George Frederic Watts by Edward Steichen, Photogravure on japan paper, 1900, NPG
American photographer Edward Steichen travelled to Europe in summer 1900 to study painting in Paris. In September he visited London to submit work to the season’s exhibitions, as he recalled later:
In the early autumn I went to London with the idea of submitting some of my photographs to the exhibitions of the Royal Photographic Society and the Linked Ring. There I met F. Holland Day [who] was in London to arrange for an exhibition of what he called The New School of American Photography and the Royal Photographic Society had turned over their exhibition rooms to him. Now for the first time, I saw photographs by outstanding photographers. It was an exciting experience … After the fuss and excitement of London I was ready to get back to Paris and go to work. But before leaving, I made a photograph of the venerable painter George Frederick [sic] Watts. This was the beginning of the portrait series I had planned to make of distinguished artists in Europe. I hoped to include painters, sculptors, literary men and musicians.
In this account Steichen does not explain why or how he was able to photograph Watts, or who furnished the introduction. No contemporary record of the encounter, which probably took place in Watts’s London home in Melbury Road, has yet been found. It is thought that Steichen was commissioned to make his portraits, but this may be a mistaken inference. However, further details of Steichen’s visit to London offer some context for the event.