George Frederic Watts

Time, Death and Judgement


Not on display

George Frederic Watts 1817–1904
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2343 × 1676 mm
Presented by the artist 1900


This work is the third of three well-known large versions made by Watts of the composition Time, Death, and Judgement. It was worked upon constantly between 1889 and 1900 and was given by Watts in 1900 as part of a bequest to the Tate Gallery. The first version of Time, Death, and Judgement (originally titled Time and Death) was begun around 1870 and was bequeathed by Watts to the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa in 1886. The second large version was given by Watts to St. Paul's Cathedral in 1897, and is currently on loan to the Watts Gallery, Compton. Differences between these three large versions of Time, Death, and Judgement are few and relate merely to surface detail and handling rather than composition. A distinguishing feature of the Tate work is the exposed left leg of Time, which is fully draped in the two earlier versions. Smaller versions of the composition exist, such as that at the Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield.

The monumental, draped figures in Time, Death, and Judgement reveal the enduring influence of Greek sculpture on Watts's art. Watts's friend and biographer, Mrs Russell Barrington (d.1933) described these 'figures of heroic size' as 'sculpturesque in character, not hewn out of smooth, delicate marble, but out of a rough, enduring adamant' (Barrington, p.128). In Time, Death, and Judgement, Time carries the usual attribute of the scythe, but is a youthful male figure rather than than a bearded, old man: 'The eyes of Time are stony,' wrote Mrs Russell Barrington, 'with an unchangeable, never-failing youth; not cruel, only heedless of what may happen as he inevitably presses forward.' (Barrington, p.127). Time has linked hands with Death, a wan, female figure, whose lap 'is full of gathered flowers, buds, blossoms, faded leaves, all together, fulfilling', according to Barrington, '… her mysterious mission of gathering to herself the young, the old, the middle-aged, indiscriminately.' (Barrington, p.127). The figure of Judgement hovers above Time and Death ; she extends the scales of justice and carries a fiery sword, her face obscured to suggest impartiality. Moon and Sun rise and set to right and left. Of Time, Death, and Judgement, Watts wrote to Charles Rickards: 'Allegory is much out of favour now and by most people condemned, forgetting that spiritual and even most intellectual ideas can only be expressed by similes, and that words themselves are but symbols. The design 'Time and Death' is one of several suggestive compositions that I hope to leave behind me in support of my claim to be considered a real artist, and it is only by these that I wish to be known.' (quoted in M.S. Watts, George Frederick Watts: The Annals of An Artist's Life, London 1912, I, p.228).

Watts was a dedicated supporter of the work of Canon Barnett (1844-1913), director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, and his project to improve, through art, the lives of the poor people of London's East End. Watts's Time, Death, and Judgement was the picture by the artist that was most exhibited, discussed and admired by Barnett and Watts gave permission for it to be reproduced as a huge mosaic on the outside of St. Jude's Church, Whitechapel in 1885, where it hung above a public fountain. It was later moved to St. Giles-in-the-Fields Church School, Holborn when St. Jude's was demolished.

Further reading:
Mrs Russell Barrington, G.F. Watts: Reminiscences, London 1905, pp.92, 94, 112, 116, 118, 127-8.
Andrew Wilton and Robert Upstone (eds), The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1998, pp.263-5, no.123, reproduced (Ottawa version) p.264, in colour.
Dennis Lanigan and Douglas Schoenherr, A Dream of The Past: Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic Movement Paintings, Watercolours and Drawings from the Lanigan Collection, exhibition catalogue, University of Toronto Art Centre, Toronto 2000, pp.229-31.

Rebecca Virag
July 2001

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