- Representations of G. F. Watts, Art Making in Victorian Culture
It has become a commonplace for volumes on Victorian artists to begin with a comment on the sparse and limited nature of analysis of the protagonist's work and a note about the reductive and dismissive myths that have resulted. This book is no exception, laying the blame as much on those who have 'monumentalised' Watts as sage, or more recently, as Symbolist, as those who have dismissed him as reactionary. It sets out instead to approach the painter using a variety of local viewpoints and methods that stress the material conditions of production and reception.
The text is an orchestrated set of scholarly essays, the first to be dedicated to Watts, and inevitably draws on recent prototypes of this model, Barringer and Prettejohn's Frederic Leighton: Antiquity, Renaissance, Modernity (1999) and Mankoff's John Everett Millais: Beyond the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (2001), with which it shares several contributors. Watts' historical, mythological, allegorical and portrait painting and sculpture are dealt with alongside his philanthropic ambitions, public projects and protean reputation. All are related to the scientific, cultural and social forces of his day. The broad scope of the nine chapters, ranging from discussions of Watts' Homeric vision to his domestic role, belies the coherence of the book: its intelligent arrangement and the dialogue between essays. Its most enjoyable and admirable quality is the consistency with which arguments are based on a treasure trove of evidence, much of it fresh and much of it drawn from unexpected and interdisciplinary sources. The text suffers from the constraints of academic art history publishing and features only eight colour plates alongside thirty nine black and white figures, but the beauty and strangeness of these is more than enough to encourage a review of the works themselves.
Representing G. F. Watts must, therefore, surely succeed in its primary stated aim of bringing about a critical reconsideration of Watts and perhaps in its second stated aim as well, the 'revivication' of studies in Victorian art. To give the editors their due, they do [End Page 125] acknowledge a significant sea change in this area already. Any scholar will be aware of the expansion of scope and ideas that has been catalysed by the exploratory publishing practice of Ashgate's British Art and Visual Culture series and Yale's collaboration with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art supplementing the books coming from other university presses. The former has, sadly, been curtailed, but it is no accident that there has been a wonderful flurry of monographs, critical collections, and exhibitions in the last decade. Colin Trodd and Stephanie Brown join this trend, claiming to be rethinking academic culture itself by offering a method which is beyond simple revisionism, generic data or critical discourse. They describe an art history 'concerned with particular acts, engagements and events in which specific works make their meanings'. They hope such 'a reconsideration of Victorian art might assist in the production of a more complex and sophisticated reading of modern art' (23).
The reviewer shares this hope and believes it to be practicable, even inevitable, but feels this volume does not consistently evade the hazards of older art histories. The reader should not be put off, for example, by an introduction which is not always as lucid as the majority of the essays. It offers a useful survey of the premise and lay-out of the book, Watts' reputation and the achievements, pitfalls and patterns in Watts studies, but at points it becomes impenetrable. The clarity of the concluding lines, quoted above, is preceded by a discussion which often loses its way. The comparison with Brown and Leighton, for example, is obscure and unhelpful in this context and the language is occasionally gratuitously complex. Introductions to collections are difficult to craft and often tempt a writer who is very close to his or her subject to summarise and generalise material too involved for a reader who...