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This winter, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village will celebrate the grand British tradition of portraiture through a series of exhibitions and events exploring the evolution of the genre from the 19th century to the present day.

Inspired by Watts Gallery’s founder, George Frederic Watts OM RA (1817 – 1904) – who in his own lifetime was recognised as one of the greatest portraitists of the Victorian age – the season opens with an exhibition of striking portraits and preparatory studies by Sir William Orpen KBE RA RHA (1878 – 1931).  William Orpen: Method & Mastery (19 November 2019 – 23 February 2020, Watts Gallery) will consider the dynamic and evolving artistic practice of one of Britain’s most innovative portrait painters and, using new research revealed by the latest technology – including samples of x-radiography and infra-red reflectography- the exhibition will provide a fresh interpretation of Orpen’s bravura technique.

Early works including Anatomical Study: Male Torso (1906, Tate Britain) and Nude Study (1906, Leeds Art Gallery) illuminate the young artist’s proficient understanding of human anatomy; Homage to Manet (1909, Manchester Art Gallery) shows the evolution of the artist from student to master and in A Grenadier Guardsman (1917, Imperial War Museum) and the renowned The Refugee (1918, Imperial War Museum)– Orpen was the longest serving official WWI artist – the artist’s technical skill is further demonstrated through his masterly evocation of light and colour.

Returning to London, Orpen became the leading portraitist of the day, immortalising on canvas the most distinguished aristocratic and society figures and becoming President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 1924.  When the Society was founded in 1891, G F Watts was amongst its earliest members.

The Show Goes On: A Theatre of Portraits by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters (11 January 2020 – 23 February 2020, Watts Contemporary) brings to Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village work by the current members of the RP.  Cabaret and showmen, actors, comedians, musicians, dancers and playwrights all appear in a series of beguiling portraits by 21 artists including Society President Richard Foster – with his drawing of Downton Abbey creator Lord Fellowes – Tim Benson, Peter Kuhfeld, Simon Davis, James Hague, Anthony Williams, John Wonnacott, Robbie Wraith and Melissa Scott-Miller – who will, for the first time, show her portrait of Suzanna Hamilton, the great-granddaughter of William Orpen.

Sammy Davis Jnr, John Osborne, Tilda Swinton and David Morrissey rub shoulders with a host of other stars, captured in stunning pictures which carry the tradition forward, showing how these contemporary artists use the rigour of drawing, a depth of understanding for colour and tone and the patterns and rhythms of composition to create stunning likenesses.

The exhibition will be accompanied by Portraiture Now: The Legacy of William Orpen’s Painting in Portraiture Today, a panel discussion including RP members Peter Kuhfeld, winner of the Ondaatje Prize for portraiture 2019, and Anastasia Pollard as well as Charlie Schaffer, winner of this year’s BP Portrait Prize.

Throughout the season, there will be a series of contemporary art interventions by Louise Grundy, Artist in Residence at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village.  Louise is best known for her Ancestry Heads project, a series of sculptural heads depicting the artist’s ancestors using photographs, birth, death and marriage certificates.

At Watts Gallery, Louise will make art inspired by Watts’s Hall of Fame portrait series – highlights of which are on display in the Historic Galleries – and by the two exhibitions.

Dr Cicely Robinson, Brice Curator of Watts Gallery, said:

“Taking G F Watts’s legacy as a leading portraitist as our inspiration, our autumn exhibition explores the experimental and innovative art practice of one of Britain’s most significant portrait painters – William Orpen. Featuring major loans from public and private collections, this exhibition considers the intricacies of Orpen’s technique, both as a painter and accomplished draughtsman. Encompassing his training, evolving art practice and materials, this exhibition explores what it was – in addition to a phenomenal artistic talent – that enabled him to create such profoundly arresting portraits.”

Richard Foster, President of The Royal Society of Portrait Painters, said:

“The Royal Society of Portrait Painters are delighted to be showing at Watts Gallery at the same time as Sir William Orpen, one of our Past Presidents.”

“The Royal Society of Portrait Painters provides a forum for a wide selection of painters and painting, and enables both painters and the public to see what is going on at any one time and to compare and evaluate the work, hopefully with an open mind!  ‘ I like it or I don’t ‘ only goes so far!”

A series of talks, workshops and family activities run throughout the season.  For further information, please visit

William Orpen: Method & Mastery has been co-curated by Brice Chief Curator Dr Cicely Robinson, Curatorial Trainee Abbie Latham and De Laszlo Paintings Conservator Sally Marriott.


The Royal Society of Portrait Painters supports the art of portraiture by offering a personal commissions service.  Watts Gallery Trust is grateful to the Society for the donation it will make to the Trust’s pioneering Art for All learning programme for holding this exhibition at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village.         @WattsGallery         facebook/thewattsgallery