Here in a quiet corner of leafy Surrey, a polite revolution is taking place: a public gallery is daring to display the most unfashionable sort of art you can imagine. Here you’ll find no pickled sharks, no unmade beds, only Victorian and Edwardian figurative painting. Welcome to Watts Gallery, one of the most beautiful galleries in Britain, and, in its own unassuming way, one of the most radical venues in the country.
Hidden in a wooded glade near the quaint village of Compton, Watts Gallery has all the ingredients for a perfect Sunday afternoon outing. You can poke around the posh gift shop, or pig out in the teashop (their Welsh Rarebit is delicious) or simply sit outside in the sunshine and watch the world go by. The only other building you can see is the tower of Watts Chapel, peeping through the treetops. The North Downs Way (aka the Pilgrims’ Way) runs right past the front door. You’d never guess that Guildford is only a few miles away. It’d be a pleasant place to spend a few hours without seeing any art at all, but you’d be missing a rare treat, for this so-called ‘Artists’ Village’ isn’t only somewhere to unwind – it’s also a sort of shrine to one of Britain’s most remarkable (and underrated) painters.
George Frederic Watts certainly wasn’t underrated in his own lifetime. Born in London in 1817, the son of a poor piano maker, he was apprenticed to a sculptor at the age of ten and went on to study at the Royal Academy, but he found his greatest inspiration in the British Museum. ‘The Elgin Marbles were my teachers,’ he reflected. ‘It was from them alone that I learned.’ When he was 25, he won a competition to provide heroic frescoes for the new Palace of Westminster. The prize was £300 (a tidy sum in 1842) which enabled him to travel to France and Italy and study in Paris and Florence. He returned to London in 1847 and soon became one of the most critically acclaimed (and popular) artists of his age.
In 1863, Watts married the actress Ellen Terry, but the marriage soon broke down (she was just 17; he was in his mid-forties) and in 1886, at the grand old age of 69, he married for a second time. Like Terry, Mary Fraser Tytler was also thirty years his junior (32 years, in fact) but unlike his first brief marriage, this marriage was happy and enduring. In 1891, they moved to Compton, and built a handsome Tudorbethan house called Limnerslease, from which this ‘Artist’s Village’ evolved.
Mary was a fine artist in her own right, and a devout social reformer, and in Compton these two passions came together. Compton’s agrarian workers had been overtaken by industrialisation, leaving many of them out of work, so Mary taught them pottery. To cynics this may sound like the worst sort of paternalism, but her plans were supremely practical. She set up a company called Compton Pottery, which supplied classy outlets like Liberty, and when this enterprise became too big for Limnerslease she built the buildings which became her ‘Artist’s Village.’
Compton Pottery remained in business right up until the 1950s, and though the company is no more there’s now a new kiln at Watts Gallery. The firm’s crowning glory was Watts Chapel, a spectacular structure designed by Mary, erected in the nearby cemetery, decorated by the local people she trained and employed. The overall effect is profoundly spiritual. ‘Built to the loving memory of all who find rest near its walls,’ wrote Mary, ‘and for the comfort and help of those to whom the sorrow of separation yet remains.’
Watts Gallery was the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle - the first public gallery in Britain devoted to a single artist, a good indication of his fame. Watts died in 1904, aged 87, three months after it opened, but Mary stayed on, and right up until her death, in 1938, it remained a major attraction.
Watts’ fall from grace after the Second World War was as dramatic as his rise. Within a few decades he went from being one of Britain’s most famous artists to a virtual nonentity - an artist of purely academic interest, neglected by the art establishment and ignored by the mainstream press. How come? I must admit, I’m not entirely sure. As modernism took hold in Britain after the war, various other Victorian artists fell out of favour, but none of them fell quite so far or quite so fast as George Frederic Watts, OM, RA.
Looking round this lovely gallery, it’s still hard to work out why. Watts was renowned for his portraits of the great and the good of Victorian England, but though he was a skillful and perceptive portraitist, his symbolic paintings are even better – timeless and elemental, with immense popular appeal today. Moving works like Found Drowned display a powerful social conscience, and by the standards of his day his dreamlike pictures seem positively avant-garde.
By the end of the last century, Watts Gallery was in a sorry state – still open to the public but tired and shabby, little visited and little known. Limnerslease had been sold off and divided into two separate properties, and the pictures Watts painted there had been more or less forgotten. However during the last decade this bucolic site has been reborn. Lottery money funded a stunning renovation, and ten years since it reopened it’s become a lively rendezvous, a place of leisure and learning for young and old. Coincidentally, both Limnerslease properties came up for sale at the same time, so the trust bought them back, restored the house and studio beside it. A hundred and thirty years since they arrived here, and founded their innovative Artist’s Village, Compton is a centre of the creative industries again.
And during the last ten years or so, something else has happened. Dismissed as stuffy and old-fashioned for half a century, Victorian figuration is enjoying a discreet revival, and Watts Gallery is leading the way. As well as Watts himself, the gallery champions other overlooked artists of his era – art that’s easy to understand, and easy on the eye. Watts was daring in his own day, and now that modernism has become the new orthodoxy he seems daring once again. ‘I paint primarily because I have something to say, and since the gift of eloquent language has been denied me, I use painting,’ he observed. His paintings are as eloquent as any sonnet. No wonder he called them ‘poems painted on canvas.’ Revisiting Watts Gallery, I’m reminded that there’s more to fine art than what excites the cognoscenti. George Frederic Watts has drifted in and out of fashion, but the audience for his poetic paintings never went away.
For more information on visiting the gallery, go to: www.wattsgallery.org.uk