An interesting trip to a village close to Guildford takes you to the Watts Gallery, studios, house, and Chapel.
George Frederick Watts was a Victorian painter of considerable fame in his life time. As a successful portrait artist there are few eminent Victorians that he failed to paint. At the end of his life he was awarded an OM. He died in 1904.
The Watts Gallery
When I last visited his gallery I found it entirely by chance having been in the locality to photograph someone.
The museum was open to the public but in a terrible state with buckets dotted around the main Gallery to catch rain water dripping through the roof lights.
Wall paper was hanging off the walls, and the sculpture was piled up one piece on top of another rather than being properly displayed.
Following a series of TV programmes on public buildings falling apart the gallery gained a more secure financial basis and a considerable amount has been spent on its restoration.
Now on show is Watts’ own studio, his wife Mary’s studio, their house, the original art gallery of paintings and sculpture, and a chapel designed by his wife plus a few other things.
There is also a fine collection of de Morgan ceramics, a cafe, a shop, and the gardens.
George Frederick Watts
George Frederick Watts, like many eminent Victorians, was educated at home. As a young man he became a student at the Royal Academy where he established his reputation for drawing skills. Although he made a living as a portrait painter his real interest was in history and mythological themes. This interest was later to embed his work very firmly in the middle of the nineteenth century. To those of us who went to art school in the mid 60’s it seems like a strange and remote world inhabited long ago.
A lot of the pictures on show have very subdued colour that makes me suspect they would all look much more saturated if properly cleaned. His liking for the French Symbolists, vigorous brushwork, and saturated colour, suggests that he was more in contact with French art than many other Victorians.
Watts was also interested in politics and is associated with the ideas of English socialism that emerged from John Ruskin and were developed through William Morris. He was married twice. Firstly, to the actress Ellen Terry, who he married when she was 17. She eloped with another and after a divorce, in middle life, he married Mary Fraser Tyler (1849 – 1938) usually known as Mary Watts.
Mary was as talented as Watts himself. She was to continue to make a huge contribution to the commune/guild they assembled in the village of Compton and to produce decorative arts until the 1930’s.
Mary married Watts when he was middle aged and she had just left the Slade School.
Like Watts, she developed radical political ideas in a practical small scale way. They thought that art work could become a means of social reform and alleviate the horrors of the 19th century factory system.
Eventually she established a pottery in the village that became famous for art nouveau type earthenware building ornaments that were built into the brickwork of many Edwardian buildings. These were sold through Liberties until the pottery eventually closed in the 1950’s.
Following the closure of the pottery, and the loss of the income from it, the estate started to deteriorate.
Mary’s outstanding work, a chapel in Compton cemetery, can be seen still in the village and is one of the main attractions. She lived another thirty years after Watts death and continued to support the museum they established together.
Do not fail to walk back to see the chapel as it is a fascinating piece of work.
The De Morgan Gallery
Evelyn de Morgan was the wife of William de Morgan. Like Mary Watts, she was a graduate of the Slade School and worked with her husband on ceramics.
The de Morgans were life long friends of the Watts and collaborated on some work. The de Morgan Foundation has a small exhibition of Evelyn’s work on show at the time of writing.
Simply drive around the M25 to the A3 and follow the signs to Guildford. The A3 bypasses Guildford. Compton is about 8 miles further on from the centre of Guildford. The Museum is well signed posted from the A3. Always check on their website that the things you want to see are open and available to see. To see the family house you have to book a tour in advance.
(all photography by David Turner)