One of my favourite places to visit in Surrey is Watts Gallery located near the village of Compton.
George Fredric Watts (1817-1904) was widely considered to be the greatest painter of the Victorian era. He was a portraitist, sculptor, landscape painter and symbolist.
He studied only theoretically at the Royal Academy schools, having been apprentice to the studio of sculptor, William Behnes, when he was just 10 years old. His was a natural talent, recognised by his father at this young age. In later years he said that he could not remember a time when he did not draw. His first picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy when he was just 20 years old and he continued to exhibit there throughout his life.
During his travels round Europe he visited Paris, then traveled south through France ending his travels in Italy. This period of travel and discovery was hugely influential on Watts. His love of Italy earned him the nickname ‘Signor’, which stayed with him into old age. He earned the title England’s Michelangelo.
In the 1880s Watts built a gallery extension onto his studio home at Little Holland House, Kensington, and opened it to the public from 2 to 6pm every weekend. He believed that art should be accessible to all. This was reflected in this project and in his support of schemes that took art into the poor areas of London through exhibitions and the creation of new galleries.
During this time Watts painted some of his most memorable and iconic images, including Hope (pictured below), which inspired artists and thinkers internationally, and Mammon, his great protest against the destructive motivating force of greed that was prevalent in society.
‘Hope’ – one of my favourite paintings at Watts gallery
In 1886, at the age of 69, Watts married his second wife (32 years his junior) Scottish potter and designer Mary Seton Fraser-Tytler.
You can find out more information about Mary Watts here.
In 1889, to escape from the the London smogs which were causing health problems for Watts. George & Mary decided to seek a winter retreat from their Holland Park house and studio and stayed with friends in Compton. They quickly decided that this picturesque village nestled in the Surrey hills would make the ideal location for their own autumn/winter residence.
They leased land at Compton and commissioned Arts & Crafts architect Sir Ernest George to build their home Limnerslease pictured above. You can book a tour the house today via the Watts Gallery website
Limnerslease was very much an artists’ home. Its name comes from ‘Limner’ — the Old English word for artist — and ‘lease’ — to glean hope for the future. Mary was not the only one who found new inspiration in Compton; George set up a new studio designed with his large canvases in mind and desire for good light, a place where he was able to work on the many pieces that he had been meditating on throughout his career.
George & Mary pictured outside Limnerslease
Knowing that the local church needed to acquire more land for burials, they offered to pay for the building of a mortuary chapel. In 1895 Mary began giving the villagers of Compton the opportunity to make decorative terracotta tile that would adorn the exterior of Watts Chapel. This was completed in 1898. Mary then created decorative gesso interior assisted by a number of local women. Today her rich designs incorporating the motifs of many different religions and cultures remain unaltered.
Even today, Watts Chapel never ceases to amaze me each time I visit. Behind its attractive terracotta exterior lies a hidden gem, thanks to the dedicated hard work of Mary & the local people of Compton. It’s certainly worth a visit!
Watts Chapel is recognised as one of the most original and fascinating buildings in Britain, a fusion of art nouveau, Celtic, Romanesque and individual style.
Mary went on to establish the Compton Potters’ Arts Guild, a local pottery cooperative that gained contracts from Liberty & Co. and commissions from the most important architects of the era including Edwin Lutyens and Clough Williams-Ellis. The Guild would provide employment in the village of Compton until 1956.
During his last years, Watts also turned to sculpture, completing his most famous work, Physical Energy, in 1902. The original cast remains in the gallery today. Bronze casts are also replicated in Cape Town and in London’s Kensington Gardens.
Watts also instigated a memorial garden of everyday heroes in the form of a 50 foot-long open gallery situated near St Paul’s Cathedral in London called Postman’s Park.
It consists of a series of poignant tablets dedicated to individuals who lost their lives heroically attempting to save another.
Watts Gallery was opened on 1 April 1904, exactly three months before Watts’s death on 1 July 1904. Visit the Watts Gallery website for opening times.
info via wattsgallery.org.uk/ hlf.org.uk