G. F. WATTS<br/>
<em>The Ulster coat</em> (c. 1874) <!-- (recto) --><br />

oil on canvas<br />
71.2 x 30.5 cm<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Gift of Frederick Davidson AM and Mary Davidson through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program, 2015<br />
2015.756<br />


G. F. Watts’s portrait of May Prinsep: a colonial orphan at the NGV


In 2015 the National Gallery of Victoria was fortunate to acquire from a private donor a painting by the distinguished British artist George Frederic Watts (1817–1904). This work showing May Prinsep (1853–1931), while not dated, can be assigned to about 1870 (fig. 1). It relates directly to Watts’s full-length portrayal of the same sitter in the Manchester Art Gallery in the UK, a work exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1873 and known colloquially as The Ulster coat. The NGV now has a welcome addition to its collection of British portraits and thanks to ‘Human Kind: Transforming Identity in British and Australian Portraits 1700–1914’, new research about this acquisition can be presented here.1

fig. 1<br/>
G . F. Watts<br/>
<em>Study for Miss May Prinsep</em> (<em>The Ulster coat</em>) c. 1870-72<br/>
oil on canvas; 71.2 &times; 30.5 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Gift of Frederick Davidson AM and Mary Davidson through the Australian Government&rsquo;s Cultural Gifts Program, 2015 ( 2015.756)<br/>

This new acquisition by G. F. Watts joined another portrait by the same artist that had formed part of the NGV Collection for more than 100 years. In 1888, the Gallery acquired Watts’s Alfred Tennyson, 1858 (fig. 2), his first portrayal of the poet, seen the previous year at the Grosvenor Gallery Intercolonial Exhibition in Melbourne.2 Watts painted some six oil portraits of Tennyson (1809–1892), two of which are in Australian public collections, as is a copy of another.3 The first portrait, then it its original home at the State Library, became a valued part of the collection. As a representation of the living poet laureate of England, it conveyed for colonial audiences the importance of literary ties to the home country. It also asserted Watts’s position as one of the pre-eminent portrait painters of the day with an international reputation.

fig. 2<br/>
G. F. Watts<br/>
<em>Alfred Tennyson</em> 1858<br/>
oil on wood panel<br/>
61.0 &times; 50.4 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Purchased from the artist, 1888 (p.312.9-1)<br/>

Now, with the acquisition of this image of May Prinsep, Watts’s presence at the NGV is amplified in that it shows two very different strands of his portrait output. In addition, the connection between the two sitters adds an intriguing element to the discussion, for much later in life May Prinsep married Tennyson’s son. This essay will focus on the newly acquired painting of May, not just as one stage in the creation of the full-length portrait completed by 1873, but also as an experimental exercise in portraiture at a crucial point in the artist’s career. In addition, a wider examination of images of May Prinsep by Watts will demonstrate how he created a public identity for her through a series of paintings. She was, as we will see, a young person initially with an insecure background. Through artistic representations, May Prinsep gained a definable persona, ascended the social ladder, and eventually in 1918 married Hallam, 2nd Baron Tennyson (1852–1928),4 the former governor of South Australia and governor-general of Australia.

Familial connections at Little Holland House

For the entire second half of the nineteenth century and beyond, the lives of Watts, the Tennysons and the Prinseps were intertwined in London and on the Isle of Wight. In 1843, Henry Thoby Prinsep, a senior civil servant in India, returned to England to continue his career as a sometime director of the East India Company and aspirant to a parliamentary seat. Around 1848 Watts befriended him and his wife, Sara, who was herself from an established Anglo-Indian family, the Pattles. He advised them to rent the rambling Little Holland House in semi-rural Kensington in west London, part of the estate of the great Jacobean mansion, Holland House, and lived with them from the early 1850s onwards. Here he had the benefit of several studios and of conditions conducive to work as well as social life. Sara’s sisters – Virginia, Lady Somers; Julia Margaret Cameron (who later took up photography); Maria Jackson; and Sophia Dalrymple – often visited with their young children and were all in Watts’s orbit as friends and willing models for both formal and informal paintings and drawings.

Little Holland House was the site of many of Watts’s most creative endeavours at a time when his foothold in the art establishment was still tenuous. On returning to London in 1847 after living in Italy for four years, he had lost professional ground, especially at the premier art institution, the Royal Academy of Arts. Due to the poor positioning of his major works, he turned away from the Academy for much of the 1850s. Life at Little Holland House freed Watts from the need to earn a regular living and instead allowed him to set an independent course in a self-conscious exploration of the genre of portraiture.5 This non-commercial impetus meant he could experiment freely, without needing to sell all his work. In addition, he was geographically removed from metropolitan London and its social framework, requirements and proprieties. Such conditions also accounted for the great success of Sara Prinsep’s artistic and literary salon. The summer parties and musical evenings attracted the company of politicians, writers and artists, including the young Pre-Raphaelites. Tennyson arrived as a friend of Julia Margaret Cameron. It was amid relaxed social gatherings in the grounds of Little Holland House that Watts met the poet for the first time in 1857.

Their encounter coincided with a personal project formulated by Watts – to portray eminent individuals for his own collection with a plan to present their portraits to the nation. The so-called ‘Hall of Fame’ germinated in the early 1850s and continued to grow throughout that decade and beyond. When the artist met the poet laureate he had this ambitious portrait project in mind. Moreover, in the mid 1850s, Watts’s thinking on portraiture had advanced, as he determined to make his exercises in this genre ‘valuable as works of art’.6 Tennyson’s presence at Little Holland House challenged Watts’s desire to record worthy individuals. The poet was already a subject for photographers and artists, particularly the Pre-Raphaelites. Thomas Woolner, the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor, portrayed the poet in 1850–51 in a bronze profile medallion (Usher Gallery, Lincoln) and in a plaster bust in 1856, followed by the marble of 1857 (Trinity College, Cambridge). Dante Gabriel Rossetti vividly sketched Tennyson reading his poem ‘Maud’ in a drawing of 1855 (version, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham). Photographers such as J. J. E. Mayall, Lewis Carroll and Oscar Rejlander began to capture Tennyson from 1856 onwards, confirming his celebrity status. Images of Tennyson, as a poet and public figure, circulated even more widely after the publication of a popular volume of his poems by Moxon in 1858, with illustrations by the Pre-Raphaelites.

While observing Tennyson in the salon at Little Holland House, Watts requested that the poet sit for a portrait. This was not a commission but a work that the artist intended to keep for his own collection. It was the first of Watts’s six oil portraits of Tennyson, spanning nearly forty years, such was the congruity between artist and sitter. Yet none were commissions, nor did any go into Tennyson’s own collection. After the first portrait, Watts immediately revised it in a new version known as The moonlight portrait (Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire).7

Another visitor to, and later resident of, Little Holland House, May Prinsep, also prompted a succession of painted responses from Watts. The artist knew her well from her youth onwards. She served as a model for his studies of beauty in the later 1860s and as a conduit for his experimentation in portraiture. Mary Emily Prinsep (known as May) was born in Calcutta in September 1853, the sixth child of the marriage of Charles Robert Prinsep (1789–1864) and Louisa White. Her father had a career at the bar and as an economist. Like his brothers, including Watts’s friend Thoby, Charles worked for the British government in India, attaining the post of advocate-general of Bengal by the early 1850s. The Prinseps had been in India for several generations, making their mark in the service of the East India Company and in the military, as well as making their fortunes in indigo trading and cotton printing. Charles Robert Prinsep bought land in the colonies in the 1830s and 1840s and had large holdings in Singapore, given over to nutmeg farming, with further land in Western Australia and in Tasmania used for breeding horses for the army in India. This Anglo-Indian family extended further into the colonies, investing in land and seeing the potential for trade. But amid the expansionist zeal, there was a human story. In 1855, when May was two years old, her mother died in childbirth, leaving children ranging in age from an infant to a fourteen-year-old. Her father, then aged sixty-six, became an invalid after a stroke. It was at this point that the large family was fractured. A photograph dating from around 1860 shows the motherless Prinsep brood (fig. 3).8

fig. 3<br/>
Family album of Henry Prinsep<br/>
Prinsep Papers, State Library of Western Australia, Perth<br/>

This branch of the Prinsep family returned to England, without an established home; several of the children were taken in on an occasional basis at Little Holland House, where their paternal uncle Thoby and his wife Sara looked after them. After Charles Robert died in 1864, May, aged eleven, and her brothers Henry and James, became regular fixtures at Little Holland House, as did her sisters on occasion, but it was May who became an integral part of the family. As a teenager, Henry, known as Harry (1844–1922), sought a career in art, taking lessons from Watts, but this idea did not find favour with his uncle. For the most part he and his brother, Charles, were back and forth between Kensington and their public schools. May, however, was in constant residence in Kensington from 1864 onwards. Her family was scattered to various relatives, with the elder two sons obliged to take up their father’s land interests in Australia and Tasmania after 1866. Henry eventually settled in Western Australia, deploying his artistic interests in a career as a surveyor and amateur cartoonist.9 His life story is well documented in Malcolm Allbrook’s book Henry Prinsep’s Empire (2014), and the wider colonial migrations of the Prinseps feature in Angela Woollacott’s Settler Society in the Australian Colonies (2015). The conference ‘Human Kind’ allowed me to carry out further research in the State Library of Western Australia, which has contextualised May Prinsep’s life and that of her family.

Artistic experiments at Little Holland House and the Isle of Wight

At Little Holland House, from 1864 onwards, May found her place in the wider family structure. Her good looks were apparent to all, with one habitué of the Prinsep’s household, Lady Constance Leslie, recalling ‘the vision of beauty, dear May Prinsep’.10 Although adopted by Thoby and Sara, May still was a rootless individual, an orphan taken in by the good graces of her uncle and his wife, but not holding the same status as their own daughter Alice, who had married well in 1861.11 The year May arrived, 1864, was a turning point for Watts as in February he made his ill-fated marriage to the young actress Ellen Terry, which had ended by 1865. Her role in Watts’s project of portraying beauty, in counterpoint to the eminent sitters of the so-called ‘Hall of Fame’, abruptly ended, leaving him to seek other models. It was at this point that May took centre stage in Watts’s work. Her aunt, Sara, only allowed her to pose for two painters, Watts and her cousin Valentine Prinsep, a rising young artist (also represented at the NGV), who was exhibiting at the Royal Academy and living nearby in his own architect-designed residence. Equally, no restrictions were placed on her sister, Julia Margaret Cameron. When the families gathered at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, where the Camerons lived from 1860 onwards, May served as a ready model for Julia’s early exercises in photography. Cameron’s career eventually flourished and she became recognised as one of the foremost women photographers of the era.

By the mid 1860s, the Tennysons, who had established themselves at Farringford, the Camerons, who were at nearby Dimbola, and Watts, were all close friends on the Isle of Wight.12 Watts and Cameron had a continuing dialogue about art, with the painter acting as an artistic mentor to the novice photographer, commenting on her work and urging improvements in her visualisations and technique. Watts’s head studies in oil of young women date from the late 1850s, and he continued painting them during his brief marriage to Ellen Terry, as in Choosing, 1864 (RA 1864; National Portrait Gallery, London). These were direct exemplars for Cameron’s photography. In summer 1864 Ellen was on the Isle of Wight with Watts, during their brief marriage, and Cameron photographed her there. A year later, Cameron portrayed Watts in a photograph she titled The Whisper of the Muse, a visual celebration of his creative powers. Watts and Cameron seemed to work conjointly with a similar impetus in their studies of youthful beauty. The artist and photographer may well have worked at more or less the same time, and at the same places – Watts’s domain at Little Holland House or Cameron’s house in Freshwater, Isle of Wight.

Watts and Cameron turned to May Prinsep as a model in the mid 1860s. At about this time, she posed for the figure of a young girl in Watts’s composition, The court of death, (Tate, London) a major work in progress from the mid 1860s onwards. Cameron, who practised photography from 1864, took up the orphan May, niece of her brother-in-law Thoby, as a model for her photographic sessions at Little Holland House and Dimbola. The earliest depictions of May that are securely able to be dated indicate that she posed for Cameron from 1866.13 These dates are verified by inscriptions on the prints or by their copyright submission dates.14 Often Cameron showed May facing the camera frontally for a completely natural effect or sometimes simply draped. But more often she directed her sitter in the role of a specific literary character with exotic or poetic resonances. In May 1866 Cameron photographed May as Beatrice from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s play of 1819, The Cenci, in Beatrice, 1866 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, fig. 4),15 and as the character from Byron’s poem of 1810 ‘Maid of Athens, ere we part’ in Zoe, 1866 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, fig. 5).16 In fact, Watts owned two versions of the latter; one a roughly trimmed test print and the other a finished, mounted one. These images in effect play with the idea of creating identities for May, as she wears fancy dress to evoke specific characters from Romantic literature. The soft focus of these albumen prints, an essential technique of Cameron’s, evokes a poetic mood. In this regard, she absorbed Watts’s approach in works such as the portrait Edith Villiers, 1862 (RA 1862, private collection).17 Cameron’s objective, especially once she began to use a larger camera, was to produce life-sized heads – ones that might approximate the scale and importance of a painted portrait image, rather than small-scale daguerreotypes or cartes de visite. As part of their artistic dialogue, Cameron sent Watts many of her studies, such as these two, which went directly into his collection (as did two albums of her photographs).18 Cameron knew Watts’s paintings of May and he knew her photographs of the same sitter. By virtue of her status and background, May seemed like a blank canvas for both painter and photographer in their artistic experiments.

fig. 4<br/>
Julia Margaret Cameron<br/>
<em>Beatrice</em> 1866<br/>
Albumen silver print from glass negative; 34.6 x 26.3 cm. <br/>
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York  (1990.1074.2)<br/>

fig. 5<br/>
Julia Margaret Cameron<br/>
<em>Zoe</em> 1866<br/>
albumen print from wet collodion glass negative<br/>
32.0 x 27.2 cm<br/>
&copy;Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK (PH.252-1982)<br/>

May Prinsep on display

To the Academy exhibition in 1867, Watts sent a painting with the title May (now known as Prayer, 1867 [Manchester Art Gallery], fig. 6). Set at Little Holland House, it shows May kneeling while reading or, as it is sometimes interpreted, praying. This is a genre scene of ordinary life, but the dark and enclosed domestic interior, enhanced by the glowing intense colours, creates a mood of introspection. This scene of modern domestic life is Watts’s first fully fledged depiction of the adopted child of his friends Thoby and Sara. He painted her again in a head study that he worked on from about 1867 until it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1869 (Watts Gallery, Compton, Surrey). He was reluctant to exhibit it but the client, who bought it beforehand, insisted and offered a picturesque title. The artist’s reply was firm:

I will send the head to the Exhibition if you wish it certainly & will not call it May. I think your name is a very good one and shall regard it as so christened but I do not know about so styling it in the Exhibition catalogue as I rather dislike fanciful names for such occasions and would prefer calling it a study but will do as you wish.19

fig. 6<br/>
G. F. Watts<br/>
<em>May</em> (called &ldquo;Prayer&rdquo;), exh. 1867<br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
102.6 x 69.6 cm<br/>
&copy;Manchester Art Gallery (1887.10)<br/>

Watts had no trouble selling the painting to his new patron Charles Rickards, a well-to-do lawyer and philanthropist in Manchester, whose family money came from the cotton industry. The patron and the exhibition-going public had a taste for descriptive titles, but the artist considered it a study. In the end he just called it A portrait (fig. 7). Yet it is not a portrait as a character analysis; rather, it conveys a poetic quality. With May turned away, gazing into the distance, there is a wistful mood. The focus is on her fair skin and fugitive profile. In essence, for Watts the painting was an exercise in capturing youthful beauty within a reduced palette of greys and whites.

fig. 7<br/>
G. F. Watts<br/>
<em>A Portrait (May Prinsep)</em>, exh. 1869<br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
66 x 53.3 cm<br/>
Watts Gallery, Compton, Surrey, UK<br/>

At the point this painting went to the Academy in 1869, May was aged sixteen. Watts had known her as a child and she matured while living at the Prinseps’ residence in Kensington. It is also most likely May, depicted walking in the garden at Little Holland House in From my studio window (Watts Gallery, Compton, Surrey),20 exhibited at the Dudley Gallery in London in November 1870.May and Watts became firm friends, and they had a regular routine of taking a morning ride in the park. But as she grew older the question of her future must have become an issue, and one might well deduce that in some way these portrayals of her, each one sent to public exhibition at the Royal Academy, and those that followed, were intended, at least in part, to place her in the marriage market.

Soon after, Watts again posed May for another much more ambitious painting – a full-length portrait, finished for the Royal Academy of 1873 and exhibited as Miss Mary Prinsep (Manchester Art Gallery, fig. 8) and now known as The Ulster.21 Given the length of time it took to complete a full-length portrait, and the other paintings the artist was working on during these years, it seems likely that the oil sketch at the NGV dates from around 1870. Certainly, by December 1872 the large painting was more or less complete.22 The sketch itself is on a fairly large scale, over two feet in height; the grassland setting is blocked in, painted quickly and with a light touch. It has the freshness of a first attempt at the subject. The loose treatment of the surface gives a strong sense of the outdoor setting. Unlike a study, however, the face of the figure is finished very delicately. With this work the overall idea of the portrait is decided. May wears a thick heavy coat; her head is covered with a soft red beret. She appears as a girlish figure, but in the final version the artist presents a rather different image of her, as she becomes a grander presence, appearing older than the nineteen she was at the time of the completion of the full-length work. And it is in the distinctly unusual choice of setting and dress for a reputed beauty such as May that raises some questions.

fig. 8<br/>
G. F. Watts<br/>
<em>Miss May Prinsep</em> (called &ldquo;The Ulster Coat&rdquo;), exh. 1873<br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
198.7 x 99.7 cm<br/>
&copy;Manchester Art Gallery (1922.30)<br/>

The full-length work was not a commission, so the artist worked on it without the urgency of any deadline. The documentation regarding the inception of the painting is slight.23 It seems very likely that Watts’s work is set on the Isle of Wight.24 With May there he could embark on a work that exploited the landscape by combining it with a grand manner–style portrait. In the final version at the Manchester Art Gallery,25 the plunging cliff and low-level horizon convey the geography of the chalk downs at Farringford, all land once belonging to Tennyson and now part of the National Trust. From this vantage point one looks towards Freshwater Bay. In enlarging the painting to over six feet in height, Watts gave a much more considered rendering of the landscape. The lowered horizon exaggerates the scale of the figure, which becomes a powerful presence on high rising ground overlooking a coastline. The final version is on a grand-manner scale, which Watts had all but abandoned after creating the series of such works ten years before. The handling of the paint, using broad sweeps of the brush and treatment in low tones, not to mention the stark setting, give this large-scale work considerable impact.

fig. 9<br/>
G.F. Watts<br/>
Miss May Prinsep (called &ldquo;The Ulster Coat&rdquo;), exh. 1873 (detail)<br/>
oil on canvas; 198.7 x 99.7 cm<br/>
 &copy;Manchester Art Gallery (1922.30)<br/>

This breezy outpost on the wild and windy cliffs that overlook the coast on the Isle of Wight demanded appropriate outdoor weather gear for walking. Watts’s choice of how to show his sitter has some basis in real life. Even so, the striking presentation of May is provocative. In the full-length painting the long, loose overcoat is more defined in its lines and is identifiable as an ‘Ulster’. Indeed, the painting’s first owner (and others thereafter) called it that. This garment was essentially a travelling or walking coat, double-breasted, cut long and full, with an opening at the back for ease of movement. It had a bold lapel and detachable hood. Initially for men, by the early 1870s the style had also come into fashion for women. The January 1870 issue of The Gazette of Fashion stated:

Among the novelties of this season we may notice a peculiarly striking style of over-coat … Contrasted with the length to which over-coats … have lately been worn this new form has an ungraceful appearance, owing to the extreme to which it is carried. In fact, it is more like a dressing gown, in proportion, than a walking coat.


The ‘Ulster’ coat, originally made of a fabric called frieze or witney, a shaggy woollen pile from Belfast, had its origins in the work wear of the Irish peasantry. Grey in colour, it was an unconventional choice for a reputed beauty such as May. In the final picture the handling of the form is more emphatic, with the soft folds of the clothing replaced by more defined lines. The exaggeration of the collar adds width to shoulders, with the contained form taking on statuesque proportions. The artist made adjustments to the hat as well, replacing the red beret, or tam, of the oil study with a masculine style of hat, akin to a riding topper, composed of hard felt, tilted over May’s face and trimmed with a red feather. Watts had an interest in fashion, particularly dress reform, and later wrote articles on the subject.27

This coat offered protection from inclement weather but was not particularly feminine or flattering, as more than one critic pointed out in reviewing the Academy in 1873. This inherent incongruity prompted the humour magazine Punch to weigh in with a ditty that took account of Watts’s male portraits and major subject picture that year, A prodigal:

The men starved, sallow, shirtless all, to boot!
Fair MAY in Ulster slop and worst of hats!
Such shabby get-up Prodigals may suit;
But belles and swells! – we ask what’s come to WATTS?28

Reviewers who knew Watts, such as F. G. Stephens in The Athenaeum, gave a reading that we can assume was based on discussions with the artist himself:

a whole-length of a charming young lady, standing, in a travelling dress, and rather coquettish cap. The cumbrous forms of the dress have been made graceful by the painter, who has availed himself of their breadth to produce much simplicity of treatment and largeness of style; the somewhat ‘loud’ and certainly inelegant character of the head-dress, which in fact, are offensively vulgar, as indeed the coat itself is, has been so treated that the result is simplicity and repose. The chief aim of the painter, however, is attained by means of the delicate and rich greys of the costume, which has been treated with consummate skill.29

Such a view was reiterated in another prominent journal of the day, The Graphic:

a whole length of ‘Miss Mary Prinsep’ clad in rough and cumbrous travelling dress, with a cap of coquettish if tasteless pattern. The painter has striven to give grace to these unpromising materials, and by his breadth of style and dexterous treatment of texture has thoroughly succeeded. The unpicturesque lines of the long coat are subdued by an admirable arrangement of harmonious greys, and the flesh-painting in this … is most consummate.30

Given the similarity of the discussion to that in The Athenaeum, even including the specific vocabulary, we can assume that this was also by Stephens, a sympathetic observer who Watts knew well. The anonymous writer in Illustrated London News offered a less positive judgement regarding Watts’s contributions that year: ‘Of the consequent comparative failure, occasionally, we must think that a whole-length of Miss Mary Prinsep, enveloped in a grey “waterproof” (915), is an example’.31 So, too, did the Art Journal’s writer seem confounded:

the likeness of Miss Mary Prinsep (915) by Mr. Watts, is certainly the worst of his … [she] is represented in a long grey driving-coat, and the full figure is set in a wide expanse of grey mist. The intention of the painter has apparently been to produce a harmony in greys; but the intention was better than the performance.32

These reactions rest firmly on the notion that the artist had rendered his subject in unlikely, even somewhat transgressive, guise. Yet fellow artists viewed the painting in a different light. Ford Madox Brown, who saw the work at an exhibition in Manchester in 1878, later recalled Watts’s Miss Mary Prinsep ‘a triumph of female portrait painting’.33 What Brown may well have appreciated above all was Watts’s effort to recalibrate the grand manner for the modern era.

The Isle of Wight presented certain painterly challenges that attracted Watts. Its dramatic views and blustery weather suggested the idea of a new large-scale portrait. In it, May becomes the focus of an imaginary encounter on the hills above the coast. Presented in emphatic frontality, her hands thrust in deep pockets, she stands with no readable expression. She has a firm, direct, even confrontational gaze – one that does not invite the viewer to engage. This is an impressive, if uncompromising, portrayal, disavowing any niceties of conventional female portraiture. Mindful of its unusual qualities, when it was purchased, Watts tried to talk the buyer out of owning such a large picture. However, this was to no avail, and in fact the new owner seems to have been responsible for dubbing the painting ‘The Ulster’. There is certainly a case to be made for presenting it with the title Watts intended: Miss May Prinsep.

Why would Watts have taken his portraiture in this new and experimental direction around 1870? He had all but abandoned full-lengths, with only one in progress at this time (Madeline Wyndham, c. 1865–77 [private collection]). One explanation may have been the change in Watts’s professional status. His election as a full Royal Academician in 1867 brought him into the fold of the organisation, which had taken so long to recognise him. He had a sense of duty, serving on the hanging committee in 1869 and producing portraits of fellow painter friends around 1870, as if asserting his integration into this new cohort. I think this renewed engagement with the Academy reignited his aspirations as a portraitist; tackling the full-length on his own terms became a new challenge. Here he could compete with the great Academicians of the past, such as Joshua Reynolds, whose legacy rested on their ambitious portraits. Watts’s work in this mode can also be said to echo that of the Old Masters, from the works of the Renaissance era through to the imposing full-lengths of Anthony van Dyck.34

One immediate stimulus for Watts’s experiment was the series exhibitions of National Portraits, presented at the South Kensington Museum from 1866 to 1868. It is significant that Watts served on the committee for these compendious surveys on the history of the portrait in Britain from the Tudor period onwards. With his own work presented in the final display in 1868, the artist could place himself within a tradition and then set out to try a new tack. The full-length portrait format required a substantial commitment, especially when, as in this case, Watts did not work on a specific commission. The portrait was an experiment in how far he could push the format outside its usual parameters. In the large version of the May Prinsep work, Watts embraced the idea of the modern portrait, re-imagining a young woman in harsh-looking contemporary clothes against a bleak setting on the scale of a grand-manner portrait.

In its depiction of May high on a clifftop on a cold day, braced against the weather in her outdoor gear, Watts’s painting calls to mind other images of women in similar, often quite masculine, outfits. He may well have known Reynolds’s striking Lady Worsley, c. 1776 (Harewood House, Leeds), which shows the subject in a red riding outfit with military decoration (it had been exhibited at the British Institution in 1851.)35 Watts greatly admired Reynolds’s work, but he was particularly attuned to his colleagues in the Royal Academy, especially when it came to their prices. In the later 1850s he insisted on matching his prices to those of Francis Grant, the portrait painter most associated with the landed gentry, who by 1866 was president of the Royal Academy. Grant’s striking portrait of his grown-up daughter Daisy, (exhibited as Mrs Markham, 1857 [National Galleries of Scotland]) heavily clad in a black cape as she stands in a wintery landscape, appeared at the Royal Academy in 1857. It shares a strong silhouetted figure within an inhospitable landscape, but there the similarities end. Watts’s close friend Frederic Leighton had painted a full-length portrait of the fifteen-year-old May Sartoris of around 1860 (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth). The painting shows her in a black riding habit with a large feathered hat and is set in the rolling hills of Hampshire.36 The work had not appeared at public exhibition, but Watts probably would have known this depiction of Leighton’s family friend seen at a similar age to May Prinsep. Leighton allied his painting more closely with English child-portrait traditions of the past, but the work also shares a distinctly sombre view of the passing of youth in its depiction of a girl on the verge of womanhood.

For other artists noted for the full-length format for women’s portraits at the end of the 1860s, one can look to France. Édouard Manet’s full-length Portrait of Madame Brunet, 1861–63 (The Getty Center, Los Angeles), which the artist had cut down by 1867 when it was seen in his one-man show in Paris, has an emphatic directness, but it does not possess the melancholy grandeur of Watts’s portrait. Several of Claude Monet’s large-scale female portraits of the 1860s focus on high fashion, as did those of Carolus-Duran. It is unlikely Watts knew of their specific works, although he certainly would have recognised the names of these rising artists. In the late 1840s and 1850s he had some exposure to French art,37 but by the later 1860s Watts was confident in his own style.

With his membership of the Royal Academy, Watts came into greater contact with his British contemporaries; in portraiture, John Everett Millais was the rising star. In 1870 Millais showed The Marchioness of Huntly, 1870 (private collection) at the Royal Academy, but this work, a society portrait, was not a departure; indeed, it was not that far removed from the work of Francis Grant. In 1873, Millais exhibited other impressive portraits that were mainly notable for their dazzling technique.38 Watts knew very well about Millais’ efforts at this time, as he had painted the younger artist’s portrait in 1871. Millais’ portraits were, of course, commissioned from well-to-do clients with high positions in society. Watts’s own turn to the full-length in a more daring and experimental mode reflects a different impetus. As ambitious as the format of Watts’s portrait was the reduced colour. Its tonal realisation and minimising of detail might be called ‘Whistlerian’, and indeed on39 with another calling it a ‘study in greys’,40 using terminology uniquely associated with James McNeill Whistler. Watts and Whistler seem to have had parallel interests in using the full-length portrait for purposes other the depiction of society figures. Whistler had a keen sense of the possibilities of depicting contemporary fashion, as seen in several portraits of the early 1870s.41 But closer in spirit, if not in setting, to the portrait of May Prinsep is Whistler’s The white girl, 1862 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC), which at the time set a sensational precedent for the adventurous use of the grand-manner format and depiction of a sitter gazing directly at the viewer. Even given this context, Watts’s portrait of May Prinsep in 1873 charted new territory in both setting and handling.

Despite its unconventionality, Watts’s portrait gained a public dimension when he sent it to the Royal Academy exhibition of 1873 where, as noted above, it attracted much comment. The next year, May, then aged twenty-one, duly made what would have been considered at that time an excellent marriage to stockbroker Andrew Kinsman Hichens (1833–1906), some twenty years her senior. She and her fiancé posed for Julia Margaret Cameron in the guise of the poetical romantic couple, Gareth and Lynette, from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. And, it might be said that Cameron’s photographs of May played upon her beauty and did more for her prospects than Watts’s uncompromising image. May served as a subject for her cousin Val Prinsep on several occasions, including one work of the later 1870s showing her fashionably dressed and walking on a sunny day along Afton Down, near Freshwater, on the Isle of Wight.42 In complete contrast to Watts’s austere portrait, Prinsep’s work is an appealing, if undemanding image, on a modest scale. It amply conveys the affinity of the Prinsep family, and especially May, with this locale. Once married, May’s husband probably commissioned Watts to paint her in a new portrait, Mrs Andrew Hichens, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1879 (private collection, fig. 10). May is portrayed here in a more conventional manner, the portrait reflecting her new secure identity as a well-to-do stockbroker’s wife; she is also seen this way in Frederic Leighton’s portrait of 1885 (private collection; on loan to Leighton House Museum, London).

fig. 10<br/>
G. F. Watts<br/>
<em>Mrs Andrew Hichens</em>, exh. 1879<br/>
oil on canvas; 26 x 21 in. (66 x 53.4 cm.)<br/>
Private collection, UK (&copy;  2014 Christie&rsquo;s Images Limited)<br/>

Families, identities, afterlives and Australian connections

May came to be one of Watts’s closest friends. In the 1880s, she and her husband built a substantial country house, Monkshatch, in Compton, Surrey.43 They introduced Watts and his wife to the county where he ended up living, just a short distance away. Andrew predeceased May, and ten or so years later in 1918 she married Hallam Tennyson, becoming his second wife and Lady Tennyson at the age of sixty-five. In 1899 Hallam had been appointed governor of South Australia, a post that took him and his family to Adelaide, where he lived from 1899 to 1902, until his promotion to the position of first governor-general of Australia, which saw him and his family move to Sydney. His role there (which he held until 1904) was commemorated in the portrait painted by the British artist Briton Rivière in England in 1908 (now in the National Library of Australia, Canberra).44 From 1918, May and Hallam took up residence at Farringford on the Isle of Wight, which she had first visited fifty years before. The environs of the house had also provided the setting for her full-length portrait by Watts. Although May’s second marriage occurred some fifteen years after Hallam departed from Australia, she had already come vicariously to this country even before the purchase of this painting by a Melbourne art collector in the 1970s.

Images of May can be found in a photograph album belonging to her brother Henry, who had lived in Western Australia since 1866 (fig. 11).45 Having given up the Prinsep land holdings in the 1870s, Henry went to work for the government and became Western Australia’s first Chief Protector of Aborigines. His family home, in Busselton, on the coast some way south of Perth, was named Little Holland House,46 in a touching reference to his past life. In the album, he arranged photographs brought from England and those sent to him, including many of May and their other siblings, as well as images showing his cousins and aunts. By placing these in the album, he kept the idea of the family alive across continents. Several pages are devoted to May. In tracing her life from childhood to adulthood, her brother was able to visualise within the pages of the album the past and present of the sister who lived far away. an independent art historian based in London.

fig. 11<br/>
Family album of Henry Prinsep<br/>
Prinsep Papers, State Library of Western Australia, Perth<br/>

The afterlife of the NGV’s painting illuminates the transnational progress of portrait images.47 Never exhibited in Watts or May’s lifetime, it remained with the artist until he presented it to May and her husband, Andrew; they owned it around 1911 when Mary Watts compiled her catalogue of Watts’s work.48 It seems most likely that Watts gave it to them as a wedding gift in 1874. It stayed with the descendants of the Prinsep family until it was sold in the 1970s to a dealer in Victorian art, Julian Hartnoll, who exhibited it in London in 1973.49 From here Melbourne businessman and collector, Frederick Davidson, acquired it, brought it to Australia and then generously presented it to the National Gallery of Victoria. So, the portrait of May Prinsep has most appropriately joined that of Tennyson. These two individuals knew each other well, especially on the Isle of Wight from the 1860s onwards. Now, in the galleries of the NGV, one might imagine them conversing across time and space about memories of Freshwater and Little Holland House.

Watts’s representations of Alfred Tennyson and May Prinsep demonstrate the artist’s range of portrait types. These two very different images reflect the identities the artist created for each – in one case for a man renowned as the poet laureate of England and in the other for a young girl whose peripatetic colonial background and virtual anonymity left her without any social identity at all, except that created through works of art. Watts’s portrait of the eminent Tennyson had to convey dignity and a sense of the past, even art historical precedents. With May, however, he could experiment. Neither case was a straightforward commission from a client. In painting portraits by choice, Watts had to deal with his own exacting standards for the genre of portraiture. In the later 1850s, painting Tennyson, the artist faced the challenge of capturing a highly identifiable individual laden with creative force and charisma. He had to satisfy the expectations of the poet’s admirers and family, and deal with his own complex ideas around painting great men.

With his portraits of May Prinsep in the 1860s and 1870s, Watts painted with no burden of expectation. With no sitter, parents or new husband as a client, he was not required to seek approval, but could explore his own methods of portraying beauty and experiment with unconventional treatment. In the process various identities were created for May. Her background meant she was free from extraneous associations, so Watts could prioritise artistic experiments. Here the artist moved portraiture beyond the boundaries of convention. The portrait of May is not the study of a beauty or even, given the expectations of the format, a grande dame in the grand manner. Neither is it in the mode of a society portrait. It shows a direct, unanimated, powerful form within a bleak windswept landscape that offers no consoling features. Watts’s full-length portrait of May, for which the NGV possesses the first realisation, is a bold experiment that seemingly alludes to her anonymous origins and orphan-like status, as she stands alone at a cliff edge, wrapped up against the blustery weather.

Dr Barbara Bryant is an independent art historian based in London.



The research project and resulting conference, ‘Human Kind: Transforming Identity in British and Australian Portraits 1700–1914’, took a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary approach to portraiture both in and beyond the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria. I would like to thank Vivien Gaston, Alison Inglis, Laurie Benson and Julius Bryant for their invaluable help in the course of the research and writing of this article.


Alison Inglis, ‘Aestheticism and Empire: the Grosvenor Intercolonial Exhibition in Melbourne, 1887’, in Kate Darian-Smith (ed.), Seize the Day: Exhibitions, Australia and the World, Monash University ePress, Melbourne, 2008.


I discussed some aspects of Watts’s portraits of Tennyson in Australia in the Ursula Hoff Lecture of 2014 at the University of Melbourne. The first is in the NGV; the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide has one of two portraits painted by Watts in 1890. In 1903 the Art Gallery of New South Wales, at the instigation of Hallam Tennyson, acquired a copy of Watts’s ‘The moonlight portrait’, by Ethel Case, copied under Watts’s eye and apparently with finishing touches by him.


A. C. Staples, ‘Prinsep, Henry Charles (Harry) (1844–1922)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, , published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed 3 Oct. 2017.


For a discussion of this aspect of Watts’s career, see my essay ‘G. F. Watts and the potential of portraiture’, in Barbara Bryant, G. F. Watts Portraits: Fame & Beauty in Victorian Society, National Portrait Gallery, London, 2004, pp. 11–25.


As quoted in ibid., p. 19, and see pp. 19ff for a further discussion.


ibid. no. 34.


This image appears in Henry Prinsep’s photograph album, held in the State Library of Western Australia, Perth (MN 773; Acc. 3150A). It would seem to be a copy of an original from an anonymous private collection. See reproduction in Malcolm Allwood, Henry Prinsep’s Empire: Framing a Distant Colony, Australian National University Lives Series in Biography, ANU Press, Canberra, 2014, p. 20.


See Anita Callaway & Joan Kerr, ‘Henry Charles Prinsep’, 1992 (updated 2011), Design & Art Australia Online, , accessed 11 Sep. 2018.


As Lady Constance Leslie noted, quoted in Mary Watts, George Frederic Watts: The Annals of an Artist’s Life, I, Macmillan and Co., London, 1912, p. 160.


For a portrait of Alice, see Bryant, no. 37.


Later still Watts built a house for himself and the Prinseps, named The Briary, in Freshwater (designed 1872 and completed by 1873–74).


Julian Cox & Colin Ford, Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs, Getty Publications, Los Angeles, 2003, nos. 391–440.


See ibid. for a series of portrayals of May taken from March to June 1866, nos. 391–408; others, not copyrighted or inscribed, are sometimes dated to 1864–66, but there is no documentation that Cameron photographed May before 1866.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s catalogue entry on Beatrice does not record it as coming from Watts’s collection, but the inscription makes it clear that Cameron gave it to him.


Marta Weiss, Julia Margaret Cameron: Photographs to Electrify You with Delight and Startle the World, MACK, London, 2015, pp. 36–40. Marta Weiss has demonstrated that at Watts’s urging Cameron mainly sent him her imperfect and flawed prints, i.e., ones she would not be able to sell, in order that he might comment upon them. In the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection alone there more than sixty-five.


For an illustration and discussion see Bryant, no. 40.


Watts also owned another image of May in profile (Victoria and Albert Museum), which is now considered to be by one of Cameron’s photographic mentors, Oscar Rejlander, who had visited the Isle of Wight to photograph Tennyson’s family and Cameron’s family in 1862 and 1863. There is still much to discover about photographic circles around Freshwater and Kensington. Watts’s own involvement in this area in the 1850s and 1860s will be the subject of my forthcoming article on photography and the Little Holland House circle.


From a letter of 13 March 1869, quoted in my extended discussion of this work, in Mark Bills & Barbara Bryant, G. F. Watts Victorian Visionary, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2008, no. 37.


Illustrated and discussed in my essay ‘Invention and reinvention: the art and life of G. F. Watts’, in Bills & Bryant, pp. 38–9.


The title in the printed Royal Academy catalogue is in fact an error, as according to a note in the Manchester Art Gallery’s collection file on the painting, there is a label on the reverse of the picture (such as artists provided when submitting works to the Royal Academy) with the title Miss May Prinsep (Manchester Art Gallery, collection files).


F. G. Stephens named and described it in The Athenaeum, 28 Dec. 1872, p. 873, as a work Watts planned to send to the Royal Academy in 1873.


Mary Watts’s ‘Manuscript Catalogue of Watts’s Works’ (c. 1911) in the Watts Gallery Archive lists both works on page 151 of volume 1, which covers subject paintings, under ‘The Ulster coat: portrait of Miss May Prinsep’. Both works are unillustrated. Often unreliable, Mary Watts notes the exhibition date as 1879 for the large version, when it was in fact 1873. She wrongly gives the date of execution as 1874. However there seems no reason to doubt her assertion that Watts worked on the picture while on the Isle of Wight (although his house The Briary was not ready to move into until 1874, so he can’t have painted the picture there, as she said, but rather when he was visiting with the Tennysons or Camerons, at some point prior to 1873). It is more likely that the conception of the work and the oil study stemmed from his time on the Isle of Wight; he probably painted the large picture at his studio in Kensington.


Writer Veronica Gould notes it was begun while Watts was staying in Bournemouth in 1873. However, this cannot be substantiated, and it overlooks the obvious fact that the full-length version was exhibited at the Royal Academy in May 1873 and was more or less complete by late 1872. See Veronica Gould, G. F. Watts: The Last Great Victorian, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2004, p. 113.


The painting has been in store for many years. I would like to extend my thanks to Hannah Williamson, Fine Art Curator, Manchester Art Gallery, who facilitated my visit to see the work in August 2016. The colour of digital image accompanying this essay is not accurate. Even with its discoloured varnish, it is still less blue and far more grey in tone. See the detail of this work reproduced with this essay for comparison.


The Gazette of Fashion, 1 Jan. 1870, n. p.


Watts’s article ‘On taste in dress’ was published in the leading monthly literary magazine, The Nineteenth Century, issue 13, 1883, pp. 45–57. He deplored the distortion of the female figure, arguing for a natural shape. He later expanded his ideas in ‘Women’s dress’, published in Aglaia: The Journal of the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union, Spring 1894, pp. 22–5. The latter article is reprinted in Rhian Addison & Hilary Underwood, Liberating Fashion: Aesthetic Dress in Victorian Portraits, exhibition catalogue, Watts Gallery, Guildford, 2015, pp. 75–80.


‘Academy rhymes. (From the margin of Mr Punch’s catalogue)’, Punch, or The London Charivari, 17 May 1873, p. 206.


The Athenaeum, 3 May 1873, p. 570.


The Graphic, 17 May 1873, p. 466.


The Illustrated London News, 10 May 1873, p. 446.


Art Journal, 1873, p. 237.


M. H. Spielmann noted Brown’s comment in his published lecture: G. F. Watts, R. A., O. M., as a Great Painter of Portraits: A Lecture (with Additions and Emendations) Delivered in the Memorial Hall, Manchester, on June 7th, 1905, Sherratt & Hughes, London, 1905, p. 40.


See Bryant, no. 54.


See Bryant, pp. 28–9 for a discussion of Watts’s study of and admiration for Reynolds’s portraits.


For a full discussion of this work, see Malcolm Warner, Friendship and Loss in the Victorian Portrait: May Sartoris by Frederic Leighton, Kimbell Masterpiece Series, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 2009. Leighton’s full-length portrait of Ellinor Guthrie (RA 1866; Yale Center for British Art) is a more immediate precedent but Leighton’s work relied on the example of Watts’s portrait of Jeanie Nassau Senior (RA 1858, Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton).


On the portraits Watts painted in Paris in 1855–56, see Bryant, nos. 26–27.


Millais exhibited Mrs Bischoffsheim, 1873 (Tate Britain, London), and Mrs Heugh 1872 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris); see Peter Funnell & Malcolm Warner, Millais: Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London, 1999, nos. 49, 50.


Art Journal, 1873, p. 237.


John Forbes White in The Contemporary Review, 1873, p. 274.


See Margaret F. MacDonald et al., Whistler, Women & Fashion, The Frick Collection, New York, in association with Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2003.


See illustration in Country Life, 13 June 1991, p. 106. At this time the picture was at Christopher Wood Gallery in London. Another portrait of May by her cousin Valentine is illustrated in Allwood, p. 109.


The extremely well-to-do Hichens worked at the family firm of Hichens, Harrison & Co., one of the oldest stockbroking companies in London. Andrew and May resided in a townhouse on Chester Street, off Grosvenor Place, in Belgravia. They had no children; even so, they commissioned a colossal country house in Surrey from architect George Devey in the mid 1880s. It was demolished in 1956.


For this portrait, see National Library of Australia, ‘Portrait of Hallam, Lord Tennyson’, Trove, National Library of Australia, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135275997/>view, accessed 12 Sep. 2018.


Research at the State Library of Western Australia in Perth in 2015 enabled me to study this photograph album from the Prinsep family papers.


For a photograph see Allwood, p. 294.


Indeed, one could trace the colonial migrations of the Prinsep and Tennyson families through their portraits by G. F. Watts.


Mary Watts, p. 151, lists it as being in the collection of Andrew Hichens. Since May and Andrew were friends, and had been neighbours of Mary Watts, this information can be regarded as accurate.


See no. 14, as Portrait of a young lady, with a provenance from ‘The Prinsep Family’, in Catalogue 28, February 13th – March 2nd 1973, Hartnoll & Eyre Ltd, London, 1973.