I like to read the Sunday Times, but we have to go out on Sunday morning to buy it because newspaper delivery doesn’t work here the way it does in the USA. Recently, a local weekly called to ask whether we would like to take part in “a new scheme” they were “trialing”, in which the newspaper company would hire kids on bikes to go around the neighborhoods, delivering newspapers to customers’ doors. What a brave new concept! They “trialed” that for the first time in New York City only a few years ago. In 1833, according to Wikipedia. Alas, here on the Surrey-Hampshire border, it didn’t catch on.
Here, you have to make an arrangement with a newsagent – another one of those English words that made life here seem so exotic when I read about it in English books. People who live in England have agents to procure their newspapers and magazines? How posh is that? Not posh at all, it turns out. A newsagent is just the keeper of a little shop that sells newspapers and magazines (and usually some candy bars or possibly real groceries, as well). Since we live 100 yards past the limit of the nearest newsagent’s delivery area, we’re out of luck.
So every Sunday we go out to get the paper, mainly for the columnists and critics because we get the news from BBC Radio 4 and the internet every day. And one of our favorite writers in the Sunday Times is the art critic, Waldemar Januszczak. We refer to him as Waldemar (“Did you read what Waldemar said about…?”) not because we can’t pronounce his surname, but because it’s easy to feel we know him. His writing on art is enthusiastic, refreshing, and totally lacking in fashionable or pretentious art-speak. But Waldemar hates George Frederic Watts.
Watts was a Victorian painter who lived at Compton, a little Surrey village about five miles from where I sit as I’m typing this. We usually take out-of-town visitors to the gallery there, which the artist left to the public. Enormous, wall-sized canvasses illustrate scenes from myth or literature, expose the plight of the downtrodden of Victorian England, or show allegories of ideas: time, destiny, love, progress—or hope. It was Watts’s painting, Hope, that inspired a Dr Frederick G. Sampson of Virginia to give a lecture, which prompted Rev. Jeremiah Wright to give his 1990 sermon “The Audacity to Hope”, which in turn so moved Obama. Watts’s Hope is reported to be Obama’s favorite painting.
My husband hates the painting. He prefers Tasting the First Oyster BC, Watts’s comical image of an Adam-and-Eve style couple on the beach, a little bit of whimsy (though a large canvas) in which BC has been said to stand for Before Clothes. The man holding the oyster looks dubious, and the woman’s obviously saying “You aren’t actually thinking of eating that thing, are you?” Lest you think my other half is a Philistine, let me add that his favorite Watts image (and mine) is The Sower of the Systems, a composition of blue and golden swirls that invites you to see a creator scattering stars like seeds.
In any case, his complaint is that Watt’s Hope is too dejected, is utterly hopeless. Waldemar, too, says it’s a painting about hopelessness. But that’s the point; hope is in the one remaining string on the figure’s lyre, the one chance left in a scene that is otherwise absolutely bleak.
Watts painted a lot of bleakness. Waldemar called Watts’s Time, Death and Judgment one of the painter’s “doomiest allegories”, implying that Watts painted lots of doom-laden pictures, which he did. The only thing Waldemar likes less than Time, Death and Judgment, which used to hang in St Paul’s Cathedral, is the modernist work that replaced it. And now, with the Watts Gallery closed for the first refurbishment in 100 years, the painting is, he tells us, “back on temporary loan to the cathedral, alongside another gloomy wrist-slitter featuring a zombie mother and her baby.” That’s our Waldemar! And that’s our Watts, too, although he also produced Symbolist works that blaze with yellow and gold and white, as far from gloom as you can imagine.
While the gallery is closed, Watts’s paintings are on loan and can be at seen at lots of venues by people who might not ordinarily get to museums or galleries. Watts would have liked that, being something of a Socialist. His Socialist sympathies led Watts to refuse a baronetcy offered by Queen Victoria (twice), and led his wife to open a terra cotta pottery to provide workers an alternative to life as, in effect, serfs tied to local landowners.
(I hope I’m not doing a disservice to Mr. Obama to draw people’s attention to a connection between the president and Watts, because Obama is not a Socialist. British people absolutely hoot at reports that some US politicians or newspapers say Obama is a Socialist—well, those who aren’t too polite to hoot. The polite ones merely raise an eyebrow and remark that Americans must not know what a Socialist is if they think Obama qualifies.)
Right now, the gallery is using the image of Hope as the logo for the campaign to raise funds for the renovations. There’s more information at http://www.wattsgallery.org.uk where, in the British spirit of fair play, they offer a link to Waldemar’s negative article on Watts along with many links to those who admire the work, and an article about why, no matter what you think of the pictures today, Watts’s work is an important part of the history of British art.
The cartoon by Phil Disley, showing Obama as Hope, comes from another British newspaper, The Guardian. If you like the cartoon, the gallery would be happy to take your order for a print, you can even get one signed by the artist (£25, proceeds to the renovation campaign) — go to http://www.wattsgallery.org.uk/shop_disley.html
It almost goes without saying that I’m looking forward to the reopening of the gallery. (Maybe Obama will come! Stranger things have happened.) It’s rather nice, having a collection of one of the country’s major artists virtually in our back yard/back garden. But apparently we can’t both have such a gallery nearby and have Sunday papers delivered, drat the luck.
(All images used by permission of the Watts Gallery.)