Exhibition Review: Faces of Fame: GF Watts x Simon Fredericks at Watts Gallery
When you walk into the gallery space at Watts Gallery, tucked away in a village in Surrey, with it’s red fabric wall coverings, gilded frames, and oak herringbone flooring, it’s hard to imagine the place as a hub of lively, contemporary discourse and forward-thinking exhibitions. Honestly it all looks pretty drab. While the Nineteenth Century artists George Frederic and Mary Watts — who owned and set up the museum, and to whom it is dedicated — were pretty progressive in their approach to inclusivity, certainly for the Victorian era, the gallery’s exhibition programme isn’t. It usually showcases their work alongside their contemporaries, fellow symbolists and romanticists, with Victorian values and ideas. It’s a largely white, middle class group of artists, on display to white, middle class patrons. However, just coming to a close at Watts Gallery, is the exhibition Faces of Fame: GF Watts x Simon Frederick.
Faces of Fame situates a selection of portraits from Watts’ Hall of Fame series, showing the great arbiters and architects of British culture, against portraits from Black British filmmaker and photographer Simon Frederick’s own hall of fame, Black is the New Black. Watts’ sitters are politicians, colonisers, reformers, artists, and musicians; the great, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The quintessence of Britishness in his eyes. All but one of them male, all of them white. Frederick’s sitters are Black British contemporary, cultural figures: Naomi Campbell, Archbishop John Sentamu, Lenny Henry, Malorie Blackman, Maggie Aderin-Pocock. Photographed in exquisite detail, each portrait offers an intimate look at the sitter, a glance into the soul of an extraordinary, complicated, flawed person. The portraits sit in alternating pairs. Black and white, contemporary and Victorian, photograph and oil paint are in direct contrast. This confronts the viewer with some difficult questions. Who belongs in our national hall of fame? Who is allowed to survived in our collective cultural consciousness? And who gets to decide?
The desire to create a hall of fame is the desire to hierarchise, to create a set list of elevated people. We create an archive of those we hold as representatives of who we are. GF Watts took on a responsibility to dictate who was included in that archive. He included some fighting for progress (such as the suffragist Josephine Butler, the only woman in the group), but some who represented the very worst of Britishness. He admitted members of his group 'may hereafter be found to have made or marred their country,' but their inclusion shows his acceptance that these shadowy figures also left their mark on our history. The question remains however, should we line our gallery walls with them? No doubt we cannot pretend they didn’t exist, but do they belong in a collection that ostensibly celebrates the great figures of the time?
In today’s world of heightened responsibility towards social good, when every mistake is archived, publicised, remembered, in the midst of so-called ‘cancel culture’, there is more scrutiny of our cultural icons than ever. Members of Frederick’s archive are likewise subject to the same question about who deserves to be included in a hall of fame. Rapper Dizzee Rascal sat for Frederick’s collection in 2016, after having been arrested a number of times in the 2000s. He rehabilitated his image and was awarded an MBE in 2020, but was convicted of physically assaulting his partner in 2022. Should Frederick have included him in his collection? Should Watts Gallery be displaying him on their wall?
Archives are fluid, living beasts that change depending on who engages with them and when. As social norms change, so do our relationships with the past. The juxtaposition of a historical archive whose members are all dead with a contemporary one, whose members are all still living and all still writing their history, brings this fact into sharp focus. The exhibition invokes fascinating questions about representation and our collective representation, and challenges the viewer to think more broadly about who deserves to be remembered, and how we make that judgement. Watts has managed to bring a fascinating discourse into their gallery, drawing on their
own collection and situating it within an active and fluid discourse. This marks a refreshing change to their usual programme and hopefully a signpost to their future. Its reception to their usual patronage remains to be seen.