Lot 118: George Frederic Watts, O.M., R.A. (1817-1904)
June 11, 2002
London, United Kingdom
Description: Haystacks (Study on Brighton Downs) signed and inscribed 'G.F.Watts R.A. The Haystack G.F.Watts Esq R.A. Melbury Road, Kensington, London' (on an old label affixed to the reverse) oil on canvas 131/2 x 26 in. (34.3 x 66 cm.) PROVENANCE With the artist in 1887. Given by him to Sir Frederic Leighton; (+) Christie's, London, 14 July 1896 (3rd day), lot 343, (290 gns. to Sir William Agnew). Still with Sir William Agnew in 1905. LITERATURE Times, 30 April 1883, p. 4. Mrs Watts's manuscript catalogue, vol. I, p.16, as Brighton Downs. EXHIBITION London, Grosvenor Gallery, 1883, no. 59, as Study on Brighton Downs. Manchester, Royal Jubilee Exhibition, 1887, Fine Art Section, no. 249, as Haystacks, lent by the artist. London, Royal Academy, Exhibition of Works by the late George Frederick (sic) Watts, R.A., O.M, and the late Frederick Sandys, Winter 1905, no. 26, as Landscape, lent by Sir William Agnew. Manchester, City Art Gallery, G.F. Watts Memorial Exhibition, 1905, no. 106, as Landscape, lent by Sir William Agnew. NOTES The picture was painted in 1882 and exhibited the following year at the Grosvenor Gallery. With it Watts showed a portrait of the Hon. Mary Baring and a set of paintings representing the four Riders of the Apocalypse. (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). It was entitled Study on Brighton Downs, although the name Haystacks was already given to it when it was noticed briefly in a review in the Times, and Watts himself seems to have adopted this title later. No doubt the subject was one he had seen when travelling to or from the town, where he had a winter studio from 1876. Like so many of Watts's landscapes, Haystacks is astonishingly minimal, as if he is deliberately seeing out of how slight a motif a picture can be created. No other Victorian artist made more daring experiments of this kind; they are one of his work's most original aspects. Haystacks seem to have been a constant source of wonder and inspiration to Watts. The picture is reminiscent of Evening (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), a small panel of 1864 in which he introduced some examples he had seen in the vicinity of Little Holland House in the days when this part of Kensington was still rural. The Oxford picture has overt literary associations; an armed knight is seen riding by, and the picture has an alternative title, ' All the air a solemn stillness holds ', taken from Gray's Elegy. Our picture dispenses with these trappings, focusing attention on the haystacks alone, although, characteristically, Watts still manages to suggest a symbolist dimension. Stark as it is, the image has none of the objectivity of a painting of a haystack by Monet. Watts must have thought highly of the picture to have sent it to the Grosvenor. It was still in his possession when he lent it to the Royal Jubilee Exhibition at Manchester in 1887, but he subsequently gave it to Sir Frederic Leighton, who had, according to Mrs Watts in her manuscript catalogue of her husband's works, 'admired' it. Leighton and Watts were not only close friends but neighbours in the artists' colony which had developed in the Holland Park area since the 1860s. It is not difficult to see why Haystacks appealed to Leighton. It is very much an 'artist's picture', in the sense that a fellow artist is particularly likely to appreciate the problems it attempts to solve. And the long rectangular format is reminiscent of the work of the Etruscan School, with which Leighton was so closely associated. When the picture appeared at Leighton's posthumous sale at Christie's in July 1896 it was bought by the dealer Sir William Agnew, who apparently wanted it for his own collection rather than stock. He still had it nine years later, when he lent it to the first two venues of the memorial exhibition which toured the country following Watts's death in 1904.