Born in London in 1842, Pilford Fletcher-Watson received early training in architecture, and was already an exhibiting watercolourist when he came to Australia. He lived in Sydney for a decade from 1883, establishing himself as a prominent figure in the local art scene. He was appointed secretary of the Institute of Architects of New South Wales in 1885, and was the driving force behind the formation in 1887 of the Australian Academy of Arts, serving as foundation president.
A regular exhibitor at the Art Society of New South Wales, Fletcher-Watson also organised successful exhibitions of his own work: depictions of grand historic interiors, European architectural views and local landscape scenery.
With vice-regal patronage Fletcher-Watson established the Sketching Institute of New South Wales in 1886, holding sketching nights at his central Sydney studio as well as outdoor daytime classes. Numerous drawings and watercolours showing Sydney scenes were bequeathed to the State Library of New South Wales by the artist’s son in 1952. By the time of his death in 1907 Fletcher-Watson was remembered primarily for his architectural work, the writers of his death notice in several English newspapers calling him ‘the last of the cathedral painters of the old school’.
In his watercolour in the Art Gallery of NSW collection, a cleric and a nobleman, both in historical dress, have paused to converse inside the Chapel of Santiago, a late Gothic masterpiece of Toledo Cathedral. The chapel was built by Don Álvaro de Luna, Constable of Castile and Grand Master of the military order of Santiago, as a sepulchre for himself and his family. The tombs of Don Álvaro de Luna and his wife Juana de Pimentel occupy the centre of the chapel. These were commissioned by the patron’s daughter in 1489 and executed by Sebastián de Almonacid, replacing earlier tombs that were destroyed. A knight of Santiago kneels at each corner of Luna’s tomb, whereas Franciscan friars are in the same position on his wife’s.
The tombs of other members of the Luna family are housed in elaborate arched recesses in the walls of the chapel. One such is visible to the left of the pale stone altar. The altar is a later Baroque addition, and features a painted altarpiece of vaguely seventeenth-century appearance. At the rear of the composition, through ornate stone tracery, we catch a glimpse into the vast space of the ambulatory. The lower section of the arch is hung with a sliding curtain to further divide the chapel from the main body of the cathedral.
Fletcher-Watson played up the sense of theatricality by amplifying the scale of the non-human elements. His rendition of the subject, while accurate in every architectural and ecclesiastical detail, is nonetheless flavoured with a dose of pungent exoticism, playing on the stereotype of Catholic Spain as obscure, mysterious and despotic.
Adapted from Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017