Born in London on 23 February 1817, Watts first came to prominence in 1842 when he won one of three first prizes in a competition held to help identify artists to work on Sir Charles Barry’s new Houses of Parliament.
Organised by the Prince Albert-led Fine Arts Commission, the competition called for large-scale designs for fresco paintings. Watts depicted the first century British chieftain Caractacus being led through the streets of Rome after his capture by an invading Roman army.
Alfred Inciting the Saxons
Watts’ £300 prize money enabled him to fund a long visit to Italy, which proved hugely influential on his career. While there he entered another Westminster Hall competition organised by the Fine Arts Commission in 1847.
The oil painting that Watts submitted is this month’s Artwork of the Month. Titled ‘Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Prevent the Landing of the Danes’, it shows King Alfred the Great leading the Anglo-Saxons into battle against a Danish invasion force in AD 876.
The work won a £500 first prize and was bought by the Fine Arts Commissioners to hang in a Committee Room in the Houses of Parliament, where it remains today.
The Red Cross Knight
Despite winning two competitions, Watts was not immediately commissioned to work at Westminster – a situation some, such as critic John Ruskin, were quick to notice.
However, in 1852 he was employed to paint a fresco in Upper Waiting Hall. Completed the following year, the work illustrates a scene from Edmund Spenser’s ‘The Faerie Queene’ (1590) where the Red Cross Knight (St George) defeats the dragon.
Later career and legacy
Watts went on to have a long and successful career as both a painter and sculptor. He became well known for his distinctive portraits, including many of leading politicians, as well as allegorical works associated with the Symbolist movement.
Much of Watts’ work, including some relating to his Westminster paintings, is in the collection of the Watts Gallery, which he established with his wife and fellow artist Mary shortly before his death.
Image: Detail of 'Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Prevent the Landing of the Danes', oil on canvas, 1846 (WOA 2958)