The History of 31 Sussex Square
George Frederic Watts
George Frederic Watts (1817‒1904) was considered to be one of the greatest artists of the Victorian period. He made portraits of the leading figures of his time, including Tennyson, Gladstone, and Carlyle, and later in his long career, he painted a number of symbolic and allegorical pictures. Among Watts’ best known works are his painting Hope and his sculpture Physical Energy. The Watts Gallery at Compton, Surrey, displays over one hundred of Watts’ paintings, and other major holdings of his works are at Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery. Watts was briefly married to the actress Ellen Terry, and in 1886 he married Mary Seton Fraser Tytler, who was an accomplished artist and designer.
From 1 November 1888 until the end of May 1889, George and Mary Watts lived at 31 Sussex Square. On 19 October 1888, Mary wrote to Watts’ patron Mary Gertrude Mead: “We are so glad that you can come to visit us in Brighton, .…….We have got our house at Brighton from the 1st so we shall go there that day at latest; I do trust that this picture gallery at Brighton may have the light he likes; we have the house on trial”.
31 Sussex Square had the advantage for Watts of a studio spacious enough to accommodate his large painting ‘The Court of Death’, 14 feet in height, on which he was occupied, as well as several of his other well-known compositions. At Sussex Square, Watts now had a sizeable room to work in, which he didn’t seem to have while he had been resident at 24 Lewes Crescent for several years previously.
Eleven pages of Mary Watts’ Annals, written after Watts’ death, relate to their time at 31 Sussex Square and the work that Watts did in the house. Describing Watts’ painting She Shall Be Called Woman (one of the trilogy of Eve pictures which Watts worked on in Brighton), Mary wrote: “The Brighton studio showed this picture to an advantage it has never had since. Very often we breakfasted in that room, and the morning light poured down upon the breast of the Great-Mother till it seemed to breathe and scintillate”.
The Wattses were intending to leave Brighton at the end of March 1889, but Watts’ work had been delayed by illness. He had been laid up in bed for several weeks, with what Mary wrote was pneumonia, and had been attended to by a nurse from the hospital. Mary wrote in the Annals: “When by degrees the strength returned, and after the long interruption he got back to the studio, he decided to stay on at Brighton till the end of May, to have the advantage of another month of work in that fine room”.
The large room which Watts used as his studio at 31 Sussex Square has not yet been confirmed. However, it is known that Watts liked to use east- and south-facing rooms for his work, painting in the early morning, and Mary mentions the studio being filled with bright morning light.