Small Craft

Late 19th & Early 20th Century British Yachting

The Sailors: Amateur British & Irish Yachtsmen Before World War One

Arthur G. Watts, 1883–1935

Because, in my time, I've loved the sea much and known it a little, I could wish to have found at least one fine sea poem written from the point of view of a sailor. But it seems that until one comes to the work of living men, one may search without result. I've often wondered why this should be so — one might fairly expect to find in Elizabethan verse not one, but many such poems. And yet I have found nothing.

A Painter's Anthology, Arthur Watts

The following is taken from The Art of Arthur Watts edited by Simon Watts.

Arthur Watts Remembered
by Marjorie Watts*

Arthur Watts was born in 1883, his father being a surgeon-major in the Indian Medical Service. He had achieved this position by hard work and dogged determination, his own father being a chemist in Peckham, and he expected his sons to enter professions. The older brother became a doctor, but Arthur, who ruined all his school exercise books with funny drawings in the margins, only wanted to draw, and sat at the bottom of the class on the Engineering side at Dulwich School for two years, until at 16 he was allowed to go to the Goldsmith's Institute.

His father then died, and his mother, who had a lovely voice and had herself wanted to be a singer, but had not been allowed to train, did all she could for him. In 1900, aged 17, he went to the Slade Art School for two years, and from there to the Free Art Schools in Antwerp, then to Paris and then back to the Slade for a short time under the redoubtable Professor Tonks.

In 1904, aged 21, Arthur began to make a modest living by drawing for such papers as The Tatler, The Bystander, Pearson's, and London Opinion, and in 1912 made his first contribution to Punch. For some years he had been interested in boats and sailing, and in 1910, whilst intending to buy a Great Dane dog through the Exchange and Mart, he saw a sailing boat advertised and bought her instead, with a centre board, mainsail and jib. Arthur rapidly became a skilled small boat sailor and began to write illustrated articles for The Yachting Monthly. One called `From London to Lowestoft in an Open Boat' was published in 1911, and another, A Three-Legged Cruise, in August 1913. He now had a bigger boat, "a comparatively fragile affair, O.A. length 26 ft, and beam 6 ft 6 ins, with a centre board—3 tons" (this would be Mave Rhoe, purchased from Charles Pears). With two friends in a second boat—"a respectable Itchen Ferry type of 4 tons"—and with a well-read copy of Erskine Childers' Riddle of the Sands in his pocket, Arthur and his two friends set off in the two boats in June 1913 for a three–week cruise along the Dutch and Belgian coasts. They sailed into a dozen or so harbours, including Dunkirk, Blanckenburg, Veere, the Tholen Creek, Middleburg, Zerixsee, and Ostend and Zeebrugge, together with a host of canals and waterways. A detailed description of this voyage, with drawings of all the harbours they visited, was published in The Yachting Monthly in August 1913.

And in August 1914, the First World War began.

Meanwhile in 1911 Arthur had rented No. 1, Holly Place, Hampstead, where the landlords, the Catholic Church, built up the two attics to make a studio which overlooked London and enabled their tenant to practice his `birds-eye' style of drawing.

In the autumn of 1914, on calling at the Admiralty to offer his services, he was welcomed without surprise. His Yachting Monthly articles, detailing the Dutch and Belgian harbours, had not passed unnoticed. He joined the R.N.V.R. and served throughout the war in Coastal Motor Boats and Motor Launches in the Dover Patrol. He led a smoke-screen flotilla at the attacks on Zeebrugge on April 23rd and at Ostend on May 10th, 1918. He was awarded the D.S.O. and mentioned in Despatches. The citation read:
Lieut.-Cdr. Arthur G. Watts, R.N.V.R.
This officer was in command of M.L. 239 and leader of a smoke-screen unit with skill and judgment in a very exposed position, and it was largely due to him that the screen was so extremely successful in his section.

The attacking force had to wait 3 weeks, in absolute secrecy, for the right wind and tide to coincide, and there were two false starts when they had to turn back owing to a change of wind. Arthur said later that he was absolutely terrified all that time—inside himself—and was amazed that no one seemed to notice this.

One of the most famous ships in the Zeebrugge attack was the old cruiser, HMS Vindictive, whose job was to land troops on the Mole, whilst screened by the smoke from the motor launches. Although terribly battered, the old Vindictive (built in 1898) did her job and managed to return to Dover under her own power. For a fascinating account of this whole battle, I recommend The Zeebrugge Raid by Philip Warner, published by William Kimber.

After his experiences in both raids, Arthur was badly shell-shocked, and it was not until 1921 that his work began to appear again in Punch—they published eight of his drawings during 1922, after which his reputation grew until it reached its peak in 1935.

Apart from Punch, The Radio Times was long a focal point in Arthur's working life. He provided four small drawings for the pages "Both Sides of the Microphone" every week for seven years from 1928 to 1935, never missing one issue. He also illustrated E.M. Delafield's Diary of a Provincial Lady and drew a number of posters for London Transport and the old London, Midland and Scottish Railway. Unfortunately, all the originals of the L.M.S. drawings vanished during the nationalization period. Luckily, I still own a few copies of some of those posters, which are in the Exhibition**. As for Arthur's personal life, I will leave his contemporaries to speak for him, in the obituary notices published after his death by Punch and The Radio Times.

In Memoriam—Punch 31 July 1935
It was with very deep regret that we learned of the tragic death in an aeroplane disaster of July 20th of Arthur Watts, whose delightful full-page drawings are so well known to Punch readers. Mr. Watts, who was born in 1883, began his long association with Punch some years before the Great War, in which he served with much distinction, reaching the rank of Commander in the R.N.V.R. and gaining the D.S.O. at the Zeebrugge Raid on April 23rd, 1918. Two examples of the quiet humour and careful craftsmanship, which always distinguished his work, are included in this issue. His loss, both as a friend and as an artist, will be most keenly felt.

Arthur Watts—Radio Times 2 August 1936
For the first time in more than seven years, these pages appear without their illustrations by Arthur Watts. His tragic death in an air crash, on his way home from Italy, was announced over the microphone on the evening of Saturday, July 20. At that date, last week's issue of The Radio Times was already in the Press, containing the last batch of drawings that he posted from Italy. The paragraphs for this week's issue were already awaiting his return.

We need not here stress his pre-eminence as a humorous artist. Our readers know his quality well enough, though it is possible that nobody who has not had experience of such work can realize quite what an achievement it was to keep up the standard of those four drawings a week all year round; drawings done to order, done often in a hurry, and confined to a shape that would tax the ingenuity of the most resourceful. Occasionally even Watts protested; we remember the occasion when he drew a euphonium-player lying down...

Personally, he seemed far less like the popular idea of a humorous artist than like the Commander R.N.V.R. that he also was. A big, quiet man, with ruddy, weather-beaten face, dressed almost invariably in a blue jacket and well-worn grey flannel trousers; smoking a pipe bound with tarred twine; driving a big, roomy, powerful old car; spending his summers in Cornwall, and every winter taking a skiing holiday.

We shall remember him in his studio at Hampstead, with a view half across London, where he worked at the delicate little drawings with which he gave so much pleasure - which were, incidentally, the last sort of work that anybody who knew him only casually would have expected him to do.

None of our readers can fail to realize what a gap his death will leave upon these pages. It is not for us to enlarge on the loss that will be felt elsewhere.

Others also eulogized Arthur upon his death. Here is what his friend, author E.V. Lucas, had to say:

No death can be fully anticipated; not even that of the oldest and most frail. But I state with minute truthfulness that I was never so shocked as when I opened the paper on the saddest morning last summer and learned that a flying machine had crashed in the Alps and Arthur Watts was dead. Because, not only was he so intensely a living being, but he was of the stature of immortality; and only two or three weeks before the tragic day, I had been with him in Kent, at a pool in the woods, watching him swimming and diving like a god.

Those who knew Watts only by his drawings, may never have given a thought to his outward appearance; to what kind of a man he was to look at. Considering pictures, we do not, I fancy, much visualize their artists. Many people who have rejoiced in his ingenuity and stealthy fun will, therefore, probably be surprised to learn that Watts (who during the War earned a D.S.O. for valour at Zeebrugge), was over six feet tall and was straighter and more handsome and more athletic than draughtsmen are expected to be or ever need be. To this commanding physique he added a very shrewd outlook on affairs, continuous good humour, a laughing sympathy, and all the ingredients that make for what we call good companionship.

It is natural then that we who knew him should think of him as so far separated from mortality, and especially when we think also of that studio of his, high in a high house on the heights of Hampstead: so high that all London lay spread before its owner, seething and smoking by day and twinkling and irradiating at night; the fitting home of a gay deviser of comic fantasies who, we were sure, was never going to die.

E.V. Lucas.

Within a year (March of the following year) a Memorial Exhibition was mounted at the Fine Art Gallery in London.

Besides his shrewd and subtle humour, the considerable technical and decorative skill of the late Arthur Watts is clearly shown at his Memorial Exhibition which was opened by H.G. Wells and Ernest Shepard at the Fine Art Society's Galleries, New Bond Street. More than a hundred of his original black and white drawings and colour illustrations are to be seen there, and they cover the work done for many journals, for Punch, the Sketch, and for the Radio Times to which, as every reader knows, he contributed every week, for seven years, the gay illustrations to the feature called "Both Sides of the Microphone". The humour of Arthur Watts was not of the emphatic kind; it depended largely upon quiet understatement, and he is at his best in such drawings as 'The Dream' (No. 74) in which the solitary street musician is seen standing in a puddle of coins which have been thrown down to him from the adjacent windows, and in the unpublished drawing (No. 83) of the young man who follows to the letter Lord Chesterfield's advice "Put on a black coat and go into Society", with devastating results. Arthur Watts was killed last July in the Dutch air liner crash; he would, one feels, have been very gratified to overhear the chuckles, the reward of his life's work, with which his Memorial Exhibition is greeted.

The Radio Times

During his life Watts illustrated a number of books in addition to his prolific output for Punch, The Radio Times, etc. He even published a book of his own—though it was primarily an opportunity for him to gather his favorite verse in one volume with his own illustrations. Here is a bibliography of known works Arthur Watts illustrated or wrote.

Known Boats:

*Marjorie Watts was Arthur Watts' wife. Marjorie Watts' mother, Amy Dawson Scott, was a prolific writer (sometimes under the pen-name Mrs Sappho) and the founder of PEN, the organization of poets, editors and novelists. Marjorie Watts wrote the published biography of her mother, Mrs. Sappho: The Life of C. A. Dawson Scott, Mother of International PEN.

**Arthur Watts Remembered, December 9–February 28, 1982. An exhibition of Punch cartoons, illustrations, posters, sketches and drawings. Burgh House, New End Square, Hampstead, London NW3 ILT.