George Frederick Watts RA 1817 - 1904

G F WattsA few weeks ago we were in Guildford and decided to visit the nearby Watts Gallery in Down Road, Compton. The recent TV series “Restoration” featured the gallery as one of the buildings in need of funds to pay for much needed restoration and this had triggered my memory of its exist-ence. It had been designed by Christopher Turner in keeping with the local vernacular - very much an “Arts and Crafts” building it was sited in the grounds of Watts’ country house. We found that its inclusion in the TV series had been fully justified - it was a rainy day and almost every room had at least one bucket to catch the drips from the leaking roof. The building did need funding.

Most of the paintings were low in tone and in need of cleaning and restoration themselves. However there were a few exceptions: the large group of the Ionides family by Watts was in excellent condition as were a number of other portraits by him, by his wife, Mary and other Victorian artists including, John Singer Sergeant, Lord Leighton, and Burne Jones. His lofty sculpture studio was at a lower level and was dominated by two large plaster casts - one of a towering Lord Tennyson and the other an equestrian statue for a bronze in Hyde Park.

G. F. Watts was famous in his day as a painter and sculptor and gained the nick-name of “England’s Michelangelo”. His aim was to re-invent British painting in the grand manner He believed that art should be accessible to all, not just the rich; he gave many of his paintings to public galleries and helped to found the Tate Gallery in 1897.

Watts’ second wife, Mary was also an artist and ceramist. She designed a small chapel for the Compton Village Cemetery. It is an extraordinary building and worth a visit in its own right. It is circular on plan, to reflect the “Circle of Eternity” with the “Cross of Faith” running through it. Its underlying style is Italian Romanesque but it is rich with Celtic and Art Nouveau decoration both inside and out. Mary had set up her pottery in the village with the help and advice of William de Morgan. Local villagers were invited to decorate the chapel. Each member of her class had a separate task and 74 villagers of Compton took part in modelling and fixing the terra cotta tiles.

The interior is rich and jewel-like. The exterior with its rose red crisp brickwork sits well in the immaculately kept graveyard. It is the interior which has to be seen. Mary’s huge coloured angels in painted gesso emerge from a background of scrolls and swirling strapwork. Watts paid for it but died before it was completed although he did paint “The All Pervading” for the altar just before he died. It is a testament to Mary’s skill and persistence and we found it most impressive.

Illustration: George Frederic Watts, as depicted in a biography available from Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg is the Internet's oldest producer of FREE electronic books (eBooks or eTexts).

But this was not all that the formidable Mary achieved; she set up professional arts committees in Surrey and in Scotland training apprentices to produce terra cotta memorials and garden ornaments in her blend of Celtic and Art Nouveau forms. She designed a carpet to be sold by Liberty’s, which was chosen as an exhibit in Ireland’s pavilion at the 1924 World’s Fair. She was a designer of bindings for the Guild of Book Binders. Her Compton potters produced the miniature flower pots for Queen Mary’s famous dolls house.
It could be said that she has equalled, if not outshone her husband’s reputation.

 

Pat Tucker

 

Mary Seton (Fraser Tytler) Watts (1849 - 1938) was one of the women sculptors who exhibited at the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893. Her small terra cotta figurines were painted with water-colour and waxed. Ed.