Artist Spotlight: Discovering the forgotten Frances Watt

Acquiring a body of work as substantial as that of Frances Watt, there would normally be a certain amount of readily available information about the artist. The internet, being the source for worldwide information on the most obscure subjects, places and people, could lead you to assume someone, somewhere will have written something. It is wholly intriguing therefore that a search on Watt brings up practically nothing. As one auction house manager put it: it is ‘like she never existed’. I am compelled to explore Watt a little more and try to build up a clearer picture of the artist: the life and the work.

What appear to be early sketches by Watt show her copying paintings by Rembrandt, Reynolds, Rubens, Manet – a host of greats – in drawings actually annotated ‘at the National Gallery’. We know that Watt attended Hornsey School of Art (1946) and the Byam Shaw School of Drawing and Painting. She lived the majority of her life in London, at Southwood Lawn Road in Highgate. She does not appear to have isolated herself from, or rejected, the art establishment. She exhibited works at the Royal Academy in London, and at other institutions including The Glasgow Institute at Paisley Art Institute and at Kensington Artists Group. Today, Watt has two works in public collections: Interior of Lloyds, 1963 (City of London Corporation) and Park with a Boating Lake, 1952 (Bruce Castle Museum, Tottenham).

Watt’s big break apparently came when she was commissioned by the Council of the Stock Exchange to record the daily life in the Square Mile. This commission seemingly suited Watt, seen in the finesse of the works, as well as the sheer quantity. The paintings are largely monochrome – grey, black and white – perhaps a result of their ‘documentary’ function and the fact that many of the pictures were intended for the Times newspaper, where colour would not feature. But it does also seem apt for the subject, the city traders, the trading floor, and also the city architecture; cool, stylish and confidently executed, they seem to embody the 1960s, masculine world they depict, where deals are done and stakes are high.

From what we know of Watt’s life, it is hard to imagine the artist thrust into the masculine world of the City: she grew up under the gaze of her cleric father, the Reverend Thomas M Watt, DD (minister of the Scots Church in Geneva) and she always lived with her mother. Her portraits of traders depict a type, somewhat anonymous, lacking intimacy though acutely observed. Her more fully worked up paintings are reminiscent of Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) in the Chicago Art Institute – a painting which famously captures the anonymity and alienation of the newly modern city:

Yet it seems documenting and observing is what Watt does best. The attention to detail in a study such as ‘hats’ show Watt replaying a motif, perhaps keen to get it right, and also to capture something ‘essential’ about the subjects she is studying.

We know from separate portrait studies, outside of the City commission, that she was highly sensitive to the subtle way that emotions manifest as expressions, and in turn how to render this on paper. There are some fascinating pencil annotations on her drawings. In a study of an ‘expression of love and gratitude’ she examines down to the detail of the eyelids and upper lip: ‘slight puckering of lower lids… upper lip in a slight arc’.

She names another drawing ‘Study for a look of disappointment and slight shock’ – two subtle emotions it is hard to imagine how they would look combined, let alone how to capture them with a pencil.

The more personal and intimate side of Watt is perhaps seen in her paintings of religious subjects, which are dramatically different from her City illustrations. We see a style which is immensely free and expressive, whilst still finely accomplished. These works feature vibrant colour, immediately setting them apart from the City works, and they draw more on imagination than observation. Again, if we speculate about the life, we might imagine that having a father and uncle as prominent churchmen could have been an austere influence on Watt but her religious images seem to come from a place of passion not intimidation.

I have come to feel that the style of Watt’s work does not quite gel with what we know of the life and the quality and confidence of her work does not gel with her obscurity. But ultimately perhaps, we know very little for sure and the work must speak for itself.