This important picture, one of Watts's most ambitious and uncompromising essays in symbolic landscape, was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1885. Ararat is the mountain on which Noah's Ark traditionally came to rest as the waters of the Flood subsided. Rising to a height of 17,000 feet above sea level, it is an extinct volcanic massif in extreme eastern Turkey, overlooking the point at which the frontiers of Iran, Armenia and Turkey itself converge.
Watts presumably saw the mountain in the autumn of 1856 when he visited Asia Minor at the invitation of (Sir) Charles Newton to take part in his excavation of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. The picture, however, did not materialise for nearly thirty years, by which time the subject had acquired a visionary quality that owes as much to memory and imagination as to any sketch made on the spot. In whatever conditions Watts may have seen the mountain, he now presents it as if by night, its mighty form lit only by a single star.
Mary Watts, the artist's widow and hagiographer, gave a characteristic interpretation of the picture in her manuscript catalogue of his work, claiming that in it 'may be traced a theme which runs through all his symbolic pictures, one which reveals (his) profound belief in the Love which envelopes the whole universe'. Other expressions of this 'belief', she continued, included such disparate works as Time and Oblivion, Chaos, The Court of Death and Love and Life, the prime version of which was exhibited with Ararat at the Grosvenor in 1885. Today we are more likely to be struck by the picture's formal and iconographic qualities; for it would be hard to find a better example of Watts's minimalism, his ability to take the simplest motif and endow it with powerful symbolic force. Often deployed in the context of landscape, this capacity is one of the most remarkable features of his work, as well as being virtually unique in Victorian art.
Perhaps surprisingly, reviewers of the Grosvenor exhibition were quick to appreciate the pictures's adventurousness and depth. The Times called it 'an ideal landscape ... among the most beautiful of those studies of mountains in which (the artist) delights'. But a more perceptive comment is found in the Spectator. Having criticised some of Watts's other contribution that year, the writer went on: '(But) there is no doubt about the beauty of the blue rocky hills, rising out of a bluer sky, which he has called "Ararat". It is one of those pictures of which Mr Watts alone has the secret, which is at once severe and beautiful, full of high thought and intense dignity. No one but a great figure-painter could paint landscape of this kind; the scene appears like the revelation of a landscape's personality, a conception of the spirit of the place more than an actual record of its details'.
The picture was bought direct from Watts by William Carver of Kersal, Manchester. Little is known of this collector, but it is reasonable to supppose that he was inspired by his fellow Mancunian Charles Hilditch Rickards, a businessman who became Watts's greatest patron, owning some sixty examples of his work by the time he died in 1887. In 1880 his pictures by Watts were exhibited at the Manchester Institution, the artist's first one-man exhibition, and perhaps it was this in partictular that fired Carver's enthusiasm.
Whatever the case, Carver lent two of his Wattes, including Ararat, to the Royal Jublilee Exhibition held in Manchester in 1887, and no fewer than thirteen appeared in his posthumous sale at Christie's in March 1890. They included two more landscapes, Rain Passing Away and The Rainbow, suggesting that Carver was particularly fond of this aspect of Watts's work. There were also versions of two of the artist's most famous compositions, Love and Death and Hope, as well as the four Riders of the Apocalypse, destined to be split up at the sale but later reunited by a Watts enthusiast and bequeathed to the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, in 1923. But the most interesting work in the present context was The Dove that returned not again, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1877 and sold in these Rooms on 24 June 1998, lot 36 (fig. 1). In every sense this picture made a pair to Ararat, being another 'Flood' subject, another remarkable example of Watts's minimalism, and another narrow upright canvas. It seems highly likely that Carver saw them as pendants and hung them accordingly.
The picture's next owner was Douglas Freshfield (1845-1934), the well-known geographer and mountaineer. Mrs Watts's catalogue implies that he acquired it in 1890, but as it was bought at the Carver sale by Agnew's, presumably they were either bidding on his behalf or he bought it from them after the sale.
A man of private means, Freshfield was a pillar of such organisations as the Royal Geographical Society, the Geographical Association and the Alpine Club, of all of which he served as President. He also edited their journals and was a prolific author himself. Climbing mountains and Near-Eastern travel were his particular passions, and both were reflected in his purchase of Ararat. For centuries no one had attempted to scale the mountain, local tradition maintaining that the Ark still rested on its summit and that God had forbidden anyone to violate such sacred ground. The legend, however, was no match for nineteenth-century empiricism. A German team made the first recorded ascent in 1829, and many others followed, including Freshfield in 1868. In his book Travels in the Central Caucasus and Bashan, published the following year, he described the impact the mountain made on him and his companions. 'It stands perfectly isolated from all the other ranges, with the still more perfect cone of Little Ararat (a typical volcano) at its side. Seen thus early in the season (May), with at least 9,000 feet of snow on its slopes, from a distance and height well calculated to permit the eye to take in its true proportions, we agreed that no single mountain we knew presented such a magnificent and impressive appearance as the American Giant'.
Watts and Freshfield were almost certainly acquainted. A man of wide cultural interests, Freshfield was a close friend of Tennyson, the Poet Laureate, who had known Watts ever since Mrs Prinsep had lionised them at Little Holland House in the 1850s. John Ruskin, with whom Freshfield corresponded on Alpine matters, was another mutual friend. Yet while we can find plenty of reasons why Freshfield acquired the picture, it is not clear how long he kept it. When it appeared in Watts's retrospective exhibition at the New Gallery in 1896/7, its loan was credited to Agnew's. They may, however, have been acting as Freshfield's agents, rather as they seem to have done when he bought the picture six years earlier. In 1907 it was re-exhibited at the Alpine Club, a venue which suggests that it was still in his possession at the time.
The picture was later in the large collection formed by Sir Jeremiah Colman of the famous mustard firm, and was last seen in public at his posthumous sale, held at Christie's in September 1942. A smaller version, also dated in 1885 in Mrs Watts's catalogue, was bequeathed to the York Art Gallery in 1949, and is illustrated in the catalogue of the Watts Exhibition held at Whitechapel in 1974 (see Literature above). Interestingly, this version too was exhibited at the Alpine Club, but in 1894, during Freshfield's presidency (1893-5). There seems to be a subject here that would repay further research.