Renowned as one of the great portrait painters of the later Victorian era, Watts was also active as a sculptor. In his day he won the nickname of ‘England’s Michelangelo’ due to his virtuosity as a painter, draughtsman and sculptor. Watts turned to sculpture in the late 1860s and, in the wake of his continued success, he built and opened a gallery at his residence in Melbury Road in 1881. In 1891 he settled in Surrey where the Watts Gallery now contains a representative collection of his works.

Watts’ relatively modest sculptural output became very influential among his contemporaries when he displayed the still unfinished marble of Clytie at the Royal Academy in 1868. It received such great acclaim that it was hailed as the pioneer of the New Sculpture movement by the revered art critic, Edmund Gosse while both William Michael Rossetti and Algernon Swindburne made adulatory comments on the bust in their joint Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition on 1868.

Clytie was Watts’s first large sculpture. In his Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid tells of an ocean nymph named Clytie, who fell in love with the sun-god Apollo. When he deserted her, she was changed into a sunflower that turns its head to follow the sun on its daily course from east to west. Watts shows her metamorphosing into a flower, while also suggesting movement over time through the musculature and torsion of the body. The work’s visual power is indebted to Michelangelo whom Watts studied as a young man in Italy. In reference to Clytie, Watts wrote in a letter to William Gladstone:
“I much desire the good opinion of my bust and must explain that my aim in this first essay has been to get flexibility, impression of colour and largeness of character, rather than purity and gravity - qualities I own to be extremely necessary to sculpture, but which, being made, as it seems to me, exclusively the objects of the modern sculptor, have deadened his senses to some other qualities making part - often glories - of ancient art, and this has resulted in bare and cold work.”

Watts showed the nymph with her bust encased by broad leaves, looking over her shoulder to catch the last glimpse of the setting sun, her head bent sharply to the right. A few years later with the bust of Daphne (Tate), whose inspiration also comes from the Metamorphoses, the artist would return to the idea of transformation.

A few version of the bust of Clytie exist. A plaster is in the Metropolitan Museum, New York and another one, with mold lines, is in the Art Institute in Chicago. A bronze is in the collection of the Tate while the Watts Gallery owns three busts of Clytie, in bronze, plaster and terracotta. The marble version, purchased from G.F. Watts by Lord Battersea, is owned by the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London. George Eliot owned a cast of Clytie about which she wrote: “The Bust looks grander, grander and grander in my eyes now I can turn to it from time to time”.
- Watt’s personal collection
- Lillian Chapman, his adopted daughter
- Bought from her by Anton Lock in the 1950s
- Bought from him by David Loshak, author of George Frederic Watts 1817-1904
- By descent until 2014
- George Frederic Watts 1817-1904, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, December 1954 – January 1955, cat. 157
- G. S. Haight, “George Eliot and Watt’s Clytie”, Yale University Library Gazette, April 1982, pp. 65-69
Height 78.50 cm (30.91 inches)
Painted plaster
Signed G.F. Watts
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