Discovering a drawing of Julia Prinsep Stephen by George Frederick Watts
This is one of my favourite portraits of Julia Stephen so I wanted it for my Home Page, though it is rather dark. It seems to epitomise her elusive nature and her surface calm.
I first came across it in 2013 in the archives at the Watts Gallery, Compton, in Surrey. Following a major fundraising campaign and an award from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2006, the Gallery had undergone huge refurbishment of its buildings and its major collection of George Frederick Watts’ paintings, to safeguard their future, which had looked precarious. The Gallery was reopened in 2011, and the curators were then able to turn their attention to other areas needing care, including the many drawings which were in drawers in the archive, most of which had never been exhibited or published. To fund the work of renovating and cataloguing these drawings, Friends of the Gallery were asked to adopt a drawing. I was very pleased to be able to adopt Julia.
Watts first started drawing Julia when she was only three. He was then resident artist at Little Holland House in London, where Julia’s aunt, Sarah Prinsep, created a popular, bohemian salon. This drawing is undated, but from her appearance it is probably from 1865/6, when she was about 20, and around the time that her aunt Julia Margaret Cameron, the famous photographer took many astounding photographs of her. Although it is labelled Mrs Leslie Stephen, she did not marry him until 1878, so she was still Julia Jackson and about to marry her first husband Herbert Duckworth.
Dr Chloe Ward, in her beautiful and meticulously researched study, The Drawings of G. F. Watts, describes this ‘elegant chalk portrait head’, which was one of Watts’ informal drawings of friends:
Working quickly in black chalk and heightening in white, Watts chose to develop specific passages of the drawing, leaving others rough: the hair and collar are only hastily sketched in and Watts instead emphasises Mrs Stephen’s striking heavy-lidded eyes that were famously inherited by her daughter Virginia.1
I think that Watts also emphasises her long aquiline nose and sensual mouth which reveal dominant family genes. As I discuss in the Biography (Ch. 2), these were inherited by Julia from her French and Indian ancestors and bequeathed to many of her descendants.