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Title: G. F. Watts
Author: G. K. Chesterton
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Title: G. F. Watts
Author: G. K. Chesterton




Published 1904.




[not included in this text version]



The Photogravures are from photographs by Fredk. Hollyer. Permanent
photographs of works of Watts, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Holbein, and of
pictures in the Dublin and Hague Galleries can he obtained of Fredk.
Holyer, 9 Pemhroke Square, Kensington.


GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS was born on 23rd February 1817. His whole rise
and career synchronizes roughly with the rise and career of the
nineteenth century. As a rule, no doubt, such chronological parallels
are peculiarly fanciful and unmeaning. Nothing can be imagined more
idle, in a general way, than talking about a century as if it were some
kind of animal with a head and tail, instead of an arbitrary length cut
from an unending scroll. N or is it less erroneous to assume that even
if a period be definitely vital or disturbing, art must be a mirror of
it; the greatest political storm flutters only a fringe of humanity;
poets, like brick-layers, work on through a century of wars, and
Bewick's birds, to take an instance, have the air of persons unaffected
by the French Revolution. But in the case of Watts there are two
circumstances which render the dates relevant. The first is that the
nineteenth century was self-conscious, believed itself to be an idea and
an atmosphere, and changed its name from a chronological almost to a
philosophical term. I do not know whether all centuries do this or
whether an advanced and progressive organ called "The Eleventh Century"
was ever in contemplation in the dawn of the Middle Ages. But with us it
is clear that a certain spirit was rightly or wrongly associated with
the late century and that it called up images and thoughts like any
historic or ritual date, like the Fourth of July or the First of April.
What these images and thoughts were we shall be obliged in a few minutes
and in the interests of the subject to inquire. But this is the first
circumstance which renders the period important; and the second is that
it has always been so regarded by Watts himself. He, more than any other
modern man, more than politicians who thundered on platforms or
financiers who captured continents, has sought in the midst of his quiet
and hidden life to mirror his age. He was born in the white and austere
dawn of that great reforming century, and he has lingered after its grey
and doubtful close. He is above all things a typical figure, a survival
of the nineteenth century.

It will appear to many a somewhat grotesque matter to talk about a
period in which most of us were born and which has only been dead a year
or two, as if it were a primal Babylonian empire of which only a few
columns are left crumbling in the desert. And yet such is, in spirit,
the fact. There is no more remarkable psychological element in history
than the way in which a period can suddenly become unintelligible. To
the early Victorian period we have in a moment lost the key: the Crystal
Palace is the temple of a forgotten creed. The thing always happens
sharply: a whisper runs through the salons, Mr. Max Beerbohm waves a
wand and a whole generation of great men and great achievement suddenly
looks mildewed and unmeaning. We see precisely the same thing in that
other great reaction towards art and the vanities, the Restoration of
Charles II. In that hour both the great schools of faith and valour
which had seemed either angels or devils to all men: the dreams of
Strafford and the great High Churchmen on the one hand; the Moslem
frenzy of the English Commons, the worship of the English law upon the
other; both seemed distant and ridiculous. The new Cavalier despised the
old Cavalier even more than he despised the Roundhead. The last stand of
English chivalry dwindled sharply to the solitary figure of the absurd
old country gentleman drinking wine out of an absurd old flagon. The
great roar of Roundhead psalms which cried out that the God of Battles
was loose in English meadows shrank to a single snuffle. The new and
polite age saw the old and serious one exactly as we see the early
Victorian era: they saw it, that is to say, not as splendid, not as
disastrous, not as fruitful, not as infamous, not as good or bad, but
simply as ugly. Just as we can see nothing about Lord Shaftesbury but
his hat, they could see nothing about Cromwell but his nose. There is no
doubt of the shock and sharpness of the silent transition. The only
difference is that accordingly as we think of man and his nature,
according to our deepest intuitions about things, we shall see in the
Restoration and the _fin de siècle_ philosophy a man waking from a
turbid and pompous dream, or a man hurled from heaven and the wars of
the angels.

G. F. Watts is so deeply committed to, and so unalterably steeped in,
this early Victorian seriousness and air of dealing with great matters,
that unless we sharply apprehend that spirit, and its difference from
our own, we shall misunderstand his work from the outset. Splendid as is
the art of Watts technically or obviously considered, we shall yet find
much in it to perplex and betray us, unless we understand his original
theory and intention, a theory and intention dyed deeply with the
colours of a great period which is gone. The great technical
inequalities of his work, its bursts of stupendous simplicity in colour
and design, its daring failures, its strange symbolical portraits, all
will mislead or bewilder if we have not the thread of intention. In
order to hold that, we must hold something which runs through and
supports, as a string supports jewels, all the wars and treaties and
reforms of the nineteenth century.

There are at least three essential and preliminary points on which Watts
is so completely at one with the nineteenth century and so completely
out of accord with the twentieth, that it may be advisable to state them
briefly before we proceed to the narrower but not more cogent facts of
his life and growth. The first of these is a nineteenth-century
atmosphere which is so difficult to describe, that we can only convey it
by a sort of paradox. It is difficult to know whether it should be
called doubt or faith. For if, on the one hand, real faith would have
been more confident, real doubt, on the other hand, would have been more
indifferent. The attitude of that age of which the middle and best parts
of Watts' work is most typical, was an attitude of devouring and
concentrated interest in things which were, by their own system,
impossible or unknowable. Men were, in the main, agnostics: they said,
"We do not know"; but not one of them ever ventured to say, "We do not
care." In most eras of revolt and question, the sceptics reap something
from their scepticism: if a man were a believer in the eighteenth
century, there was Heaven; if he were an unbeliever, there was the
Hell-Fire Club. But these men re-strained themselves more than hermits
for a hope that was more than half hopeless, and sacrificed hope itself
for a liberty which they would not enjoy; they were rebels without
deliverance and saints without reward. There may have been and there was
something arid and over-pompous about them: a newer and gayer philosophy
may be passing before us and changing many things for the better; but we
shall not easily see any nobler race of men, and of them all most
assuredly there was none nobler than Watts. If anyone wishes to see that
spirit, he will see it in pictures painted by Watts in a form beyond
expression sad and splendid. _Hope_ that is dim and delicate and yet
immortal, the indestructible minimum of the spirit; _Love and Death_
that is awful and yet the reverse of horrible; _The Court of Death_ that
is like a page of Epictetus and might have been dreamt by a dead Stoic:
these are the visions of that spirit and the incarnations of that time.
Its faith was doubtful, but its doubt was faithful. And its supreme and
acute difference from most periods of scepticism, from the later
Renaissance, from the Restoration and from the hedonism of our own time
was this, that when the creeds crumbled and the gods seemed to break up
and vanish, it did not fall back, as we do, on things yet more solid and
definite, upon art and wine and high finance and industrial efficiency
and vices. It fell in love with abstractions and became enamoured of
great and desolate words.

The second point of _rapport_ between Watts and his time was a more
personal matter, a matter more concerned with the man, or, at least, the
type; but it throws so much light upon almost every step of his career
that it may with advantage be suggested here. Those who know the man
himself, the quaint and courtly old man down at Limnerslease, know that
if he has one trait more arresting than another, it is his almost absurd
humility. He even disparages his own talent that he may insist rather
upon his aims. His speech and gesture are simple, his manner polite to
the point of being deprecating, his soul to all appearance of an almost
confounding clarity and innocence. But although these appearances
accurately represent the truth about him, though he is in reality modest
and even fantastically modest, there is another element in him, an
element which was in almost all the great men of his time, and it is
something which many in these days would call a kind of splendid and
inspired impudence. It is that wonderful if simple power of preaching,
of claiming to be heard, of believing in an internal message and
destiny: it is the audacious faculty of mounting a pulpit. Those would
be very greatly mistaken who, misled by the child-like and humble manner
of this monk of art, expected to find in him any sort of doubt, or any
sort of fear, or any sort of modesty about the aims he follows or the
cause he loves. He has the one great certainty which marks off all the
great Victorians from those who have come after them: he may not be
certain that he is successful, or certain that he is great, or certain
that he is good, or certain that he is capable: but he is certain that
he is right. It is of course the very element of confidence which has in
our day become least common and least possible. We know we are brilliant
and distinguished, but we do not know we are right. We swagger in
fantastic artistic costumes; we praise ourselves; we fling epigrams
right and left; we have the courage to play the egoist and the courage
to play the fool, but we have not the courage to preach. If we are to
deliver a philosophy it must be in the manner of the late Mr. Whistler
and the _ridentem dicere verum_. If our heart is to be aimed at it must
be with the rapier of Stevenson which runs us through without either
pain or puncture. It is only just to say, that good elements as well as
bad ones have joined in making this old Victorian preaching difficult or
alien to us. If Humility as well as fear, camaraderie as well as
cynicism, a sense of complexity and a kind of gay and worldly charity
have led us to avoid the pose of the preacher, to be moral by ironies,
to whisper a word and glide away. But, whatever may be the accidental
advantage of this recoil from the didactic, it certainly does mean some
loss of courage and of the old and athletic simplicity. Nay, in some
sense it is really a loss of a fine pride and self-regard. Mr. Whistler
coquetted and bargained about the position and sale of his pictures: he
praised them; he set huge prices on them; but still under all disguise,
he treated them as trifles. Watts, when scarcely more than a boy and
comparatively unknown, started his great custom of offering his pictures
as gifts worthy of a great nation. Thus we came to the conclusion, a
conclusion which may seem to some to contain a faint element of paradox,
that Mr. Whistler suffered from an excessive and exaggerated modesty.
And this unnatural modesty of Mr. Whistler can scarcely be more
typically symbolized than in his horror of preaching. The new school of
art and thought does indeed wear an air of audacity, and breaks out
everywhere into blasphemies, as if it required any courage to say a
blasphemy. There is only one thing that it requires real courage to say,
and that is a truism.

Lastly, it would be quite impossible to complete this prefatory
suggestion of the atmosphere in which the mind of Watts grew and
prevailed; without saying something about that weary and weather-beaten
question of the relation of art to ethics on which so much has been said
in connexion with him and his contemporaries. About the real aim and the
real value of Watts' allegorical pictures I shall speak later but for
the moment it is only desirable to point out what the early and middle
Victorian view of the matter really was. According to the
aesthetic creed which Mr. Whistler and others did so much to preach, the
state of the arts under the reign of that Victorian view was a chaos of
everyone minding everyone else's business. It was a world in which
painters were trying to be novelists, and novelists trying to be
historians, and musicians doing the work of schoolmasters, and sculptors
doing the work of curates. That is a view which has some truth in it,
both as a description of the actual state of things and as involving an
interesting and suggestive philosophy of the arts. But a good deal of
harm may be done by ceaselessly repeating to ourselves even a true and
fascinating fashionable theory, and a great deal of good by endeavouring
to realize the real truth about an older one. The thing from which
England suffers just now more than from any other evil is not the
assertion of falsehoods, but the endless and irrepressible repetition of
half-truths. There is another side to every historic situation, and that
often a startling one; and the other side of the Victorian view of art,
now so out of mode, is too little considered. The salient and essential
characteristic of Watts and men of his school was that they regarded
life as a whole. They had in their heads, as it were, a synthetic
philosophy which put everything into a certain relation with God and the
wheel of things. Thus, psychologically speaking, they were incapable not
merely of holding such an opinion, but actually of thinking such a
thought as that of art for art's sake; it was to them like talking about
voting for voting's sake, or amputating for amputating's sake. To them
as to the ancient Jews the Spirit of the unity of existence declared in
thunder that they should not make any graven image, or have any gods but
Him. Doubtless, they did not give art a relation of unimpeachable
correctness: in their scheme of things it may be true, or rather it is
true, that the aesthetic was confused with the utilitarian, that good
gardens were turned so to speak into bad cornfields, and a valuable
temple into a useless post-office. But in so far as they had this
fundamental idea that art must be linked to life, and to the strength
and honour of nations, they were a hundred times more broad-minded and
more right than the new ultra-technical school. The idea of following
art through everything for itself alone, through extravagance, through
cruelty, through morbidity, is just exactly as superstitious as the idea
of following theology for itself alone through extravagance and cruelty
and morbidity. To deny that Baudelaire is loathsome, or Nietzsche
inhuman, because we stand in awe of beauty, is just the same thing as
denying that the Court of Pope Julius was loathsome, or the rack
inhuman, because we stand in a we of religion. It is not necessary and
it is not honest. The young critics of the Green Carnation, with their
nuances and technical mysteries, would doubtless be surprised to learn
that as a class they resemble ecstatic nuns, but their principle is, in
reality, the same. There is a great deal to be said for them, and a
great deal, for that matter, to be said for nuns. But there is nothing
to be surprised at, nothing to call for any charge of inconsistency or
lack of enlightenment, about the conduct of Watts and the great men of
his age, in being unable to separate art from ethics. They were
nationalists and universalists: they thought that the ecstatic isolation
of the religious sense had done incalculable harm to religion. It is not
remarkable or unreasonable that they should think that the ecstatic
isolation of the artistic sense would do incalculable harm to art.

This, then, was the atmosphere of Watts and Victorian idealism: an
atmosphere so completely vanished from the world of art in which we now
live that the above somewhat long introduction is really needed to make
it vivid or human to us. These three elements may legitimately, as I
have said, be predicated of it as its main characteristics: first, the
sceptical idealism, the belief that abstract verities remained the chief
affairs of men when theology left them; second, the didactic simplicity,
the claim to teach other men and to assume one's own value and
rectitude; third, the cosmic utilitarianism, the consideration of any
such thing as art or philosophy perpetually with reference to a general
good. They may be right or wrong, they may be returning or gone for
ever; theories and fashions may change the face of humanity again and
yet again; but at least in that one old man at Limnerslease, burned, and
burned until death, these convictions, like three lamps in an old pagan
temple of stoicism.

Of the ancestry of Watts so little is known that it resolves itself into
one hypothesis: a hypothesis which brings with it a suggestion, a
suggestion employed by almost all his existing biographers, but a
suggestion which cannot, I think, pass unchallenged, although the matter
may appear somewhat theoretic and remote. Watts was born in London, but
his family had in the previous generation come from Hereford. The vast
amount of Welsh blood which is by the nature of the case to be found in
Herefordshire has led to the statement that Watts is racially a Celt,
which is very probably true. But it is also said, in almost every notice
of his life and work, that the Celtic spirit can be detected in his
painting, that the Celtic principle of mysticism is a characteristic of
his artistic conceptions. It is in no idly antagonistic spirit that I
venture to doubt this most profoundly.

Watts may or may not be racially a Celt, but there is nothing Celtic
about his mysticism. The essential Celtic spirit in letters and art may,
I think, be defined as a sense of the unbearable beauty of things. The
essential spirit of Watts may, I think, be much better expressed as a
sense of the joyful austerity of things. The dominant passion of the
artistic Celt, of Mr. W. B. Yeats or Sir Edward Burne-Jones, is in the
word "escape": escape into a land where oranges grow on plum-trees and
men can sow what they like and reap what they enjoy. To Watts the very
word "escape" would be horrible, like an obscene word: his ideal is
altogether duty and the great wheel. To the Celt frivolity is most truly
the most serious of things, since in the tangle of roses is always the
old serpent who is wiser than the world. To Watts seriousness is most
truly the most "joyful of things," since in it we come nearest to that
ultimate equilibrium and reconciliation of things whereby alone they
live and endure life and each other. It is difficult to imagine that
amid all the varieties of noble temper and elemental desire there could
possibly be two exhibiting a more total divergence than that between a
kindly severity and an almost cruel love of sweetness; than that between
a laborious and open-air charity and a kind of Bacchic asceticism;
between a joy in peace and a joy in disorder; between a reduction of
existence to its simplest formula and an extension of it to its most
frantic corollary; between a lover of justice who accepts the real world
more submissively than a slave and a lover of pleasure who despises the
real world more bitterly than a hermit; between a king in battle-harness
and a vagabond in elf-land; between Watts and Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

It is remarkable that even the technical style of Watts gives
contradiction to this Celtic theory. Watts is strong precisely where the
Celt is weak, and weak precisely where the Celt is strong. The only
thing that the Celt has lacked in art is that hard mass, that naked
outline, that [Greek characters] which makes Watts a sort of sculptor of
draughtsmanship. It is as well for us that the Celt has not had this: if
he had, he would rule the world with a rod of iron; for he has
everything else. There are no hard black lines in Burke's orations, or
Tom Moore's songs, or the plays of Mr. W. B. Yeats. Burke is the
greatest of political philosophers, because in him only are there
distances and perspectives, as there are on the real earth, with its
mists of morning and evening, and its blue horizons and broken skies.
Moore's songs have neither a pure style nor deep realization, nor
originality of form, nor thought nor wit nor vigour, but they have
something else which is none of these things, which is nameless and the
one thing needful. In Mr. Yeats' plays there is only one character: the
hero who rules and kills all the others, and his name is Atmosphere.
Atmosphere and the gleaming distances are the soul of Celtic greatness
as they were of Burne-Jones, who was, as I have said, weak precisely
where Watts is strong, in the statuesque quality in drawing, in the love
of heavy hands like those of _Mammon_, of a strong back like that of
_Eve Repentant_, in a single fearless and austere outline like that of
the angel in _The Court of Death_, in the frame-filling violence of
_Jonah_, in the half-witted brutality of _The Minotaur_. He is
deficient, that is to say, in what can only be called the god-like
materialism of art. Watts, on the other hand, is peculiarly strong in
it. Idealist as he is, there is nothing frail or phantasmal about the
things or the figures he loves. Though not himself a robust man, he
loves robustness; he loves a great bulk of shoulder, an abrupt bend of
neck, a gigantic stride, a large and swinging limb, a breast bound as
with bands of brass. Of course the deficiency in such a case is very far
from being altogether on one side. There are abysses in Burne-Jones
which Watts could not understand, the Celtic madness, older than any
sanity, the hunger that will remain after the longest feast, the sorrow
that is built up of stratified delights. From the point of view of the
true Celt, Watts, the Watts who painted the great stoical pictures _Love
and Death_, _Time, Death and Judgment_, _The Court of Death_, _Mammon_,
and _Cain_, this pictorial Watts would probably be, must almost
certainly be, simply a sad, sane, strong, stupid Englishman. He mayor
may not be Welsh by extraction or by part of his extraction, but in
spirit he is an Englishman, with all the faults and all the
disadvantages of an Englishman. He is a great Englishman like Wilton or
Gladstone, of the type, that is to say, that were too much alive for
anything but gravity, and who enjoyed themselves far too much to trouble
to enjoy a joke. Matthew Arnold has come near to defining that kind of
idealism, so utterly different from the Celtic kind, which is to be
found in Milton and again in Watts. He has called it, in one of his
finest and most accurate phrases, "the imaginative reason."

This racial legend about the Watts family does not seem to rest upon any
certain foundations, and as I have said, the deduction drawn from it is
quite loose and misleading. The whole is only another example of that
unfortunate, if not infamous, modern habit of talking about such things
as heredity with a vague notion that science has closed the question
when she has only just opened it. Nobody knows, as a matter of fact,
whether a Celtic mysticism can be inherited any more than a theory on
the Education Bill. But the eagerness of the popular mind to snatch at a
certainty is too impatient for the tardy processes of real hypothesis
and research. Long before heredity has become a science, it has become a
superstition. And this curious though incidental case of the origin of
the Watts genius is just one of those cases which make us wonder what
has been the real result of the great rise of science. So far the result
would painfully appear to be that whereas men in the earlier times said
unscientific things with the vagueness of gossip and legend, they now
say unscientific things with the plainness and the certainty of science.

The actual artistic education of Watts, though thorough indeed in its
way, had a somewhat peculiar character, the air of something detached
and private, and to the external eye something even at random. He works
hard, but in an elusive and personal manner. He does not remember the
time when he did not draw: he was an artist in his babyhood as he is an
artist still in his old age. Like Ruskin and many other of the great and
serious men of the century, he would seem to have been brought up
chiefly on what may be called the large legendary literature, on such as
Homer and Scott. Among his earliest recorded works was a set of coloured
illustrations to the Waverley Novels, and a sketch of the struggle for
the body of Patroclus. He went to the Academy schools, but only stayed
there about a month; never caring for or absorbing the teaching, such as
it was, of the place. He wandered perpetually in the Greek galleries of
the British Museum, staring at the Elgin marbles, from which he always
declared he learnt all the art he knew. "There," he said, stretching out
his hand towards the Ilyssus in his studio, "there is my master." We
hear of a friendship between him and the sculptor William Behnes, of
Watts lounging about that artist's studio, playing with clay, modelling
busts, and staring at the work of sculpture. His eyes seemed to have
been at this time the largest and hungriest part of him. Even when the
great chance and first triumph of his life arrived a year or two later,
even when he gained the great scholarship which sent him abroad to work
amid the marbles of Italy, when a famous ambassador was his patron and a
brilliant circle his encouragement, we do not find anything of the
conventional student about him. He never painted in the galleries; he
only dreamed in them. This must not, of course, be held to mean that he
did not work; though one or two people who have written memoirs of Watts
have used a phraseology, probably without noticing it, which might be
held to imply this. Not only is the thing ludicrously incongruous with
his exact character and morals; but anyone who knows anything whatever
about the nature of pictorial art will know quite well that a man could
not paint like that without having worked; just as he would know that a
man could not be the Living Serpent without any previous practice with
his joints. To say that he could really learn to paint and draw with the
technical merit of Watts, or with any technical merit at all, by simply
looking at other people's pictures and statues will seem to anyone, with
a small technical sense, like saying that a man learnt to be a sublime
violinist by staring at fiddles in a shop window. It is as near a
physical impossibility as can exist in these matters. Work Watts must
have done and did do; it is the only conclusion possible which is
consistent either with the nature of Watts or the nature of painting;
and it is fully supported by the facts. But what the facts do reveal is
that he worked in this curiously individual, this curiously invisible
way. He had his own notion of when to dream and when to draw; as he
shrank from no toil, so he shrank from no idleness. He was something
which is one of the most powerful and successful things in the world,
something which is far more powerful and successful than a legion of
students and prize men: he was a serious and industrious truant.

It is worth while to note this in his boyhood, partly, of course,
because from one end of his life to the other there IS this queer note
of loneliness and liberty. But it is also more immediately and
practically important because it throws some light on the development
and character of his art, and even especially of his technique. The
great singularity of Watts, considered as a mere artist, is that he
stands alone. He is not connected with any of the groups of the
nineteenth century: he has neither followed a school nor founded one. He
is not mediaeval; but no one could exactly call him classical: we have
only to compare him to Leighton to feel the difference at once. His
artistic style is rather a thing more primitive than paganism; a thing
to which paganism and mediaevalism are alike upstart sects; a style of
painting there might have been upon the tower of Babel. He is mystical;
but he is not mediaeval: we have only to compare him to Rossetti to feel
the difference. When he emerged into the artistic world, that world was
occupied by the pompous and historical school, that school which was so
exquisitely caricatured by Thackeray in Gandish and his "Boadishia"; but
Watts was not pompous or historical: he painted one historical picture,
which brought him a youthful success, and he has scarcely painted
another. He lived on through the great Pre-Raphaelite time, that very
noble and very much undervalued time, when men found again what had been
hidden since the thirteenth century under loads of idle civilization,
the truth that simplicity and a monastic laboriousness is the happiest
of all things; the great truth that purity is the only atmosphere for
passion; the great truth that silver is more beautiful than gold. But
though there is any quantity of this sentiment in Watts himself, Watts
never has been a Pre-Raphaelite. He has seen other fashions come and go;
he has seen the Pre-Raphaelites overwhelmed by a heavy restoration of
the conventional, headed by Millais with his Scotch moors and his
English countesses; but he has not heeded it. He has seen these again
overturned by the wild lancers of Whistler; he has seen the mists of
Impressionism settle down over the world, making it weird and delicate
and non-committal: but he thinks no more of the wet mist of the
Impressionist than he thought of the dry glare of the Pre-Raphaelite.

He, the most mild of men, has yet never been anything but Watts. He has
followed the gleam, like some odd modern Merlin. He has escaped all the
great atmospheres, the divine if deluding intoxications, which have
whirled one man one way and one another; which flew to the head of a
perfect stylist like Ruskin and made him an insane scientist; which flew
to the head of a great artist like Whistler and made him a pessimistic
dandy. He has passed them with a curious immunity, an immunity which,
if it were not so nakedly innocent, might almost be called egotism; but
which is in fact rather the single eye. He said once that he had not
even consented to illustrate a book; his limitation was that he could
express no ideas but his own. He admired Tennyson; he thought him the
greatest of poets; he thought him a far greater man than himself; he
read him, he adored him, but he could not illustrate him. This is the
curious secret strength which kept him in dependent in his youth and
kept him independent through the great roaring triumph of the
Pre-Raphaelite and the great roaring triumph of the Impressionist. He
stands in the world of art as he stood in the studio of Behnes and in
the Uffizi Gallery. He stands gazing, but not copying.

Of Watts as he was at this time there remains a very interesting
portrait painted by himself. It represents him at the age of nineteen, a
dark, slim, and very boyish-looking creature. Something in changed
conditions may no doubt account for the flowing and voluminous dark
hair: we see such a mane in many of the portraits of the most
distinguished men of that time; but if a man appeared now and walked
down Fleet Street with so neglected a _hure_, he would be mistaken for
an advertisement of a hairdresser, or by the more malicious for a minor
poet. But there is about this picture not a trace of affectation or the
artistic immunity in these matters: the boy's dress is rough and
ordinary, his expression is simple and unconscious. From a modern
standpoint we should say without hesitation that if his hair is long it
is because he has forgotten to have it cut. And there is something
about this contrast between the unconsciously leonine hair and the
innocent and almost bashful face, there is something like a parable of
Watts. His air is artistic, if you will. His famous skull cap, which
makes him look like a Venetian senator, is as pictorial and effective as
the boyish mane in the picture. But he belongs to that older race of
Bohemians, of which even Thackeray only saw the sunset, the great old
race of art and literature who were ragged because they were really
poor, frank because they were really free, and untidy because they were
really forgetful. It will not do to confuse Watts with these men; there
is much about him that is precise and courtly, and which, as I shall
have occasion to remark, belongs really to a yet older period. But it is
more right to reckon Watts along with them in their genuine raggedness
than to suppose that the unquestionable picturesqueness with which he
fronts the world has any relation with that new Bohemianism which is
untidy because it is conventional, frank because it follows a fashion,
careless because it watches for all its effects, and ragged and coarse
in its tastes because it has too much money.

The first definite encouragement, or at least the first encouragement
new ascertainable, probably came to the painter from that interesting
Greek amateur, Mr. Constantine Ionides. It was under his encouragement
that Watts began all his earlier work of the more ambitious kind, and it
was the portrait of Mrs. Constantine Ionides which ranks among the
earliest of his definite successes. He achieved immediate professional
success, however, at an astonishingly early age, judged by modern
standards. When he was barely twenty he had three pictures in the Royal
Academy: the first two were portraits, and the third a picture called
_The Wounded Heron_. There is always a very considerable temptation to
fantasticality in dealing with these artistic origins: no doubt it does
not always follow that a man is destined to be a military conqueror
because he beats other little boys at school, nor endued with a
passionate and clamorous nature because he begins this mortal life with
a yell. But Watts has, to a rather unusual degree, a sincere and
consistent and homogeneous nature; and this first exhibit of his has
really a certain amount of symbolism about it. Portraiture, with which
he thus began, he was destined to raise to a level never before attained
in English art, so far as significance and humanity are concerned; and
there is really something a little fascinating about the fact that along
with these pictures went one picture which had, for all practical
purposes, an avowedly humanitarian object. The picture of _The Wounded
Heron_ scarcely ever attracts attention, I imagine, in these days, but
it may, of course, have been recalled for a moment to the popular mind
by that curious incident which occurred in connexion with it and which
has often been told. Long after the painter who produced that picture in
his struggling boyhood had lost sight of it and in all probability
forgotten all about its existence, a chance traveller with a taste in
the arts happened to find it in the dusty curiosity-shop of a
north-country town. He bought it and gave it back to the now celebrated
painter, who hung it among the exhibits at Little Holland House. It is,
as I have said, a thing painted clearly with a humanitarian object: it
depicts the suffering of a stricken creature; it depicts the
helplessness of life under the cruelty of the inanimate violence; it
depicts the pathos of dying and the greater pathos of living. Since
then, no doubt, Watts has improved his machinery of presentation and
found larger and more awful things to tell his tale with than a bleeding
bird. The wings of the heron have widened till they embrace the world
with the terrible wings of Time or Death: he has summoned the stars to
help him and sent the angels as his ambassadors. He has changed the plan
of operations until it includes Heaven and Tartarus. He has never
changed the theme.

The relations of Watts to Constantine Ionides either arose or became
important about this time. The painter's fortunes rose quickly and
steadily, so far as the Academy was concerned. He continued to exhibit
with a fair amount of regularity, chiefly in the form of subjects from
the great romantic or historic traditions which were then the whole
pabulum of the young idealistic artist. In the Academy of 1840 came a
picture on the old romantic subject of Ferdinand and Isabella; in the
following year but one, a picture on the old romantic subject of
Cymbeline. The portrait of Mrs. Constantine Ionides appeared in 1842.

But Watts' mode of thought from the very beginning had very little
kinship with the Academy and very little kinship with this kind of
private and conventional art. An event was shortly to occur, the first
success of his life, but an event far less important when considered as
the first success of his life than it is when considered as an essential
characteristic of his mind. The circumstances are so extremely
characteristic of something in the whole spirit of the man's art that it
may be permissible to dwell at length on the significance of the fact
rather than on the fact itself.

The great English Parliament, the Senate that broke the English kings,
had just moved its centre of existence. The new Houses of Parliament had
opened with what seemed to the men of that time an opening world. A
competition was started for the decoration of the halls, and Watts
suddenly sprang into importance: he won the great prize. The cartoon of
_Caractacus led in triumph through the streets of Rome_ was accepted
from this almost nameless man by the great central power of English
history. And until we have understood that fact we have not understood
Watts: it was (one may be permitted to fancy) the supreme hour of his
life. For Watts' nature is essentially public--that is to say, it is
modest and noble, and has nothing to hide. His art is an outdoor art,
like that of the healthy ages of the world, like the statuesque art of
Greece, like the ecclesiastical and external Gothic art of Christianity:
an art that can look the sun in the face. He ought to be employed to
paint factory chimneys and railway stations. I know that this will sound
like an insolence: my only answer is that he, in accordance with this
great conception of his, actually offered to paint a railway station.
With a splendid and truly religious imagination, he asked permission to
decorate Euston. The railway managers (not perceiving, in their dull
classical routine, the wild poetry of their own station) declined. But
until we have understood this immense notion of publicity in the soul of
Watts, we have understood nothing. The fundamental modern fallacy is
that the public life must be an artificial life. It is like saying that
the public street must be an artificial air. Men like Watts, men like
all the great heroes, only breathe in public. What is the use of abusing
a man for publicity when he utters in public the true and the enduring
things? What is the use, above all, of prying into his secrecy when he
has cried his best from the house-tops?

This is the real argument which makes a detailed biography of Watts
unnecessary for all practical purposes. It is in vain to climb walls and
hide in cupboards in order to show whether Watts eats mustard or pepper
with his curry or whether Watts takes sugar or salt with his porridge.
These things mayor may not become public: it matters little. The
innermost that the biographer could at last discover, after all possible
creepings and capers, would be what Watts in his inmost soul believes,
and that Watts has splashed on twenty feet of canvas and given to the
nation for nothing. Like one of the great orators of the eighteenth
century, his public virtues, his public ecstasies are far more really
significant than his private weaknesses. The rest of his life is so
simple that it is scarcely worth telling. He went with the great
scholarship he gained with his Caractacus to Italy. There he found a new
patron--the famous Lord Holland, with the whole of whose great literary
circle he rapidly became acquainted. He painted many of his most famous
portraits in connexion with this circle, both in Italy and afterwards in
Paris. But this great vision of the public idea had entered his blood.
He offered his cartoons to Euston Station; he painted St. George and the
Dragon for the House of Lords; he presented a fresco to the great hall
at Lincoln's Inn. Of his life there is scarcely more to say, except the
splendid fact that he three times refused a title. Of his character
there is a great deal more to say.

There is unquestionably about the personal attitude of Watts something
that in the vague phraseology of modern times would be called Puritan.
Puritan, however, is very far from being really the right word. The
right word is a word which has been singularly little used in English
nomenclature because historical circumstances have separated us from the
origin from which it sprang. The right word for the spirit of Watts is
_Stoicism_. Watts is at one with the Puritans in the actual objects of
his attack. One of his deepest and most enduring troubles, a matter of
which he speaks and writes frequently, is the prevalence of gambling.
With the realism of an enthusiast, he has detected the essential fact
that the problem of gambling is even more of a problem in the case of
the poorer classes than in the case of the richer. It is, as he asserts,
a far worse danger than drink. There are many other instances of his
political identity with Puritanism. He told Mr. W. T. Stead that he had
defended and was prepared to defend the staggering publications of the
"Maiden Tribute"; it was the only way, he said, to stem the evil. A
picturesque irradiation asserts indeed that it was under the glow of
Hebraic anger against these Babylonian cruelties of Piccadilly and the
Strand that he painted as a symbol of those cruelties that brutal and
magnificent picture _The Minotaur_. The pictures themselves of course
bear sufficient attestation to this general character: _Mammon_ is what
we call a Puritan picture, and _Jonah_, and _Fata Morgana_,
and _For he had Great Possessions_. It is not difficult to see
that Watts has the Puritan vigilance, the Puritan realism, and the
Puritan severity in his attitude towards public affairs. Nevertheless,
as I have said, he is to be described rather as a Stoic than a Puritan.
The essential difference between Christian and Pagan asceticism lies in
the fact that Paganism in renouncing pleasure gives up something which
it does not think desirable; whereas Christianity in giving up pleasure
gives up something which it thinks very desirable indeed. Thus there is
a frenzy in Christian asceticism; its follies and renunciations are like
those of first love. There is a passion, and as it were a regret, in the
Puritanism of Bunyan; there is none in the Puritanism of Watts. He is
not Bunyan, he is Cato. The difference may be a difficult one to convey,
but it is one that must not be ignored or great misunderstandings will
follow. The one self-abnegation is more reasonable but less joyful. The
Stoic casts away pleasure like the parings of his nails; the Mystic cuts
it off like his right hand that offends him. In Watts we have the noble
self-abnegation of a noble type and school; but everything, however
noble, that has shape has limitation, and we must not look in Watts,
with his national self-mastery, either for the nightmare of Stylites or
the gaiety of Francis of Assisi.

It has already been remarked that the chief note of the painter's
character is a certain mixture of personal delicacy and self-effacement
with the most immense and audacious aims. But it is so essential a trait
that it will bear a repetition and the introduction of a curious example
of it. Watts in his quaint and even shy manner of speech often let fall
in conversation words which hint at a certain principle or practice of
his, a principle and practice which are, when properly apprehended,
beyond expression impressive and daring. The spectator who studies his
allegorical paintings one after another will be vaguely impressed with
something uniquely absent, something which is usual and familiar in such
pictures conspicuous by its withdrawal; a blank or difference which
makes them things sundered altogether from the millions of allegorical
pictures that throng the great and small galleries of painting. At
length the nature of this missing thing may suddenly strike him: in the
whole range of Watts' symbolic art there is scarcely a single example of
the ordinary and arbitrary current symbol, the ecclesiastical symbol,
the heraldic symbol, the national symbol. A primeval vagueness and
archaism hang over all the canvases and cartoons, like frescoes from
some prehistoric temple. There is nothing there but the eternal things,
clay and fire and the sea, and motherhood and the dead. We cannot
imagine the rose or the lion of England; the keys or the tiara of Rome;
the red cap of Liberty or the crescent of Islam in a picture by Watts;
we cannot imagine the Cross itself. And in light and broken phrases,
carelessly and humbly expressed, as I have said, the painter has
admitted that this great omission was observed on principle. Its object
is that the pictures may be intelligible if they survive the whole
modern order. Its object is, that is to say, that if some savage in a
dim futurity dug up one of these dark designs on a lonely mountain,
though he worshipped strange gods and served laws yet unwritten, it
might strike the same message to his soul that it strikes upon clerks
and navvies from the walls of the Tate Gallery. It is impossible not to
feel a movement of admiration for the magnitude of the thought. Here is
a man whose self-depreciation is internal and vital; whose life is
cloistered, whose character is childlike, and he has yet within such an
unconscious and colossal sense of greatness that he paints on the
assumption that his work may outlast the cross of the Eternal City. As a
boy he scarcely expected worldly success: as an old man he still said
that his worldly success had astonished him. But in his nameless youth
and in his silent old age he paints like one upon a tower looking down
the appalling perspective of the centuries towards fantastic temples and
inconceivable republics.

This union of small self-esteem with a vast ambition is a paradox in the
very soul of the painter; and when we look at the symbolic pictures in
the light of this theory of his, it is interesting and typical to
observe how consistently he pursues any intellectual rule that he laid
down for himself. An aesthetic or ethical notion of this kind is not to
him, as to most men with the artistic temperament, a thing to talk about
sumptuously, to develop in lectures, and to observe when it happens to
be suitable. It is a thing like his early rising or his personal
conscience, a thing which is either a rule or nothing. And we find this
insistence on universal symbols, this rejection of all symbols that are
local or temporary or topical, even if the locality be a whole
continent, the time a stretch of centuries, or the topic a vast
civilization or an undying church--we find this insistence looking out
very clearly from the allegories of Watts. It would have been easy and
effective, as he himself often said, to make the meaning of a picture
clear by the introduction of some popular and immediate image: and it
must constantly be remembered that Watts does care very much for making
the meaning of his pictures clear. His work indeed has, as I shall
suggest shortly, a far more subtle and unnamable quality than the merely
hard and didactic; but it must not be for one moment pretended that
Watts does not claim to teach: to do so would be to falsify the man's
life. And it would be easy, as is quite obvious, to make the pictures
clearer: to hang a crucifix over the _Happy Warrior_, to give _Mammon_
some imperial crown or typical heraldic symbols, to give a theological
machinery to _The Court of Death_. But this is put on one side like a
temptation of the flesh, because it conflicts with this stupendous idea
of painting for all peoples and all centuries. I am not saying that this
extraordinary ambition is necessarily the right view of art, or the
right view of life. I am only reiterating it as an absolute trait of men
of the time and type and temper of Watts. It may plausibly be
maintained, I am not sure that it cannot more truly be maintained, that
man cannot achieve and need not achieve this frantic universality. A
man, I fancy, is after all only an animal that has noble preferences. It
is the very difference between the artistic mind and the mathematical
that the former sees things as they are in a picture, some nearer and
larger, some smaller and further away: while to the mathematical mind
everything, every unit in a million, every fact in a cosmos, must be of
equal value. That is why mathematicians go mad; and poets scarcely ever
do. A man may have as wide a view of life as he likes, the wider the
better; a distant view, a bird's-eye view, if he will, but still a view
and not a map.

The one thing he cannot attempt in his version of the universe is to
draw things to scale. I have put myself for a moment outside this
universalism and doubted its validity because a thing always appears
more sharp and personal and picturesque if we do not wholly agree with
it. And this universalism is an essential and dominant feature of such
great men as Watts and of his time as a whole. Mr. Herbert Spencer is a
respectable, almost a dapper, figure, his theory is agnostic and his
tone polite and precise. And yet he threw himself into a task more
insane and gigantic than that of Dante, an inventory or plan of the
universe itself; the awful vision of existence as a single organism,
like an amoeba on the disc of a microscope. He claimed, by implication,
to put in their fight places the flaming certainty of the martyrs, the
wild novelties of the modern world; to arrange the eternal rock of Peter
and the unbroken trance of Buddhism. It is only in this age of
specialists, of cryptic experiences in art and faith like the present,
that we can see how huge was that enterprise; but the spirit of it is
the spirit of Watts. The man of that aggressive nineteenth century had
many wild thoughts, but there was one thought that never even for an
instant strayed across his burning brain. He never once thought, "Why
should I understand the cat, any more than the cat understands me?" He
never thought, "Why should I be just to the merits of a Chinaman, any
more than a pig studies the mystic virtues of a camel?" He affronted
heaven and the angels, but there was one hard arrogant dogma that he
never doubted even when he doubted Godhead: he never doubted that he
himself was as central and as responsible as God.

This paradox, then, we call the first element in the artistic and
personal claim of Watts, that he realizes the great paradox of the
Gospel. He is meek, but he claims to inherit the earth. But there is, of
course, a great deal more to be said before this view of the matter can
be considered complete. The universalism preached by Watts and the other
great Victorians was of course subject to certain specialisations; it is
not necessary to call them limitations. Like Matthew Arnold, the last
and most sceptical of them, who expressed their basic idea in its most
detached and philosophic form, they held that conduct was three-fourths
of life. They were ingrainedly ethical; the mere idea of thinking
anything more important than ethics would have struck them as profane.
In this they were certainly right, but they were nevertheless partial or
partisan; they did not really maintain the judicial attitude of the
universalist. The mere thought of Watts painting a picture called _The
victory of Joy over Morality_, or _Nature rebuking Conscience_, is
enough to show the definite limits of that cosmic equality. This is not,
of course, to be taken as a fault in the attitude of Watts. He simply
draws the line somewhere, as all men, including anarchists, draw it
somewhere; he is dogmatic, as all sane men are dogmatic.

There is another phase of this innocent audacity. It may appear to be
more fanciful, it is certainly more completely a matter of inference;
but it throws light on yet another side of the character of Watts.

Watts' relation to friends and friendship has something about it very
typical. He is not a man desirous or capable of a very large or rich or
varied circle of acquaintance. There is nothing Bohemian about him. He
belongs both chronologically and psychologically to that period which is
earlier even than Thackeray and his Cave of Harmony: he belongs to the
quiet, struggling, self-created men of the forties, with their tradition
of self-abnegating individualism. Much as there is about him of the
artist and the poet, there is something about him also of the
industrious apprentice. That strenuous solitude in which Archbishop
Temple as a boy struggled to carry a bag of ironmongery which crushed
his back, in which Gladstone cut down trees and John Stuart Mill read
half the books of the world in boyhood, that strenuous solitude entered
to some degree into the very soul of Watts and made him independent of
them. But the friends he made have as a general rule been very
characteristic: they have marked the strange and haughty fastidiousness
that goes along with his simplicity. His friends, his intimate friends,
that is, have been marked by a certain indescribable and stately
worthiness: more than one of them have been great men like himself. The
greatest and most intimate of all his friends, probably, was Tennyson,
and in this there is something singularly characteristic of Watts. About
the actuality of the intellectual tie that bound him to Tennyson there
can be little doubt. He painted three, if not four, portraits of him;
his name was often on his lips; he invoked him always as the typical
great poet, excusing his faults and expounding his virtues. He invoked
his authority as that of the purest of poets, and invoked it very finely
and well in a sharp controversial interview he had on the nature and
ethics of the nude in art.

At the time I write, there is standing at the end of the garden at
Limnerslease a vast shed, used for a kind of sculptor's studio, in which
there stands a splendid but unfinished statue, on which the veteran of
the arts is even now at work. It represents Tennyson, wrapped in his
famous mantle, with his magnificent head bowed, gazing at something in
the hollow of his hand. The subject is _Flower in the Crannied Wall_.
There is something very characteristic of Watts in the contrast between
the colossal plan of the figure and the smallness of the central object.

But while the practical nature of the friendship between Watts and
Tennyson is clear enough, there is something really significant,
something really relevant to Watts' attitude in its ultimate and
psychological character. It is surely most likely that Watts and
Tennyson were drawn together because they both represented a certain
relation towards their art which is not common in our time and was
scarcely properly an attribute of any artists except these two. Watts
could not have found the thing he most believed in Browning or Swinburne
or Morris or any of the other poets. Tennyson could not have found the
thing he most believed in Leighton or Millais or any of the other
painters. They were brought together, it must be supposed, by the one
thing that they had really in common, a profound belief in the
solemnity, the ceremoniousness, the responsibility, and what most men
would now, in all probability, call the pomposity of the great arts.

Watts has always a singular kind of semi-mystical tact in the matter of
portrait painting. His portraits are commonly very faultless comments
and have the same kind of superlative mental delicacy that we see in the
picture of _Hope_. And the whole truth of this last matter is very well
expressed in Watts' famous portrait of Tennyson, particularly if we look
at it in conjunction with his portrait of Browning. The head of Browning
is the head of a strong, splendid, joyful, and anxious man who could
write magnificent poetry. The head of Tennyson is the head of a poet.
Watts has painted Tennyson with his dark dome-like head relieved against
a symbolic green and blue of the eternal sea and the eternal laurels. He
has behind him the bays of Dante and he is wrapped in the cloak of the
prophets. Browning is dressed like an ordinary modern man, and we at
once feel that it should and must be so. To dress Browning in the
prophet's robe and the poet's wreath would strike us all as suddenly
ridiculous; it would be like sending him to a fancy-dress ball. It would
be like attiring Matthew Arnold in the slashed tights of an Elizabethan,
or putting Mr. Lecky into a primitive Celto-Irish kilt. But it does not
strike us as absurd in the case of Tennyson: it does not strike us as
even eccentric or outlandish or remote. We think of Tennyson in that
way; we think of him as a lordly and conscious bard. Some part of this
fact may, of course, be due to his possession of a magnificent physical
presence; but not, I think, all. Lord Kitchener (let us say) is a
handsome man, but we should laugh at him very much in silver armour. It
is much more due to the fact that Tennyson really assumed and was
granted this stately and epic position. It is not true that Tennyson was
more of a poet than Browning, if we mean by that statement that Browning
could not compose forms as artistic and well-managed, lyrics as light
and poignant, and rhythms as swelling and stirring as any in English
letters. But it is true that Tennyson was more of a poet than Browning,
if we mean by that statement that Tennyson was a poet in person, in post
and circumstance and conception of life; and that Browning was not, in
that sense, a poet at all. Browning first inaugurated in modern art and
letters the notion or tradition, in many ways perhaps a more wholesome
one, that the fact that a man pursued the trade or practice of poetry
was his own affair and a thing apart, like the fact that he collected
coins or earned his living as a hatter. But Tennyson really belonged to
an older tradition, the tradition that believed that the poet, the
appointed "Vates," was a recognized and public figure like the bard or
jester at the mediaeval courts, like the prophet in the old Commonwealth
of Israel. In Tennyson's work appeared for the last time in English
history this notion of the stately and public and acknowledged poet: it
was the lay of the last minstrel.

Now there is in Watts, gentle and invisible as he is, something that
profoundly responds to that spirit. Leighton, like Browning, was a
courtier and man of the world: Millais, like Browning, was a good fellow
and an ordinary gentleman: but Watts has more of Tennyson in him; he
believes in a great priesthood of art. He believes in a certain pure and
childish publicity. If anyone suggested that before a man ventured to
paint pictures or to daub with plaster he should be initiated with some
awful rites in some vast and crowded national temple, should swear to
work worthily before some tremendous altar or over some symbolic flame,
Millais would have laughed heartily at the idea and Leighton also. But
it would not seem either absurd or unreasonable to Watts. In the thick
of this smoky century he is living in a clear age of heroes.

Watts' relations to Tennyson were indeed very characteristic of what was
finest, and at the same time quaintest, in the two men. The painter,
with a typical sincerity, took the poet seriously, I had almost said
literally, in his daily life, and liked him to live up to his poetry.
The poet, with that queer sulky humour which gave him, perhaps, more
breadth than Watts, but less strength, said, after reading some acid and
unjust criticisms, "I wish I had never written a line." "Come," said
Watts, "you wouldn't like 'King Arthur' to talk like that." Tennyson
paused a moment and then spread out his fingers. "Well," he said, "what
do you expect? It's all the gout." The artist, with a characteristic
power of juvenile and immortal hero-worship, tells this story as an
instance of the fundamental essence of odd magnanimity and sombre
geniality in Tennyson. It is such an instance and a very good one: but
it is also an instance of the sharp logical idealism, of the prompt
poetic candour of Watts. He asked Tennyson to be King Arthur, and it
never occurred to him to think that he was asking Addison to be Cato, or
Massinger to be Saint Dorothy. The incident is a fine tribute to a

The real difficulty which many cultivated people have in the matter of
Watts' allegorical pictures is far more difficult. It is indeed nothing
else but the great general reaction against allegorical art which has
arisen during the last artistic period. The only way in which we can
study, with any real sincerity, the allegoric art of Watts is to ask to
what is really due the objection to allegory which has thus arisen. The
real objection to allegory is, it may roughly be said founded upon the
conception that allegory involves one art imitating another. This is, up
to a certain point, true. To paint a figure in a blue robe and call her
Necessity, and then paint a small figure in a yellow robe and can it
Invention; to put the second on the knee of the first, and then say that
you are enunciating the sublime and eternal truth, that Necessity is the
mother of Invention, this is indeed an idle and foolish affair. I t is
saying in six weeks' work with brush and palette knife what could be
said much better in six words. And there can be no reasonable dispute
that of this character were a considerable number of the allegorical
pictures that have crowded the galleries and sprawled over the ceilings
of ancient and modern times. Of such were the monstrous pictures of
Rubens, which depicted a fat Religion and a bloated Temperance dancing
before some foreign conqueror; of such were the florid designs of the
eighteenth century, which showed Venus and Apollo encouraging Lord
Peterborough to get over the inconvenience of his breastplate; of such,
again, were the meek Victorian allegories which showed Mercy and
Foresight urging men to found a Society for the Preservation of Young
Game. Of such were almost all the allegories which have dominated the
art of Europe for many centuries back. Of such, most emphatically, the
allegories of Watts are not. They are not mere pictorial forms, combined
as in a kind of cryptogram to express theoretic views or relations. They
are not proverbs or verbal relations rendered with a cumbrous exactitude
in oil and Chinese white. They are not, in short, the very thing that
the opponents of Watts and his school say that they are. They are not
merely literary. There is one definite current conception on which this
idea that Watts' allegorical art is merely literary is eventually based.
It is based upon the idea that lies at the root of rationalism, at the
root of useless logomachies, at the root, in no small degree, of the
whole modern evil. It is based on the assumption of the perfection of
language. Every religion and every philosophy must, of course, be based
on the assumption of the authority or the accuracy of something. But it
may well be questioned whether it is not saner and more satisfactory to
ground our faith on the infallibility of the Pope, or the infallibility
of the Book of Mormon, than on this astounding modern dogma of the
infallibility of human speech. Every time one man says to another, "Tell
us plainly what you mean?" he is assuming the infallibility of language:
that is to say, he is assuming that there is a perfect scheme of verbal
expression for all the internal moods and meanings of men. Whenever a
man says to another, "Prove your case; defend your faith," he is
assuming the infallibility of language: that is to say, he is assuming
that a man has a word for every reality in earth, or heaven, or hell. He
knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more
numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest; he
knows that there are abroad in the world and doing strange and terrible
service in it crimes that have never been condemned and virtues that
have never been christened. Yet he seriously believes that these things
can every one of them, in all their tones and semi-tones, in an their
blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of
grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker
can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the
mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire. Whenever, on the
other hand, a man rebels faintly or vaguely against this way of
speaking, whenever a man says that he cannot explain what he means, and
that he hates argument, that his enemy is misrepresenting him, but he
cannot explain how; that man is a true sage, and has seen into the heart
of the real nature of language. Whenever a man refuses to be caught by
some dilemma about reason and passion, or about reason and faith, or
about fate and free-will, he has seen the truth. Whenever a man declines
to be cornered as an egotist, or an altruist, or any such modern
monster, he has seen the truth. For the truth is that language is not a
scientific thing at all, but wholly an artistic thing, a thing invented
by hunters, and killers, and such artists long before science was
dreamed of. The truth is simply that--that the tongue is not a reliable
instrument, like a theodolite or a camera. The tongue is most truly an
unruly member, as the wise saint has called it, a thing poetic and
dangerous, like music or fire.

Now we can easily imagine an alternative state of things, roughly
similar to that produced in Watts' allegories, a system, that is to say,
whereby the moods or facts of the human spirit were conveyed by
something other than speech, by shapes or colours or some such things.
As a matter of fact, of course, there are a great many other languages
besides the verbal. Descriptions of spiritual states and mental purposes
are conveyed by a variety of things, by hats, by bells, by guns, by
fires on a headland, or by jerks of the head. In fact there does exist
an example which is singularly analogous to decorative and symbolic
painting. This is a scheme of aesthetic signs or emblems, simple indeed
and consisting only of a few elemental colours, which is actually
employed to convey great lessons in human safety and great necessities
of the commonwealth. It need hardly be said that I allude to the railway
signals. They are as much a language, and surely as solemn a language,
as the colour sequence of ecclesiastical vestments, which sets us red
for martyrdom, and white for resurrection. For the green and red of the
night-signals depict the two most fundamental things of all, which lie
at the back of all language. Yes and no, good and bad, safe and unsafe,
life and death. I t is perfectly conceivable that a degree of
flexibility or subtlety might be introduced into these colours so as to
suggest other and more complex meanings. We might (under the influence
of some large poetic station-masters) reach a state of things in which a
certain rich tinge of purple in the crimson light would mean "Travel
for a few seconds at a slightly more lingering pace, that a romantic
old lady in a first-class carriage may admire the scenery of the forest."
A tendency towards peacock blue in the green might mean "An old
gentleman with a black necktie has just drunk a glass of sherry at the
station restaurant." But however much we modified or varied this colour
sequence or colour language, there would remain one thing which it would
be quite ridiculous and untrue to say about it. It would be quite
ridiculous and untrue to say that this colour sequence was simply a
symbol representing language. It would be another language: it would
convey its meaning to aliens who had another word for forest, and
another word for sherry, and another word for old lady. It would not be
a symbol of language, a symbol of a symbol; it would be one symbol of
the reality, and language would be another. That is precisely the true
position touching allegorical art in general, and, above all, the
allegorical art of Watts.

So long as we conceive that it is, fundamentally, the symbolizing of
literature in paint, we shall certainly misunderstand it and the rare
and peculiar merits, both technical and philosophical, which really
characterize it. If the ordinary spectator at the art galleries finds
himself, let us say, opposite a picture of a dancing flower-crowned
figure in a rose-coloured robe, he feels a definite curiosity to know
the title, looks it up in the catalogue, and finds that it is called,
let us say, "Hope." He is immediately satisfied, as he would have been
if the title had run "Portrait of Lady Warwick," a "View of Kilchurn
Castle." It represents a certain definite thing, the word "hope." But
what does the word "hope" represent? It represents only a broken
instantaneous glimpse of something that is immeasurably older and wilder
than language, that is immeasurably older and wilder than man; a mystery
to saints and a reality to wolves. To suppose that such a thing is dealt
with by the word "hope," any more than America is represented by a
distant view of Cape Horn, would indeed be ridiculous. I t is not merely
true that the word itself is, like any other word, arbitrary; that it
might as well be "pig" or "parasol"; but it is true that the
philosophical meaning of the word, in the conscious mind of man, is
merely a part of something immensely larger in the unconscious mind,
that the gusty light of language only falls for a moment on a fragment,
and that obviously a semi-detached, unfinished fragment of a certain
definite pattern on the dark tapestries of reality. It is vain and worse
than vain to declaim against the allegoric, for the very word "hope" is
an allegory, and the very word "allegory" is an allegory.

Now let us suppose that instead of coming before that hypothetical
picture of _Hope_ in conventional flowers and conventional pink robes,
the spectator came before another picture. Suppose that he found himself
in the presence of a dim canvas with a bowed and stricken and secretive
figure cowering over a broken lyre in the twilight. What would he think?
His first thought, of course, would be that the picture was called
_Despair_; his second (when he discovered his error in the catalogue),
that it has been entered under the wrong number; his third, that the
painter was mad. But if we imagine that he overcame these preliminary
feelings and that as he stared at that queer twilight picture a dim and
powerful sense of meaning began to grow upon him--what would he see? He
would see something for which there is neither speech nor language,
which has been too vast for any eye to see and too secret for any
religion to utter, even as an esoteric doctrine. Standing before that
picture, he finds himself in the presence of a great truth. He perceives
that there is something in man which is always apparently on the eve of
disappearing, but never disappears, an assurance which is always
apparently saying farewell and yet illimitably lingers, a string which
is always stretched to snapping and yet never snaps. He perceives that
the queerest and most delicate thing in us, the most fragile, the most
fantastic, is in truth the backbone and indestructible. He knows a great
moral fact: that there never was an age of assurance, that there never
was an age of faith. Faith is always at a disadvantage; it is a
perpetually defeated thing which survives all its conquerors. The
desperate modern talk about dark days and reeling altars, and the end of
Gods and angels, is the oldest talk in the world: lamentations over the
growth of agnosticism can be found in the monkish sermons of the dark
ages; horror at youthful impiety can be found in the Iliad. This is the
thing that never deserts men and yet always, with daring diplomacy,
threatens to desert them. It has indeed dwelt among and controlled all
the kings and crowds, but only with the air of a pilgrim passing by. It
has indeed warmed and lit men from the beginning of Eden with an
unending glow, but it was the glow of an eternal sunset.

Here, in this dim picture, its trick is almost betrayed. No one can name
this picture properly, but Watts, who painted it, has named it _Hope_.
But the point is that this title is not (as those think who call it
"literary") the reality behind the symbol, but another symbol for the
same thing, or, to speak yet more strictly, another symbol describing
another part or aspect of the same complex reality. Two men felt a
swift, violent, invisible thing in the world: one said the word "hope,"
the other painted a picture in blue and green paint. The picture is
inadequate; the word "hope" is inadequate; but between them, like two
angles in the calculation of a distance, they almost locate a mystery, a
mystery that for hundreds of ages has been hunted by men and evaded
them. And the title is therefore not so much the substance of one of
Watts' pictures, it is rather an epigram upon it. It is merely an
approximate attempt to convey, by snatching up the tool of another
craftsman, the direction attempted in the painter's own craft. He calls
it _Hope_, and that is perhaps the best title. It reminds us among other
things of a fact which is too little remembered, that faith, hope, and
charity, the three mystical virtues of Christianity, are also the gayest
of the virtues. Paganism, as I have suggested, is not gay, but rather
nobly sad; the spirit of Watts, which is as a rule nobly sad also, here
comes nearer perhaps than anywhere else to mysticism in the strict
sense, the mysticism which is full of secret passion and belief, like
that of Fra Angelico or Blake. But though Watts calls his tremendous
reality _Hope_, we may call it many other things. Call it faith, call it
vitality, call it the will to live, call it the religion of to-morrow
morning, call it the immortality of man, call it self-love and vanity;
it is the thing that explains why man survives all things and why there
is no such thing as a pessimist. It cannot be found in any dictionary or
rewarded in any commonwealth: there is only one way in which it can even
be noticed and recognized. If there be anywhere a man who has really
lost it, his face out of a whole crowd of men will strike us like a
blow. He may hang himself or become Prime Minister; it matters nothing.
The man is dead.

Now, of course the ordinary objection to allegory, and it is a very
sound objection, can be sufficiently well stated by saying that the
pictorial figures are mere arbitrary symbols of the words. An allegorist
of the pompous school might paint some group of Peace and Commerce doing
something to Britannia. There might be a figure of Commerce in a Greek
robe with a cornucopia or bag of gold or an argosy or any other
conventional symbol. But it is surely quite evident that such a figure
is a mere sign like the word commerce: the word might just as well be
"dandelion," and the Greek lady with the cornucopia might just as well be
a Hebrew prophet standing on his head. It is scarcely even a language:
it is a cipher-code. Nobody can maintain that the figure, taken as a
figure, makes one think of commerce, of the forces that effect commerce,
of a thousand ports, of a thousand streets, of a thousand warehouses and
bills of lading, of a thousand excited men in black coats who certainly
would not know what to do with a cornucopia. If we find ourselves gazing
at some monument of the fragile and eternal faith of man, at some ruined
chapel, at some nameless altar, at some scrap of old Jacobin eloquence,
we might actually find our own minds moving in certain curves that
centre in the curved back of Watts' _Hope_: we might almost think for
ourselves of a bowed figure in the twilight, holding to her breast
something damaged but undestroyed. But can anyone say that by merely
looking at the Stock Exchange on a busy day we should think of a Greek
lady with an argosy? Can anyone say that Threadneedle Street, in itself,
would inspire our minds to move in the curves which centre in a
cornucopia? Can anyone say that a very stolid figure in a very
outlandish drapery is anything but a purely arbitrary sign, like x or y,
for such a thing as modern commerce, for the savagery of the rich, for
the hunger of the satisfied, for the vast tachycardia or galloping of
the heart that has fallen on all the great new centres of civilization,
for the sudden madness of all the mills of the world?

Watts' _Hope_ does tell us something more about the nature of hope than
we can be told by merely noticing that hope is shown in individual
cases: that a man rehearses successful love speeches when he is in love,
and takes a return ticket when he goes out to fight a duel. But the
figure of Commerce with the cornucopia gives us less insight into what
is behind commerce than we might get from reading a circular or staring
out into the street. In the case of Commerce the figure is merely a
symbol of commerce, which is a symbol. In the case of Hope the matter is
quite the other way; the figure brings us nearer to something which is
not a symbol, but the reality behind symbols. In the one case we go
further down towards the river's delta; in the other, further up towards
its fountain; that at least may be called a difference. And now, suppose
that our imaginary sight-seer who had seen so much of the pompous
allegory of Commerce in her Grecian draperies were to see, for the
second time, a second picture. Suppose he saw before him a throned
figure clad in splendid, heavy scarlet and gold, above the lustre and
dignity of which rose, in abrupt contrast, a face like the face of a
blind beast. Suppose that as this immortal thing, with closed eyes and
fat, sightless face, sat upon his magnificent seat, he let his heavy
hand and feet fall, as if by a mere pulverizing accident, on the naked
and god-like figures of the young, on men and women. Suppose that in
the background there rose straight into the air a raw and turgid smoke,
as if from some invisible and horrible sacrifice, and that by one final,
fantastic, and triumphal touch this all-destroying god and king were
adorned with the ears of an ass, declaring that he was royal, imperial,
irresistible, and, when all is said, imbecile. Suppose that a man sick
of argosies and cornucopias came before that picture, would he not say,
perhaps even before he looked in the catalogue and found that the
painter had called it _Mammon_, would he not say, "This is something
which in spirit and in essence I have seen before, something which in
spirit and in essence I have seen everywhere. That bloated, unconscious
face, so heavy, so violent, so wicked, so innocent, have I not seen it
at street corners, in billiard-rooms, in saloon bars, laying down the
law about Chartered shares or gaping at jokes about women? Those huge
and smashing limbs, so weighty, so silly, so powerless, and yet so
powerful, have I not seen them in the pompous movements, the morbid
health of the prosperous in the great cities? The hard, straight pillars
of that throne, have I not seen them in the hard, straight, hideous
tiers of modern warehouses and factories? That tawny and sulky smoke,
have I not seen it going up to heaven from all the cities of the coming
world? This is no trifling with argosies and Greek drapery. This is
commerce. This is the home of the god himself. This is why men hate
him, and why men fear him, and why men endure him."

Now, of course, it is at once obvious that this view would be very
unjust to commerce; but that modification, as a matter of fact, very
strongly supports the general theory at the moment under consideration.
Commerce is really an arbitrary phrase, a thing including a million
motives, from the motive which makes a man drink to the motive which
makes him reform; from the motive that makes a starving man eat a horse
to the motive which makes an idle man chase a butterfly. But whatever
other spirits there a re in commerce, there is, beyond all reasonable
question, in it this powerful and enduring spirit which Watts has
painted. There is, as a ruling element in modern life, in all life, this
blind and asinine appetite for mere power. There is a spirit abroad
among the nations of the earth which drives men incessantly on to
destroy what they cannot understand, and to capture what they cannot
enjoy. This, and not commerce, is what Watts has painted. He has
painted, not the allegory of a great institution, but the vision of a
great appetite, the vision of a great motive. It is not true that this
is a picture of Commerce; but that Commerce and Watts' picture spring
from the same source. There does exist a certain dark and driving force
in the world; one of its products is this picture, another is Commerce.
The picture is not Commerce, it is Mammon. And, indeed, so powerfully
and perfectly has Watts, in this case, realized the awful being whom he
was endeavouring to call up by his artistic incantation, that we may
even say the common positions of allegory and reality are reversed. The
fact is not that here we have an effective presentation under a certain
symbol of red robes and smoke and a throne, of what the financial world
is, but rather that here we have something of the truth that is hidden
behind the symbol of white waistcoats and hats on the back of the head,
of financial papers and sporting prophets, of butter closing quiet and
Pendragon being meant to win. This is not a symbol of commerce: commerce
is a symbol of this.

In sketching this general and necessary attitude towards the art of
Watts, particularly in the matter of allegory, I have taken deliberately
these two very famous and obvious pictures, and I have occupied, equally
deliberately, a considerable amount of space in expounding them. It is
far better in a subject so subtle and so bewildering as the relation
between art and philosophy, that we should see how our conceptions and
hypotheses really get on when applied systematically and at some length
to some perfectly familiar and existent object. A philosopher cannot
talk about any single thing, down to a pumpkin, without showing whether
he is wise or foolish; but he can easily talk about everything with
anyone having any views about him beyond gloomy suspicions. But at this
point I become fully conscious of another and most important kind of
criticism, which has been and can be levelled against the allegories of
Watts; and which must be, by the nature of things, evoked by the
particular line of discussion or reflection that I have here adopted.

It may be admitted that Watts' art is not merely literary in the sense
in which I have originally used the term. It may be admitted that there
is truth in the general position I have sketched out--that Watts is not
a man copying literature or philosophy, but rather a man copying the
great spiritual and central realities which literature and philosophy
also set out to copy. It may be admitted that _Mammon_ is obviously an
attempt to portray, not a twopenny phrase, but a great idea. But along
with all these admissions it will certainly be said, by the most
powerful and recent school in art criticism, that all this amounts to
little more than a difference between a mean and a magnificent blunder.
Pictorial art, it will be said, has no more business, as such, to
portray great ideas than small ideas. Its affair is with its own
technique, with the love of a great billowing line for its own sake, of
a subtle and perfect tint for its own sake. If a man mistakes his trade
and attends to the technique of another, the sublimity of his mind is
only a very slight consolation. If I summon a paperhanger to cover the
walls, and he insists on playing the piano, it matters little whether he
plays Beethoven or "The Yachmak." If I charter a pianist, and he is
found drinking in the wine cellar, it matters little whether he has made
his largest hole in good Burgundy or bad Marsala. If the whole of this
question of great ideas and small ideas, of large atmospheres and
superficial definitions, of the higher and the lower allegory--if all
this be really irrelevant to the discussion of the position of a
painter, then, indeed, we have been upon an idle track. As I think I
shall show in a moment, this is a very inadequate view of the matter.
But it does draw our attention to an aspect of the matter which must,
without further delay, be discussed. That aspect, as I need hardly say,
is the technique of Watts.

There is of course a certain tendency among all interesting and novel
critical philosophers to talk as if they had discovered things which it
is perfectly impossible that any human being could ever have denied; to
shout that the birds fly, and declare that in spite of persecution they
will still assert that cows have four legs. In this way some raw
pseudo-scientists talk about heredity or the physical basis of life as
if it were not a thing embedded in every creed and legend, and even the
very languages of men. In this way some of the new oligarchists of
to-day imagine they are attacking the doctrine of human equality by
pointing out that some men are stronger or cleverer than others; as if
they really believed that Danton and Washington thought that every man
was the same height and had the same brains. And something of this
preliminary cloud of folly or misunderstanding attaches doubtless to the
question of the technical view--that is, the solely technical view--of
painting. If the principle of "art for art's sake" means simply that
there is a solely technical view of painting, and that it must be
supreme on its own ground, it appears a piece of pure madness to suppose
it other than true. Surely there never was really a man who held that a
picture that was vile in colour and weak in drawing was a good picture
because it was a picture of Florence Nightingale! Surely there never was
really a man who said that when one leg in a drawing was longer than
another, yet they were both the same length because the artist painted
it for an altar-piece! When the new critics with a burst of music and a
rocket shower of epigrams enunciated their new criticism, they must at
any rate have meant something more than this. Undoubtedly they did mean
something more; they meant that a picture was not a good vehicle for
moral sentiment at all; they meant that not only was it not the better
for having a philosophic meaning, but that it was worse. This, if it be
true, is beyond all question a real indictment of Watts.

About the whole of this Watts controversy about didactic art there is at
least one perfectly plain and preliminary thing to be said. I t is said
that art cannot teach a lesson. This is true, and the only proper
addition is the statement that neither, for the matter of that, can
morality teach a lesson. For a thing to be didactic, in the strict and
narrow and scholastic sense, it must be something about facts or the
physical sciences: you can only teach a lesson about such a thing as
Euclid or the making of paper boats. The thing is quite inapplicable to
the great needs of man, whether moral or aesthetic. Nobody ever held a
class in philanthropy with fifteen millionaires in a row writing
cheques. Nobody ever held evening continuation classes in martyrdom, or
drilled boys in a playground to die for their country. A picture cannot
give a plain lesson in morals; neither can a sermon. A didactic poem was
a thing known indeed among the ancients and the old Latin civilization,
but as a matter of fact it scarcely ever professed to teach people how
to live the higher life. It taught people how to keep bees.

Since we find, therefore, that ethics is like art, a mystic and
intuitional affair, the only question that remains is, have they any
kinship? If they have not, a man is not a man, but two men and probably
more: if they have, there is, to say the least of it, at any rate a
reasonable possibility that a note in moral feeling might have affinity
with a note in art, that a curve in law, so to speak, may repeat a curve
in draughtsmanship, that there may be genuine and not artificial
correspondences between a state of morals and an effect in painting.
This would, I should tentatively suggest, appear to be a most reasonable
hypothesis. I t is not so much the fact that there is no such thing as
allegorical art, but rather the fact that there is no art that is not
allegorical. But the meanings expressed in high and delicate art are not
to be classed under cheap and external ethical formulae, they deal with
strange vices and stranger virtues. Art is only unmoral in so far as
most morality is immoral. Thus Mr. Whistler when he drops a spark of
perfect yellow or violet into some glooming pool of the nocturnal Thames
is, in all probability, enunciating some sharp and wholesome moral
comment. When the young Impressionists paint dim corners of meadows or
splashes of sunlight in the wood, this does not mean necessarily that
they are unmoral; it may only mean that they are a very original and
sincere race of stern young moralists.

Now if we adopt this general theory of the existence of genuine
correspondences between art and moral beauty, of the existence, that is
to say, of genuine allegories, it is perfectly clear wherein the test of
such genuineness must consist. It must consist in the nature of the
technique. If the technique, considered as technique, is calculated to
evoke in us a certain kind of pleasure, and there is an analogous
pleasure in the meaning considered as meaning, then there is a true
wedding of the arts. But if the pleasure in the technique be of a kind
quite dissimilar in its own sphere to the pleasure in the spiritual
suggestion, then it is a mechanical and unlawful union, and this
philosophy, at any rate, forbids the banns. If the intellectual
conceptions uttered in Michel Angelo's _Day of Judgment_ in the Sistine
Chapel were the effect of a perfect and faultless workmanship, but the
workmanship such as we should admire in a Gothic missal or a picture by
Gerard Dow, we should then say that absolute excellence in both
departments did not excuse their being joined. The thing would have been
a mere accident, or convenience. Just as two plotters might communicate
by means of a bar or two of music, so these subtle harmonies of colour
and form would have been used for their detached and private ends by the
dark conspirators of morality.

Now there is nothing in the world that is really so thoroughly
characteristic of Watts' technique as the fact that it does almost
startlingly correspond to the structure of his spiritual sense. If such
pictures as _The Dweller in the Innermost_ and _Mammon_ and _Diana and
Endymion_ and _Eve Repentant_ had neither title nor author, if no one
had heard of Watts or heard of Eve; if, for the matter of that, the
pictures had neither human nor animal form, it would be possible to
guess something of the painter's attitude from the mere colour and line.
If Watts painted an arabesque, it would be moral; if he designed a
Turkey carpet, it would be stoical. So individual is his handling that
his very choice and scale of colours betray him. A man with a keen sense
of the spiritual and symbolic history of colours could guess at
something about Watts from the mess on his palette. He would see giants
and the sea and cold primeval dawns and brown earth-men and red
earth-women lying in the heaps of greens and whites and reds, like
forces in chaos before the first day of creation. A certain queer and
yet very simple blue there is, for instance, which is like Titian's and
yet not like it, which is more lustrous and yet not less opaque, and
which manages to suggest the north rather than Titian's south, in spite
of its intensity; which suggests also the beginning of things rather
than their maturity; a hot spring of the earth rather than Titian's
opulent summer. Then there is that tremendous autochthonous red, which
was the colour of Adam, whose name was Red Earth. It is, if one may say
so, the clay in which no one works, except Watts and the Eternal Potter.
There are other colours that have this character, a character
indescribable except by saying that they come from the palette of
Creation--a green especially that reappears through portraits,
allegories, landscapes, heroic designs, but always has the same fierce
and elfish look, like a green that has a secret. It may be seen in the
signet ring of Owen Meredith, and in the eyes of the _Dweller in the
Innermost_. But all these colours have, as I say, the first and most
characteristic and most obvious of the mental qualities of Watts; they
are simple and like things just made by God. Nor is it, I think,
altogether fanciful to push this analogy or harmony a step further and
to see in the colours and the treatment of them the other side or
typical trait which I have frequently mentioned as making up the
identity of the painter. He is, as I say, a stoic; therefore to some
extent, at least, a pagan; he has no special sympathy with Celtic
intensity, with Catholic mysticism, with Romanticism, with all the
things that deal with the cells of the soul, with agonies and dreams.
And I think a broad distinction between the finest pagan and the finest
Christian point of view may be found in such an approximate phrase as
this, that paganism deals always with a light shining on things,
Christianity with a light shining through them. That is why the whole
Renaissance colouring is opaque, the whole Pre-Raphaelite colouring
transparent. The very sly of Rubens is more solid than the rocks of
Giotto: it is like a noble cliff of immemorial blue marble. The artists
of the devout age seemed to regret that they could not make the light
show through everything, as it shows through the little wood in the
wonderful _Nativity_ of Botticelli. And that is why, again,
Christianity, which has been attacked so strangely as dull and austere,
invented the thing which is more intoxicating than an the wines of the
world, stained-glass windows.

Now Watts, with all his marvellous spirituality, or rather because of
his peculiar type of marvellous spirituality, has the Platonic, the
philosophic, rather than the Catholic order of mysticism. And it can
scarcely be a coincidence that here again we feel it to be something
that could almost be deduced from the colours if they were splashed at
random about a canvas. The colours are mystical, but they are not
transparent; that is, not transparent in the very curious but
unmistakable sense in which the colours of Botticelli or Rossetti are
transparent. What they are can only be described as iridescent. A
curious lustre or glitter, conveyed chiefly by a singular and individual
brushwork, lies over all his great pictures.

It is the dawn of things: it is the glow of the primal sense of wonder;
it is the sun of the childhood of the world; it is the light that never
was on sea or land; but still it is a light shining on things, not
shining through them. It is a light which exhibits and does honour to
this world, not a light that breaks in upon this world to bring it
terror or comfort, like the light that suddenly peers round the corner
of some dark Gothic chapel with its green or golden or blood-red eyes.
The Gothic artists, as I say, would have liked men's bodies to become
like burning glass (as the figures in their windows do), that the light
might pass through them. There is no fear of light passing through
Watts' _Cain_.

These analogies must inevitably appear fantastic to those who do not
accept the general hypothesis of a possible kinship between pictorial
and moral harmonies in the psychology of men; but to those who do accept
this not very extravagant hypothesis, it may, I think, be repeated by
way of summary, that the purely technical question of Watts' colour
scheme does provide us, at least suggestively, with these two parallels.
Watts, so far as his moral and mental attitude can be expressed by any
phrases of such brevity, has two main peculiarities: first, a large
infantile poetry which delights in things fresh, raw, and gigantic;
second, a certain Greek restraint and agnostic severity, which throws a
strong light on this world as it is. The colours he uses have also two
main peculiarities: first, a fresh, raw, and, as it were, gigantic
character; secondly, an opaque reflected light, unlike the mediaeval
lighting, a strong light thrown on this world as it is.

Similar lines of comparison, so far as they appear to possess any value,
could, of course, be very easily pointed out in connexion with the
character of Watts' draughtsmanship. That his lines are simple and
powerful, that both in strength and weakness they are candid and
austere, that they are not Celtic, not Catholic, and not romantic lines
of draughtsmanship, would, I think, appear sufficiently clear to anyone
who has any instinct for this mode of judgment at all. In the matter of
line and composition, of course, the same general contention applies as
in the case of colour. The curve of the bent figure of _Hope_,
considered simply as a curve, half repeating as it does the upper curve
of the globe, suggests a feeling, a sense of fear, of simplicity, of
something which lies near to the nature of the idea itself, the idea
which inspires the title of the picture. The splendid rushing whirlpool
of curves which constitutes, as it were, the ellipse of the two figures
in _Diana and Endymion_ is a positive inspiration. It is, simply as a
form for a picture, a mere scheme of lines, the very soul of Greece. It
is simple; it is full and free; it follows great laws of harmony, but it
follows them swiftly and at will; it is headlong, and yet at rest, like
the solid arch of a waterfall. It is a rushing and passionate meeting of
two superb human figures; and it is almost a mathematical harmony.
Technically, at least, and as a matter of outlines, it is probably the
artist's masterpiece.

Before we quit this second department of the temperament of Watts, as
expressed in his line, mention must be made of what is beyond all
question the most interesting and most supremely personal of all the
elements in the painter's designs and draughtsmanship. That is, of
course, his magnificent discovery of the artistic effect of the human
back. The back is the most awful and mysterious thing in the universe:
it is impossible to speak about it. It is the part of Inan that he knows
nothing of; like an outlying province forgotten by an emperor. It is a
common saying that anything may happen behind our backs:
transcendentally considered the thing has an eerie truth about it. Eden
may be behind our backs, or Fairyland. But this mystery of the human
back: has again its other side in the strange impression produced on
those behind: to walk behind anyone along a lane is a thing that,
properly speaking, touches the oldest nerve of awe. Watts has realized
this as no one in art or letters has realized it in the whole history of
the world: it has made him great. There is one possible exception to his
monopoly of this magnificent craze. Two thousand years before, in the
dark: scriptures of a nomad people, it had been said that their prophet
saw the immense Creator of all things, but only saw Him from behind. I
do not know whether even Watts would dare to paint that. But it reads
like one of his pictures, like the most terrific of all his pictures,
which he has kept veiled.

I need not instance the admirable and innumerable cases of this fine and
individual effect. _Eve Repentant_ (that fine picture), in which the
agony of a gigantic womanhood is conveyed as it could not be conveyed by
any power of visage, in the powerful contortion of the muscular and yet
beautiful back, is the first that occurs to the mind. The sad and
sardonic picture painted in later years, _For He had Great
Possessions_--showing the young man of the Gospel loaded with his
intolerable pomp of garments and his head sunken out of sight--is of
course another. Others are slighter instances, like _Good Luck to your
Fishing_. He has again carried the principle, in one instance, to an
extreme seldom adopted, I should fancy, either by artist or man. He has
painted a very graceful portrait of his wife, in which that lady's face
is entirely omitted, the head being abruptly turned away. But it is
indeed idle to multiply these instances of the painter's hobby (if one
may use the phrase) of the worship of the human back, when all such
instances have been dwarfed and overshadowed by the one famous and
tremendous instance that everyone knows. _Love and Death_ is truly a
great achievement: if it stood alone it would have made a man great. And
it fits in with a peculiar importance with the general view I am
suggesting of the Watts technique. F or the whole picture really hangs,
both technically and morally, upon one single line, a line that could be
drawn across a blank canvas, the spine-line of the central figure of
Death with its great falling garment. The whole composition, the whole
conception, and, I was going to say, the whole moral of the picture,
could be deduced from that single line. The moral of the picture (if
moral were the right phrase for these things) is, it is scarcely
necessary to point out, the monument of about as noble a silence and
suppression as the human mind ever bent itself to in its pride. It is
the great masterpiece of agnosticism. In that picture agnosticism--not
the cheap and querulous incredulity which abuses the phrase, but loyal
and consistent agnosticism, which is as willing to believe good as evil
and to harbour faith as doubt--has here its great and pathetic place and
symbol in the house of the arts. It is the artistic embodiment of
reverent ignorance at its highest, fully as much as the Divine Comedy is
the artistic embodiment of Christianity.

Technically, in a large number of cases, it is probably true that Watts'
portraits, or some of them at least, are his most successful
achievements. But here also we find our general conclusion: for if his
portraits are his best pictures, it is certainly not because they are
merely portraits; if they are in some cases better than his symbolic
designs, it is certainly not because they are less symbolic. In his
gallery of great men, indeed, we find Watts almost more himself than
anywhere else. Most men are allegorical when they are painting
allegories, but Watts is allegorical when he is painting an old
alderman. A change passes over that excellent being, a change of a kind
to which aldermen are insufficiently inured. He begins to resolve into
the primal elements, to become dust and the shadow, to become the red
clay of Adam and the wind of God. His eyes become, in spite of his
earnest wish, the fixed stars in the sky of the spirit; his complexion
begins to show, not the unmeaning red of portraits and miniatures, but
that secret and living red which is within us, and which is the river of
man. The astounding manner in which Watts has, in some cases, treated
his sitters is one of the most remarkable things about his character. He
is not (it is almost absurd to have to mention such a thing about the
almost austere old democrat) a man likely to flatter a sitter in any
worldly or conventional sense. Nor is he, for the matter of that, a man
likely to push compliments far from any motive: he is a strict, and I
should infer a candid, man. The type of virtues he chiefly admires and
practises are the reverse of those which would encourage a courtier or
even a universalist. But he scarcely ever paints a man without making
him about five times as magnificent as he really looks. The real men
appear, if they present themselves afterwards, like mean and
unsympathetic sketches from the Watts original.

The fact is that this indescribable primalism, which we have noted as
coming out in the designs, in the titles, and in Watts' very
oil-colours, is present in this matter in a most extraordinary way.
Watts does not copy men at all: he makes them over again. He dips his
hand in the clay of chaos and begins to model a man named William Morris
or a man named Richard Burton: he is assisted, no doubt, in some degree
by a quaint old text-book called Reality, with its stiff but suggestive
woodcuts and its shrewd and simple old hints. But the most that can be
said for the portraiture is that Watts asks a hint to come and stop with
him, puts the hint in a chair in his studio and stares at him. The thing
that comes out at last upon the canvas is not generally a very precise
picture of the sitter, though, of course, it is almost always a very
accurate picture of the universe.

And yet while this, on the one side, is true enough, the portraits are
portraits, and very fine portraits. But they are dominated by an element
which is the antithesis of the whole tendency of modern art, that
tendency which for want of a better word we have to call by the absurd
name of optimism. I t is not, of course, in reality a question of
optimism in the least, but of an illimitable worship and wonder directed
towards the fact of existence. There is a great deal of difference
between the optimism which says that things are perfect and the optimism
which merely says (with a more primeval modesty) that they are very
good. One optimism says that a one-legged man has two legs because it
would be so dreadful if he had not. The other optimism says that the
fact that the one-legged was born of a woman, has a soul, has been in
love, and has stood alive under the stars, is a fact so enormous and
thrilling that, in comparison, it does not matter whether he has one leg
or five. One optimism says that this is the best of all possible worlds.
The other says that it is certainly not the best of all possible worlds,
but it is the best of all possible things that a world should be
possible. Watts, as has been more than once more or less definitely
suggested, is dominated throughout by this prehistoric wonder. A man to
him, especially a great man, is a thing to be painted as Fra Angelico
painted angels, on his knees. He has indeed, like many brilliant men in
the age that produced Carlyle and Ruskin, an overwhelming tendency to
hero-worship. That worship had not, of course, in the case of these men
any trace of that later and more denaturalized hero-worship the
tendency to worship madmen--to dream of vast crimes as one dreams of a
love-affair, and to take the malformation of the soul to be the only
originality. To the Carlylean (and Watts has been to some by no means
inconsiderable extent a Carlylean), to the Carlylean the hero, the great
man, was a man more human than humanity itself. In worshipping him you
were worshipping humanity in a sacrament: and Watts seems to express in
almost every line of his brush this ardent and reverent view of the
great man. He overdoes it. Tennyson, fine as he was both physically and
mentally, was not quite so much of a demi-god as Watts' splendid
pictures would seem to suggest. Many other sitters have been subjected,
past all recognition, to this kind of devout and ethereal caricature.
But the essential of the whole matter was that the attitude of Watts was
one which might almost be called worship. It was not, of course, that he
always painted men as handsome in the conventional sense, or even as
handsome as they were. William Morris impressed most people as a very
handsome man: in Watts' marvellous portrait, so much is made of the
sanguine face, the bold stare, the almost volcanic suddenness of, the
emergence of the head from the dark green background, that the effect of
ordinary good looks, on which many of Morris's intimates would probably
have prided themselves, is in some degree lost. Carlyle, again, when he
saw the painter's fine rendering of him, said with characteristic
surliness that he "looked like a mad labourer." Conventionally speaking,
it is of course, therefore, to be admitted that the sitters did not
always come off well. But the exaggeration or the distortion, if
exaggeration or distortion there were, was always effected in obedience
to some almost awestruck notion of the greatness or goodness of the
great or good sitter. The point is not whether Watts sometimes has
painted men as ugly as they were painted by the primary religious
painters; the point is, as I have said, that he painted as they did, on
his knees. Now no one thinks that Mr. Sargent paints the Misses
Wertheimer on his knees. His grimness and decision of drawing and
colouring are not due to a sacred optimism. But those of Watt are due to
this: are due to an intense conviction that there is within the sitter a
great reality which has to give up its secret before he leaves the seat
or the model's throne. Hence come the red violent face and minatory eyes
of William Morris: the painter sought to express, and he did most
successfully express, the main traits and meaning of Morris--the
appearance of a certain plain masculine passion in the realm of
decorative art. Morris was a man who wanted good wall-papers, not as a
man wants a coin of the Emperor Constantine, which was the cloistered or
abnormal way in which men had commonly devised such things: he wanted
good wallpapers as a man wants beer. He clamoured for art: he brawled
for it. He asserted the perfectly virile and ordinary character of the
appetite for beauty. And he possessed and developed a power of moral
violence on pure matters of taste which startled the flabby world of
connoisseurship and opened a new era. He grew furious with furniture and
denounced the union of wrong colours as men denounce an adultery. All
this is expressed far more finely than in these clumsy sentences in that
living and leonine head in the National Portrait Gallery. It is exactly
the same with Carlyle. Watts' Carlyle is immeasurably more subtle and
true than the Carlyle of Millais, which simply represents him as a
shaggy, handsome, magnificent old man. The uglier Carlyle of Watts has
more of the truth about him, the strange combination of a score of sane
and healthy visions and views, with something that was not sane, which
bloodshot and embittered them all, the great tragedy of the union of a
strong countryside mind and body with a disease of the vitals and
something like a disease of the spirit. In fact, Watts painted Carlyle
"like a mad labourer" because Carlyle was a mad labourer.

This general characteristic might of course be easily traced in all the
portraits one by one. If space permitted, indeed, such a process might
be profitable; for while we take careful note of all the human
triviality of faces, the one thing that we all tend to forget is that
divine and common thing which Watts celebrates. It is the misfortune of
the non-religious ages that they tend to cultivate a sense of
individuality, not only at the expense of religion, but at the expense
of humanity itself. For the modern portrait-painter not only does not
see the image of God in his sitters, he does not even see the image of
man. His object is not to insist on the glorious and solemn heritage
which is common to Sir William Harcourt and Mr. Albert Chevalier, to
Count Tolstoy and Mr. Wanklyn, that is the glorious and solemn heritage
of a nose and two eyes and a mouth. The effort of the dashing modern is
rather to make each of these features individual almost to the point of
being incredible: it is his desire to paint the mouth whose grimace is
inimitable, the eyes that could be only in one head, and the nose that
never was on sea or land. There is value in this purely personal
treatment, but something in it so constantly lost: the quality of the
common humanity. The new art gallery is too like a museum of freaks, it
is too wild and wonderful, like a realistic novel. Watts errs
undoubtedly on the other side. He makes all his portraits too classical.
It may seem like a paradox to say that he makes them too human; but
humanity is a _classis_ and therefore classical. He recurs too much to
the correct type which includes all men. He has, for instance, a worship
of great men so complete that it makes him tend in the direction of
painting them all alike. There may be too much of Browning in his
Tennyson, too much of Tennyson in his Browning. There is certainly a
touch of Manning in his John Stuart Mill, and a touch of the Minotaur in
many of his portraits of Imperial politicians. While he celebrates the
individual with a peculiar insight, it is nevertheless always referred
to a general human type. We feel when we look at even the most
extraordinary of Watts' portraits, as, for instance, the portrait of
Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, that before Lord Stratford de Redcliffe was
born, and apart from that fact, there was such a thing as a human being.
When we look at a brilliant modern canvas like that of Mr. Sargent's
portrait of Wertheimer, we do not feel that any human being analogous to
him had of necessity existed. We feel that Mr. Wertheimer might have
been created before the stars. Watts has a tendency to resume his
characters into his background as if they were half returning to the
forces of nature. In his more successful portraits the actual physical
characteristics of the sitter appear to be something of the nature of
artistic creations; they are decorative and belong to a whole. We feel
that he has filled in the fiery orange of Swinburne's hair as one might
fill in a gold or copper panel. We know that he was historically correct
in making the hair orange, but we cannot get rid of a haunting feeling
that if his scheme had been a little different he would have made it
green. This indescribable sentiment is particularly strong in the case
of the portrait of Rossetti. Rossetti is dressed in a dark green coat
which perfectly expresses his sumptuous Pre-Raphaelite affectation. But
we do not feel that Rossetti has adopted the dark green coat to suit his
dark red beard. We rather feel that if anyone had seized Rossetti and
forcibly buttoned him up in the dark green coat he would have grown the
red beard by sheer force of will.

Before we quit the subject of portraiture a word ought to be said about
two exceedingly noble portraits, those of Matthew Arnold and Cardinal
Manning. The former is interesting because, as an able critic said
somewhere (I wish I could remember who he was or where he wrote), this
is the one instance of Watts approaching tentatively a man whom he in
all reasonable probability did not understand. In this particular case
the picture is a hundred times better for that. The portrait-painter of
Matthew Arnold obviously ought not to understand him, since he did not
understand himself. And the bewilderment which the artist felt for those
few hours reproduced in a perfect, almost in an immortal, picture the
bewilderment which the sitter felt from the cradle to the grave. The
bewilderment of Matthew Arnold was more noble and faithful than most
men's certainty, and Watts has not failed to give that nobility a place
even greater perhaps than that which he would have given to it had he
been working on that fixed theory of admiration in which he dealt with
Tennyson or Morris. The sad sea-blue eyes of Matthew Arnold seemed to
get near to the fundamental sadness of blue. It is a certain eternal
bleakness in the colour which may for all I know have given rise to the
legend of blue devils. There are times at any rate when the bluest
heavens appear only blue with those devils. The portrait of Cardinal
Manning is worth a further and special notice, because it is an
illustration of the fact to which I have before alluded: the fact that
while Watts in one sense always gets the best out of his sitters, he
does not by any means always get the handsomest out of them. Manning was
a singularly fine-looking man, even in his emaciation. A friend of mine,
who was particularly artistic both by instinct and habits, gazed for a
long time at a photograph of the terrible old man clad in those
Cardinal's robes and regalia in which he exercised more than a
Cardinal's power, and said reflectively, "He would have made his fortune
as a model." A great many of the photographs of Manning, indeed almost
any casual glimpses of him, present him as more beautiful than he
appears in Watts' portrait. To the ordinary onlooker there was behind
the wreck of flesh and the splendid skeleton the remains of a very
handsome English gentleman; relics of one who might have hunted foxes
and married an American heiress. Watts has no eyes for anything except
that sublime vow which he would himself repudiate, that awful Church
which he would himself disown. He exaggerates the devotionalism of
Manning. He is more ascetic than the ascetics; more Catholic than
Catholicism. Just so, he would be, if he were painting the
Sheik-el-Islam, more Moslem than the Mohammedans. He has no eyes but for

Watts' allegories and Watts' portraits exhaust the subject of his art.
It is true that he has on rare occasions attempted pictures merely
reproducing the externals of the ordinary earth. It is characteristic of
him that he should have once, for no apparent reason in particular,
painted a picture of two cart-horses and a man. It is still more
characteristic of him that this one picture of a trivial group in the
street should be so huge as to dwarf many of his largest and most
transcendental canvases; that the incidental harmless drayman should be
more gigantic than the Prince of this World or Adam or the Angel of
Death. He condescends to a detail and makes the detail more vast than a
cosmic allegory. One picture, called "The First Oyster," he is reported
to have painted in response to a challenge which accused him or his art
of lacking altogether the element of humour. The charge is interesting,
because it suggests a comparison with the similar charge commonly
brought against Gladstone. In both charges there is an element of truth,
though not complete truth. Watts proved no doubt that he was not wholly
without humour by this admirable picture. Gladstone proved that he was
not wholly without humour by his reply to Mr. Chaplin, by his singing of
"Doo-dah," and by his support of a grant to the Duke of Coburg. But both
men were singularly little possessed by the mood or the idea of humour.
To them had been in peculiar fullness revealed the one great truth which
our modern thought does not know and which it may possibly perish
through not knowing. They knew that to enjoy life means to take it
seriously. There is an eternal kinship between solemnity and high
spirits, and almost the very name of it is Gladstone. Its other name is
Watts. They knew that not only life, but every detail of life, is most a
pleasure when it is studied with the gloomiest intensity. They knew that
the men who collect beetles are jollier than the men who kill them, and
that the men who worshipped beetles (in ancient Egypt) were probably the
jolliest of all. The startling cheerfulness of the old age of Gladstone,
the startling cheerfulness of the old age of Watts, are both entirely
redolent of this exuberant seriousness, this uproarious gravity. They
were as happy as the birds, because, like the birds, they were untainted
by the disease of laughter. They are as awful and philosophical as
children at play: indeed they remind us of a truth true for all of us,
though capable of misunderstanding, that the great aim of a man's life
is to get into his second childhood.

Of his work we have concluded our general survey. I t has been hard in
conducting such a survey to avoid the air of straying from the subject.
But the greatest hardness of the subject is that we cannot stray from
the subject. This man has attempted, whether he has succeeded or no, to
paint such pictures of such things that no one shall be able to get
outside them; that everyone should be lost in them for ever like
wanderers in a mighty park. Whether we strike a match or win the
Victoria Cross, we are still giants sprawling in Chaos. Whether we hide
in a monastery or thunder on a platform, we are still standing in the
Court of Death. If any experience at all is genuine, it affects the
philosophy of these pictures; if any halfpenny stamp supports them, they
are the better pictures; if any dead cat in a dust-bin contradicts them,
they are the worse pictures. This is the great pathos and the great
dignity of philosophy and theology. Men talk of philosophy and theology
as if they were something specialistic and arid and academic. But
philosophy and theology are not only the only democratic things, they
are democratic to the point of being vulgar, to the point, I was going
to say, of being rowdy. They alone admit all matters; they alone lie
open to all attacks. All other sciences may, while studying their own,
laugh at the rag-tag and bobtail of other sciences. An astronomer may
sneer at animalculae, which are very like stars; an entomologist may
scorn the stars, which are very like animalculae. Physiologists may
think it dirty to grub about in the grass; botanists may think it
dirtier to grub about in an animal's inside. But there is nothing that
is not relevant to these more ancient studies. There is no detail, from
buttons to kangaroos, that does not enter into the gay confusion of
philosophy, there is no fact of life, from the death of a donkey to the
General Post Office, which has not its place to dance and sing in, in
the glorious Carnival of theology.

Therefore I make no apology if I have asked the reader, in the course of
these remarks, to think about things in general. It is not I, but George
Frederick Watts, who asks the reader to think about things in general.
If he has not done this, he has failed. If he has not started in us such
trains of reflection as I am now concluding and many more and many
better, he has failed. And this brings me to my last word. Now and again
Watts has failed. I am afraid that it may possibly be inferred from the
magniloquent language which I have frequently, and with a full
consciousness of my act, applied to this great man, that I think the
whole of his work technically triumphant. Clearly it is not. For I
believe that often he has scarcely known what he was doing; I believe
that he has been in the dark when the lines came wrong; that he has been
still deeper in the dark and things came right. As I have already
pointed out, the vague lines which his mere physical instinct would make
him draw, have in them the curves of the Cosmos. His automatic manual
action was, I think, certainly a revelation to others, certainly a
revelation to himself. Standing before a dark canvas upon some quiet
evening, he has made lines and something has happened. In such an hour
the strange and splendid phrase of the Psalm he has literally fulfilled.
He has gone on because of the word of meekness and truth and of
righteousness. And his right hand has taught him terrible things.


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