifetime for his allegorical works, such as ‘Hope’ and ‘Love and Life’ in which the emotions and aspiration life were intended to be represented in a universal symbolic language.

Watts was born in Marylebone in central London on the birthday of George Frederic Handel (after whom he was named), to the second wife of a poor piano-maker. He showed artistic promise very early, learning sculpture from the age of 10 with William Behnes, starting to study devotedly the Elgin Marbles (later writing “It was from them alone that I learned”) and then enrolling as a student at the Royal Academy Schools at the age of 18.

He first exhibited at the Academy in 1837, with a picture of “The Wounded Heron” and two portraits, but his attendance at the Academy was short-lived, and his further art education was confined to personal experiment and endeavour, guided by a constant appeal to the standard of ancient Greek sculpture. He also began his portraiture career, receiving patronage from his close contemporary Alexander Constantine Ionides, who later came to be a close friend. In 1849 the first two of the allegorical compositions which form the most characteristic of the artist’s productions were exhibited—”Life’s Illusions,” an elaborate presentment of the vanity of human desires, and “The people that sat in darkness,” turning eagerly towards the growing dawn. In 1850 he first gave public expression to his intense longing to improve the condition of humanity in the picture of “The Good Samaritan” bending over the wounded traveller; this, as recorded in the catalogue of the Royal Academy, was “painted as an expression of the artist’s admiration and respect for the noble philanthropy of Thomas Wright, of Manchester,” and to that city he presented the work. From the late 1840s onward he painted many portraits in France and England, some of which are described below. Notable pictures of the same period are “Sir Galahad” (1862), “Ariadne in Naxos” (1863), “Time and Oblivion” (1864), originally designed for sculpture to be carried out “in divers materials after the manner of Pheidias,” and “Thetis” (1866).

Watts’s association with Rossetti and the Aesthetic movement altered during the 1870s, as his work increasingly combined Classical traditions with a deliberately agitated and troubled surface, to suggest the dynamic energies of life and evolution, as well as the tentative and transitory qualities of life. These works formed part of a revised version of the House of Life, influenced by the ideas of Max Müller, the founder of comparative religion. Watts hoped to trace the evolving “mythologies of the races [of the world]” in a grand synthesis of spiritual ideas with modern science, especially Darwinian evolution.

Many of his paintings are owned by Tate Britain – he donated 18 of his symbolic paintings to Tate in 1897, and three more in 1900. Some of these have been loaned to the Watts Gallery in recent years, and are on display there. He was also admired as a portrait painter. His portraits were of the most important men and women of the day, intended to form a “House of Fame”. In his portraits Watts sought to create a tension between disciplined stability and the power of action. He was also notable for emphasising the signs of strain and wear on his sitter’s faces. Of his British subjects many are now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery: 17 were donated in 1895, with more than 30 more added subsequently