GEORGE FREDERIC WATTS (1817-1904) was a sculptor and a painter. I first became acquainted with him and his work when I was writing my book about west London (“Beyond Marylebone and Mayfair: Exploring West London”). My interest in him increased when I was writing a book about the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879). Between about 1850 and 1870, he lived with Thoby and Sara Prinsep’s family, about whom I have written in another book, in the now-demolished Little Holland House in Kensington. Not far from where he lived, there are two bronze statues by Watts: a portrait of Lord Holland in Holland Park, and the equestrian sculpture “Physical Energy” in Kensington Gardens. While living with the Prinseps, Watts met Julia Cameron, who was Sara’s sister. Cameron lived at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight in a house that neighboured the property where the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson lived. Watts, who had helped the Prinseps rent Little Holland House, was a frequent visitor to Freshwater, where he met and socialised with both Tennyson and Cameron. Watts, who was briefly married to the actress Ellen Terry, painted Tennyson several times and was himself photographed by Cameron. And Watts painted at least one portrait of Cameron – now in the National Portrait Gallery.
Apart from the numerous paintings and sculptures created by Watts, one of his most unusual works is neither a sculpture nor a painting – it is what one might describe as a precursor of Conceptual Art. Although attractive, the concept that it conveys – self-sacrifice – is more important than its appearance. Located in Postman’s Park, which extends from Aldersgate Street to King Edward Street, it is a memorial to ordinary people who lost their lives during peacetime whilst trying to save those of others. Created in 1898 but conceived by Watts in 1887, the work of art is called “Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice”. It consists of a stretch of wall protected from the elements by a wooden loggia, which was designed by Ernest George who helped design the buildings at the Golders Green Crematorium. On the wall there are memorials to those who sacrificed their lives whilst rescuing others. Each memorial is made of ceramic tiles and records the name of the hero and a brief account of how he or she met their deaths. The first four memorials were designed and made by William de Morgan. Later, others were made by the Royal Doulton pottery. There is room for 120 memorials but by 1931, only 53 had been placed. In 2009, the Diocese of London permitted another memorial to be added.
Watts supervised this project. When he died, his widow, his second wife Mary, took over its supervision, but after a while she lost interest in it as she began concentrating on the management of the Watts Mortuary Chapel and the Watts Gallery – both near Compton in Surrey. The memorial is in Postman’s Park, which was formerly the graveyard of the nearby St Botolphs Aldersgate Church and is, I am guessing, maintained by the Church of England or a local authority.
The memorials are both fascinating and moving. Here are a few examples:
“Mary Rogers. Stewardess of the Stella. Mar 30 1899.Self sacrificed by giving up her life belt and voluntarily going down in the sinking ship.”
“Herbert Peter Cazaly. Stationer’s clerk. Who was drowned at Kew in endeavouring to save a man from drowning. April 21, 1889”
“Herbert Maconoghu. School boy from Wimbledon aged 13. His parents absent in India, lost his life in vainly trying to rescue his two school fellows who were drowned at Glovers Pool, Croyde, North Devon. August 28, 1882”
According to Wikipedia:
“Maconoghu was actually Herbert Moore McConaghey, the son of Matthew and Martha McConaghey, and he was born in Mynpoorie in India where Matthew was working as a settlement officer for the Imperial Civil Service,”
Standing amidst these memorials is a small sculpture depicting Watts. Its inscription reads:
“The Utmost for the Highest. In memoriam George Frederic Watts, who desiring to honour heroic self-sacrifice placed these records here.”
Luckily for us, Watts’s unusual creation has been kept in good condition. Since 1972, it has been a protected structure. Unlike most of the art made by Watts, the memorial in Postman’s Park was an idea created by him, rather than something he made with his own hands. I had seen the memorial several times in the past, but today, the 17th of May 2023, I took my wife to see it for the first time. A few weeks earlier, while visiting the Tate Britain, we had seen an art installation by Susan Hiller. It incorporated photographs of 41 of the memorials on Watts’s wall of memory in Postman’s Park. Having seen this, we wanted to see the original, and were not disappointed.
You can discover more about Julia Margaret Cameron, Tennyson, the Prinsep family, and Watts in my book “Between Two Islands: Julia Margaret Cameron and her Circle”, which is available from Amazon: