Love and Death is one of Watts’ great allegories of the fundamental themes of human experience, which he developed over several versions later in his career. One of his best known compositions, it is also regarded as one of the masterpieces of the wider European Symbolist movement. The original version (Bristol Museum & Art Gallery) was begun in 1868 or 1869, and exhibited at the Dudley Gallery in 1870 and at Manchester in 1874. It was then repainted and dated 1875. A larger version (Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester) was shown at the opening exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877. There are also versions in public galleries in Liverpool, Adelaide, Melbourne and at the Tate, London.
Although Watts had used the words of his friend Tennyson's 1830 poem Love and Death as inspiration, the mood of his powerful allegory was also influenced by a real-life experience. According to his friend and biographer Mrs Russell Barrington 'The idea of this picture first came to the artist's mind about fifteen years ago. He was then painting the portrait of a man who, while still young, and showing every promise of becoming one of the most distinguished men of his time, was attacked by a lingering and fatal illness.' (Paintings by G.F. Watts, exhibition catalogue for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1884, p. 42) The young man was William Schomberg Kerr, 8th Marquess of Lothian (1832-1870) whose wife, Lady Constance, was a friend of Watts. The artist was greatly moved by the fortitude of Lothian as he faced his death and he exhibited the first version of Love and Death a few months after Lothian was expected to die.
In the Setton version, the composition is expressed in its essential elements, the faceless figure of Death resolutely pressing past Love who seeks to guard the threshold of life. The painting represents a very early stage in the evolution of the theme.
We are grateful to Nicholas Tromans for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.