Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910


125 'The All-Pervading' 1887-c.1893

Oil on canvas 162.6 x 109.2 (64 x 43)
Prov: Collection of the artist; bequeathed by him to the Tate Gallery as one of the additions to the original Watts Gift 1899
Exh: New Gallery 1896 (129); Munich 1897 (according to MS. Cat.; exh. cat. not traced)
Lit: Macmillan 1906, pp.67-8 (on the small oil version), 189-193; MS. Cat., I, p.2; Watts 1912, II, pp.104-5, 173, 230 (on the small oil version)

Tate Gallery. Presented by the artist 1897

According to the artist's wife, Watts conceived 'The All-Pervading' during his stay at Sliema on Malta in late 1887, a visit which also inspired the Symbolist seascape Neptune's Horses (no.61). The initial impulse for 'The All-Pervading' lay not in the natural environment but in Watts's observation of the play of light created by the glass beads and drops of an elaborate chandelier in the drawing room he used as a studio. One must deduce that these reflections suggested the motif, described by Mrs Watts as 'the solemn and mystic figure holding the universe in hands that encircle the sphere'. The subject developed logically from the recent Dweller in the Innermost (no.75), Watts's visualisation of man's conscience as a higher force.

Back in London, Watts worked on 'The All-Pervading' over the next few years. It was 'especially worked on' (Watts 1912, II, p.173) in the studio whilst he painted the portrait of Lady Katherine Thynne, carried out in 1890 and completed for the Royal Academy exhibition in the spring of 1891. At the same time, he used a variation of the design for The Recording Angel (no.106). Probably the oil was more or less completed by 1893 (but with some additional painting c.1896; fig.43 on p.73) when Watts drew the composition in red chalk (now unlocated). Clearly, all these angel subjects comprised an informal group in his mind as he strove to articulate and express his thoughts on the universe. Yet the meaning of 'The All-Pervading' has remained elusive. At least one writer found it a picture 'from which we are at first inclined to turn away with impatience and even dislike' (Macmillan 1903, p.189). Indeed, Watts may well have kept it for some years because it looked more comfortable in his own gallery than it ever would have in a mixed public exhibition.

Watts finally considered it ready for public viewing at the time of his retrospective show at the New Gallery in 1896. His own contributions to the catalogue provide the Wrst direct clues as to his intentions. Two related explanations appeared: in the preface (p.8) he wrote: 'The figure with the Globe of the Systems may be called the Spirit that pervades the immeasurable expanse'; while the catalogue entry speaks of 'The all-pervading Spirit of the Universe represented as a winged figure, seated, holding in her lap the "Globe of Systems"'.

The spirit appears seated and suspended in a misty expanse of space. Her weightlessness defies gravity, announcing her removal from normal earthly constraints. Heavy draperies swathe the figure, preventing any individualised reading of her body and distancing her from the observer. Her huge scale commands attention. The antecedents for such monumental seated female figures are Michelangelo's Sibyls on the Sistine Ceiling about which Watts wrote in 1889 (while working on 'The All-Pervading'): 'the Prophets and Sibyls ... are on a level with the noblest poetry' (Watts 1912, III, pp.230-1). There was also a thematic link between the sibyls who gazed into the future and Watts's spirit, whose 'globe of systems' seems to hover between her hands, its edges dissolved in a green haze.

The suggestion of a crystal-ball reader is perhaps one way that Watts's interest in spiritualism, established by his election to the Society for Psychical Research in 1884 (see p.72), seeped into his art. From the association with the later Sower of the Systems (no.134) and from some reliable commentators, we know that for Watts the 'systems' referred to stars and galaxies spread throughout the universe. Upon the sphere one can detect dots and trails of light like shooting stars. It is possible to imagine how the star-like configurations of the scattered reflections from the crystal chandelier may have set the artist thinking. scientific matters and men of science had long interested Watts. Particularly relevant in this context was his friendship with Sir John Herschel, the astronomer, who frequented Mrs Prinsep's salon at Little Holland House, in the gardens of which he spotted what was known as 'the great comet' (probably Donati's comet of 1858 rather than 1857 as Mrs Watts noted). When Watts drew a portrait of Herschel (Watts 1912, I, p.203) he left the eyes as compelling voids as if to convey the impossibility of truly seeing all the secrets of the universe. Watts also befriended another astronomer, Sir James South, whose home in Campden Hill he visited to peer through a telescope strong enough to view Saturn and its rings. These personal links with real 'star-gazers' seem to have had an impact on the artist's visual vocabulary as he sought to convey the immensity of the universe.

The figure with the 'all-pervading' vision gazes into her globe of systems, looking into the future and into infinite space. Her contained pose and calm demeanour seem somewhat undermined by the blank expression upon her face and the unreality of the green tones. Although the notion of a pervading spirit might connote benevolence and reassurance, Watts's picture, with the blackish depths of its background, spectral lighting effects, and shadowy forms, instead suggests the uncertainty and even the disturbing qualities of the unknown, qualities which render it quintessentially Symbolist.

Watts always considered 'The All-Pervading' as part of his group for the nation and in 1899, apparently after exhibiting it in Munich where a taste for Watts's 'Symbolical' paintings was already established (see no.77), he finally sent it to the Tate Gallery to join the Watts Gift.

Watts completed a smaller version in 1904, which was set within an arched compartment, to serve as a secular altarpiece for the Watts Chapel at Compton where it remains.

Barbara Bryant

Published in:
Andrew Wilton, Robert Upstone, and others, The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.267-8 no.125, reproduced in colour p.267