This exquisite little painting, as delicate in feeling as it is in touch, is the first version of one of Watts's most famous compositions. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1862, where it had a warm reception. The Art Journal thought it 'entirely free from affectation', and better than anything else of the kind that Watts had previously painted. 'For stateliness, solemnity and imaginative suggestion', wrote Tom Taylor in the Times, 'the picture stands far apart from anything in the exhibition'. He felt it was 'still finer' than another work by Watts that was being exhibited with it, the well-known portrait of Lady Margaret Beaumont and her Daughter, even though this itself was 'a picture of exquisite refinement'.
According to Mrs Watts, the artist's widow, the picture was completed before 1862, and it may in fact date from the late 1850s. It shows him in quasi-Pre-Raphaelite mode, and reflects his association with Rossetti and Burne-Jones at Little Holland House in Kensington, where Watts himself held the unofficial post of Mrs Prinsep's genius-in-residence and they frequented her salon. This was particularly the case in the late 1850s, when for some months Burne-Jones more or less lived at the house, recovering from illness, and Rossetti, his revered mentor, was a frequent visitor. Moreover Val Prinsep, Sarah and Thoby's elder son and Watts's pupil, had constituted himself a Rossetti follower and struck up a close friendship with Burne-Jones. Both young men took part in the famous scheme, directed by Rossetti, to paint murals in the Oxford Union's debating chamber in 1857, and in 1859 they were travelling together in Italy.
None of this would be directly applicable to Watts's painting if this had not been the moment when medievalism was at its height in Rossetti's circle. Rossetti had been moving in this direction long before he met Morris and Burne-Jones in January 1856, but their passion for and knowledge of everything medieval, highly developed by this date, confirmed the trend and resulted in a positive cult for several years. Malory's Morte d'Arthur, to which of course Watts's painting is ultimately indebted, was the supreme literary inspiration. Rossetti declared it to be one of the 'two greatest books in the world' (the other being the Bible), and it was the inevitable source of subject matter for the murals in the Oxford Union.
Watts tended to maintain a detached and even amused attitude to the more extreme Pre-Raphaelite excesses, which were so at variance with his own art, rooted in the grand manner. Nonetheless there are a number of works, including Sir Galahad, in which it is not difficult to see Pre-Raphaelite influence. Nor should we forget the role of Ruskin, who admired both the Pre-Raphaelites and Watts, but could never resist trying to mould an artist's development. Indeed the more he admired a painter, the more he felt compelled to pressurise and interfere.
The model for the head of Sir Galahad was Arthur Prinsep, Thoby and Sara Prinsep's younger son. A study exists (Watts Gallery), made in 1855 or 1856 and thus a further indication that the picture dates from the late fifties. Arthur Prinsep, who was about sixteen or seventeen at the time, was also the model for two other images of knights in armour by Watts, Una and the Red Cross Knight (from Spenser) and Aspiration.
It is sometimes said that Ellen Terry, with whom Watts was to contract a disastrous and short-lived marriage in 1864, was the model for Sir Galahad, but this was not the case. In fact the picture was probably painted before they met, although it is true that he did paint her in armour as Joan of Arc, later changing the picture's title to Watchman, what of the night?. Watts was fascinated by armour, not only painting the works just mentioned but more than one self-portrait in which he appears as an armoured knight.
Sir Galahad relects another personal preference, a love of horses. Watts himself was a keen horseman, and the image of the horse occurs time and again in his work, both paintings and sculpture. As Mrs Watts observes, he usually uses it symbolically - to represent, for example physical energy in the famous sculpture and here to reinforce the sense of worship. Allen Staley, in cataloguing the picture for the Victorian High Renaissance exhibition, drew a comparison with Landseer's tendency to give animals human emotions, pointing out that Landseer was an important influence on Watts's early work.
Sir Galahad is traditionally associated with Tennyson's poem of the same name, and certainly, as Staley notes, 'Watts's imagery is consistent with Tennyson's knight who combines virgin purity with ardent faith'
My strength is as the strenth of ten,
Because my heart is pure...
So keep I fair thro' faith and prayer.
A virgin heart to work and will.
Tennyson was one of Mrs Prinsep's principal 'lions' at Little Holland House, and was enormously admired by Watts, who painted his portrait many times, but the artist rather underplayed any connection between this particular picture and its poetic counterpart. He did not quote Tennyson in the catalogue when it appeared at the R.A. in 1862. In fact when it reappeared in his retrospective exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery twenty years later, he told a correspondent that the knight he associated with the picture was not an Arthurian hero at all but the Squire in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. This, to say the least, is surprising, since Chaucer's description of the Squire as 'a lover and a lusty bachelor' seems to subvert the whole point of the picture.
Yet the Tennysonian comparison is valuable if only because it underlines the link between Watts and his Pre-Raphaelite peers. Tennyson's poem had been admired by Burne-Jones and Morris at Oxford, and they had even contemplated forming a semi-conventual Order of Sir Galahad to which they and like-minded friends would belong. In 1857 Rossetti illustrated the poem in the famous Moxon edition of Tennyson's works to date (fig. 1), and in the summer of 1858, during his convalescense at Little Holland House, Burne-Jones made Sir Galahad the subject of one of his early pen-and-ink drawings, visualising Tennyson's knight in the light of two pictorial prototypes, Dürer's Knight, Death and the Devil and Millais' Sir Isumbras (fig. 2). Unfortunately the mystery surrounding the exact date of Watts's picture makes it impossible to establish an order of precedence between this, Rossetti's illustration and Burne-Jones's drawing, nor do we know what the Pre-Raphaelites thought of Watts's venture into their territory. All we have is a complaint by William Michael Rossetti, in reviewing the R.A. exhibition for Fraser's Magazine 'There is fine style in Sir Galahad,' he wrote, 'and the character of the Pure Knight...is expressed as far as it goes; yet Mr Watts's tendency to idealism interferes, to our judgement, with his success in subjects of this kind, where an ideal of character has to be presented in the person of an individual man. We would ask for more of the individual and less of the impersonal ideal.'
Watts painted a larger version (76 x 42½ in.) the same year (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard), and in 1897 he completed a second large version, which he presented to Eton College. It still hangs in the Chapel. Another version, in his most abstract late style (87 x 19¼ in.), was painted in 1903 and sold at Christie's on 9 June 1967 (lot 28), while yet another small version, virtually identical with the present one in size, appeared in these Rooms in 7 November 1997 (lot 93). The number of versions which exist must reflect not only Watts's own typically idealistic hope that the image embodied 'the dignity and beauty of purity and chivalry', things 'characteristic of the gentleman', but society's readiness to agree with him. Hence, undoubtedly, the presence of the painting at Eton, and hence, at a more humble level, all those photogravure reproductions that used to be so common in church halls and school corridors, and which still live on in folk memory to make the image so familiar.
For other pictures from the Handley-Read collection, see lots 156 and 297.