Exhibition catalogue text

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


75 The Dweller in the Innermost c.1885-6

Oil on canvas 106 x 69.8 (41 3/4 x 27 1/2)
Prov: As no.49
Exh: Grosvenor Gallery 1886 (10, as The Souls' Prism); Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, 1887; St Jude's, Whitechapel 1890 (168, as The Dweller in the Infinite); Munich 1893 (1639); St Jude's, Whitechapel 1894 (156); New Gallery 1896 (131); Whitechapel 1974 (40)
Lit: F.G. Stephens, Athenaeum, 1 May 1886, pp.591-2; 'Royal Birmingham Society of Artists', Art Journal, 1887, p.350; Macmillan 1903, p.263; Barrington 1905, p.162; Crane 1907, pp.252-3; MS. Cat., I, p.40; Watts 1912, II, pp.57, 180

Tate Gallery. Presented by the artist 1897

The Dweller in the Innermost, with its strangely spectral colouring and obscure meaning, is one of Watts's most obvious forays into Symbolist imagery. First entitled The Souls' Prism, it appeared at the annual Grosvenor Gallery exhibition of 1886 along with Hope (no.76) [for another version, see Tate Gallery N01640]. A winged female figure stares out of the picture. She wears a greenish dress with a square neckline trimmed with feathers which as they go round the back create the shape of a bizarre Van Dyck collar. At the centre of this collar, a heart-shaped brooch appears. Her headdress, akin to that associated with Mercury, consists of two small red wings, one on each side; a delicate fillet encircles her head, at its centre a shining star of white. Massive wings rise behind her, lending a sense of importance to the figure, as she sits within a large oval mandorla of palpitating orange light. But who is this strange figure? Upon her lap is a row of arrows, but without a bow, so she cannot be a cupid; also one sees a silver trumpet, yet with her contemplative, rather than celebratory, demeanour she can hardly be the allegorical figure of Fame.

This painting is one of Watt's new designs of the 1880s, created in the wake of the artist's retrospective at the Grosvenor Gallery, when he gained renewed confidence in his abilities to reach out to the public with his art. An experiment in new imagery, it presents a far-from-clear message. While the design came about within a short space of time in the winter of 1885-6, Watts wrestled with its title over the seven years following its first exhibition in 1886, indicating some uncertainty over its intended meaning.

Watts, true to his usual habit, invited friends to the studio few months before the summer exhibition, seeking their opinion on his new work. Walter Crane (see no.61), whose judgement Watts valued highly (he also owned Crane's Renaissance of Venus, Tate Gallery [N02920]), was so struck with the then untitled image that he composed a sonnet, perhaps having in mind Rossetti's pairings of picture and poem. In his letter thanking Crane Watts hinted at the meaning he sought:

If you would like to print the sonnet I shall be very pleased for the picture will admit of no explanation or name in the Grosvenor catalogue. Indeed it is but a stuttering that I should never have expected even you to follow or make any sense of. I myself can hardly give a mental form to the confused ideas which it endeavours in some slight way to focus, vague murmurings, rather than fancies which constantly beat me and rather prevent any kind of work than aid.
(Crane 1907, p.252)
The sonnet had a wide circulation in tandem with the painting, first at the instigation of F.G. Stephens who included it in the Athenaeum (wrongly calling the painting The Souls' Prison) and later when it was printed in Grosvenor Notes.
Star-steadfast eyes that pierce the smouldering haze
Of Life and Thought, whose fires prismatic fuse
The palpitating mists with magic hues
That stain the glass of Being, as we gaze,
And mark in transit every mood and phase,
Which, sensitive, doth take or doth refuse
The lights and shadows Time and Love confuse,
When, lost in dreams, we thread their wandering maze.

Fledged, too, art thou with plumes on brow and breast
To bear thee, brooding o'er the depths unknown
Of human strife, and wonder, and desire;
And silence, wakened by thy horn alone,
Behind thy veil behold a heart on fire,
Wrapped in the secret of its own unrest.

If, as Watts indicated, the painting was untitled at this time, some months before the exhibition, then it seems that Crane's sonnet with its reference to 'prismatic fire' inspired the first title, The Souls' Prism. Allusions to Watts's earlier paintings occur with Time and Love, but it is the reference to the 'veil' (see pp.72-3) which opens out the context to other-worldly matters so much a part of Symbolist thinking.

Crane sent Watts a copy of his ambitious illustrated poem, The Sirens Three, published by Macmillan in December 1885 (shortly after publication in The English Illustrated Magazine). On the back of Crane's letter (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) proffering this gift, Watts sketched out details for the headdress of The Dweller in the Innermost. He may well have been particularly receptive to some of the ideas and images contained in The Sirens Three, which is itself a fascinating example of Symbolist tendencies in British art. This book, integrating text and illustrations belongs to the tradition of William Blake (and indeed some of the imagery is notably Blakean), but The Sirens Three is more directly allied to the recent 'symbolical' works of Watts. The visual imagery of Crane's illustrations, with youthful allegorical types, the direct descendants of Watts's figures in Love and Death, heralds a distinctly Symbolist mode. The enigmatic figures populate a strange land filled with symbols, resulting in an atmosphere replete with mystery. The fully worked out programme of The Sirens Three provides a cast of allegorical characters as the drama unfolds in Time's House, with Hope surviving as the poem draws to a close. As a decorative artist, Crane was attuned to details as a way of enriching his invented Symbolist style with, for example, hovering spheres and loose, cascading hair merging into waves. His reference to the 'man's winged brain' relates to Watts's conception of the head of The Dweller in the Innermost.

As Crane fulfilled the role of painter-poet in the spirit of Blake and Rossetti, he also forged some distinctly odd images within the format of this illustrated book. Crane's desire to illuminate Watts's untitled picture can be seen in the context of his own efforts at uniting word and image in The Sirens Three. Both artists were attuned to a new kind of non-naturalistic imagery, taking a mystical view, as can be detected in Crane's sonnet, where the images of light and colour, 'palpitating mists', 'magic hues', as reflected light, provide a verbal parallel to Watts's painting.

Watts found the title The Souls' Prism an unsatisfactory elucidation of the 'vague murmurings' he sought to convey. A geometrical prism is nowhere to be seen in the work, and the title was regularly misread as The Soul's Prison. In the autumn after the exhibition, Watts carried out a large red chalk drawing of the subject (Watts Gallery, Compton) and to Mrs Barrington he wrote 'what can she be called? "The Daughter of Duty and Introspection"'. Mrs Watts indicated that the artist also considered the possibility of the title Spirit of the Ages; when Watts exhibited the painting in Birmingham in 1887 without a title, one writer supposed that the 'weird mysterious figure, with gleaming eyes' bore the title Spirit of the Ages the previous year. By 1890, Watts arrived at The Dweller in the Infinite, and by the time it went to Munich in 1893, its title took final form.

In 1896, when the painting was included in the massive exhibition of Watts's work at the New Gallery, to which the artist himself contributed, it appeared in the catalogue with the following note: 'Conscience, winged, dusk-faced, and pensive, seated facing, within a glow of light; on her forehead she bears a shining star, and on her lap lie the arrows that pierce through all disguise, and the trumpet which proclaims truth to the world'. In the introduction to the catalogue, as if realising that the esoteric meaning of this work (among others) required further explanation, he added 'the vague figure may be vaguely called conscience'. Macmillan (whose book Watts read through before publication) added a further gloss on the meaning of the work in 1903 seeing the figure 'who sits enthroned as judge in the heart of each man, and from whose eyes, which are as a flame of fire, no sin can be hidden'. The notions of truth and conscience seem joined together in a figure who is more mystical than judgemental. Watts's technique enhanced such qualities, as a network of feathery brushstrokes allowed atmospheric effects of light, almost an iridescence, to create a convincing sense of an ethereal creature hovering in space.

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.199-201 no.75, reproduced in colour p.199