The Court of Death With Alison Smith, Curator (19th Century British Art), Tate Britain "The painting on the wall behind me is The Court Of Death. It's one of the largest of Watts' compositions and exists like many of his other paintings in a number of different versions. This was originally intended for the chapel of a paupers' cemetery. But this one actually ended up in the Tate gallery. I think it's also because Watts wanted to address as broad an audience as possible, to speak about the universality of death. Watts was quite unusual in the way he viewed death, he rejects the traditional skull and crossbones, memento mori imagery, and tries to cast death in a more positive or affirmative light." "So in this painting, as in various others, death is often shown to be a female and nurturing figure. In fact in his own writings Watts spoke of death as being a gentle nurse who says 'Now children, you must go to bed and wake up in the morning.' I think it's in that particular role that he sees death in this particular painting." "Of course, in terms of its scale, it's reminiscent of the large altarpieces he would have seen in Italian churches. And also perhaps in the triangular composition and the different hierarchy of groups. It also relates to funeral monuments too. It's a very centralised composition, very easy to read. In the centre, you have this very sort of austere, impassive figure of death, death is the great unknown. This is an age of religious doubt and we have to recall people who have lost their faith in traditional things and there being a resurrection. So the aftermath is a mystery." "But I think the ideas that this court is assembled on the ruins of the riches of the world. And into the court come all these different aspects of humanity, from the well to do to the most wretched. And so you have a duke, for example, coming in his ermine robes, laying down his crown. A knight laying down his sword. A man on crutches being one of the poor. A female figure, resting her head on a funerary shroud." "They're all welcoming death as a respite really, or a chance to lay down the burdens of life and to have sleep. And then there's this little element of the cherub or the baby in the corner, who's playing with the funerary cloth, as a swaddling cloth, not being aware of the whole existence of death, or the presence of death rather. So it's really a meditation on death, but really seeking to show people that death is not something to be dreaded or to be feared." "Watts seems to be saying, life is sort of pretty hopeless, and all we've got to look forward to is death. That's rather a pessimistic way of interpreting it. But I think given Watts' social conscience, I think he wanted not to address just the poor elements of society, but society in general, and to say to the richer elements that you may want to accumulate wealth, but the end result is going to be the same for you as it is for these other classes."