How Watts Gallery Artists’ Village became one of Surrey’s leading visitor attractions
- Credit: Pete Gardner
Over the last few years, Watts Gallery in Compton has been transformed into a gallery of international importance at the heart of what is now being dubbed the ‘Artists’ Village’. And with the opening this spring of GF Watts’ original home and studios following a £2.4m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, it’s fair to say that this is fast becoming one of Surrey’s leading visitor attractions
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine April 2016
Those with long memories may recall the days when the ceilings used to leak at Watts Gallery, with buckets to catch the raindrops. How times have changed. Following the multi-million- pound restoration of this unique venue, which houses the artwork of the Victorian visionary George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), we now have a gallery of international importance on our doorstep – and all against the breathtaking backdrop of the Surrey Hills. But the story doesn’t end there.
Following the gallery restoration in 2011, now the team there have spread their artistic net even further by restoring the former home and studios of Watts and his wife, Mary Seton Watts (1849-1938), an accomplished artist and designer in her own right. Following this latest restoration project, funded by generous benefactors and a £2.4 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, visitors to the newly-named ‘Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village’ can now explore not only the existing gallery, chapel and shop but also the magnificent ‘Limnerslease’. This wonderful Victorian house, which perches on a small hill across the road from the Watts Gallery, was the much-loved home and workplace of the Watts who combined ‘limner’ (meaning artist) and ‘lease’ (meaning in the sense of gathering) to create the unusual name – which perfectly sums up the couple’s ethos of ‘art for all’.
“The opening of the Watts Studios is the next phase in completing the Artists’ Village in Compton,” says the director of Watts Gallery, Perdita Hunt OBE, who has led the reinvention of the gallery – and wider village. “Watts Gallery, the Watts Chapel, the Pottery Buildings and now the Watts Studios at Limnerslease offer a unique window upon the Arts and Crafts Movement and enable the Watts Gallery Trust to take a further step towards creating an internationally- important centre where visitors and students can explore Victorian art, social history, craft and design.”
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It’s a fitting tribute to a man who was widely considered to be one of the greatest painters of the Victorian era. To give a little context, in 1910, an international art conference was held in London and a special train was laid on from Waterloo so that those attending could visit Watts Gallery. The Tate also had a room solely dedicated to Watts until 1938, and the National Portrait Gallery still has a large number of his portraits in their collection.
So, with Watts Gallery now returned to its former glory, the natural next step was the restoration of his studio and other historically-important rooms at Limnerslease – aided by the detailed diary of Mary Watts and also the many photographs taken by their estate steward at the time, George Andrew. Mary was very much the driving force behind the creation of their new home, and the rooms that became their creative spaces, and had ambitious ideas for the place. In her diary of February 23, 1906, she wrote: “I want Compton to be an example of what God’s acre might be.”
The couple took possession of their new home in July 1891, having acquired the land from the neighbouring Loseley Estate and commissioned the leading Arts and Crafts architect, Ernest George, to design the house and its studios. Interestingly, George Watts, who was nicknamed ‘Signor’ by Mary and their friends, chose an atypical orientation for his studio with the large window facing south, rather than north where there are less changes in light throughout the day. Watts was an early riser and a workaholic, re-visiting a painting many times in a day, but as he worked so much from memory rather than still life, he was not so fixated with a northern orientation as many other artists were at the time.
Today, Watts’ studio has been restored to the way he left it, with his easels, brushes, pigments and some of his unfinished works recreating the feeling of creativity – and the smell of oils and varnish filling the air.
“Many of Watts’ most important paintings were created in this space, and it’s worthwhile pausing a moment to imagine the great artist working away in the early hours of the day,” says curator at Watts Gallery, Nick Tromans, who has been very involved with the restoration. “He was called the Michelangelo of his time, and also likened to William Morris, and he was a prolific artist who, incredibly, painted for almost seven decades. He worked from memory and inner vision, rather than still life or sketches, and he was not a keen fan of life models except for Mary Bartley, a housemaid at Little Holland House, Watts’ London home. She became known as ‘Long Mary’ because of her great height, and her statuesque figure can be seen in many of his paintings.”
A rising star
Something of a child prodigy, Watts’ talent for drawing was recognised early on by his father, a piano maker and tuner. At the young age of 10, he entered the Soho studio of sculptor William Behnes (1794-1865) who encouraged and inspired him. Watts first exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1837 and his works included the much-praised, A Wounded Heron.
Equally dedicated to her own creative pursuits, Mary’s work as an artist and designer is celebrated in the original drawing room at Limnerslease, which is now depicted as her studio. Her bold designs in both 2D and 3D are clearly displayed, and intriguing film clips show the production process of her sculptures. Her impressive frieze for a chapel in Aldershot is also on show, and in a glass cabinet one small, tender watercolour demonstrates her unfailing fondness for her beloved Signor.
Mary’s achievements are all the more impressive when you consider that she was amongst the first generation of Victorian women to receive formal art training, initially in Kensington, at the National Art Training School, and then at the Slade School of Art. Her interest in sculpture was nurtured when she trained with the French sculptor, Aimé-Jules Dalou (1838-1902), recognised as one of the most brilliant virtuosos of 19th century France. His influence on Mary is clear in much of her work, most notably perhaps in Mother and Child (1873-79), an early terracotta piece on display in the new Mary Watts Gallery at Limnerslease, and also in her wonderful frieze work.
Her passion to share the joy of creativity with those around her is also apparent through the displays and memorabilia in this dedicated gallery. Mary created the Compton Potters’ Arts Guild in the now- restored Potter Building, an important social enterprise that sold work at Liberty & Co and received commissions from highly-regarded designers such as Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll. She also held terracotta evening classes in her then drawing room, which were attended by around 70 local villagers. Her joy of art was infectious and this new sense of community led to the creation of the Watts Chapel, designed by Mary in a wonderful fusion of art nouveau, Celtic, Romanesque and Victorian style.
Alongside the two artists’ galleries, the newly-named Compton Gallery shares the story of the Watts’ personal lives – from the commissioning of Limnerslease to the foundation of the Watts Gallery, which is significant in its own right for being the only purpose-built art gallery in the UK dedicated to a single professional artist.
“George and Mary Watts shared a belief that art could, and should, reach all and that it could really transform lives,” continues Nick Tromans. “The recent opening of Limnerslease, as well as the various lectures, workshops and open art sessions, will realise Mary’s dream of ‘an artists’ village in Compton’.”
An artistic legacy
To get to this stage, against a backdrop of a difficult economic client, is an extraordinary achievement all-round – and Perdita Hunt, who in 2015 was deservedly awarded the OBE for her services to the arts, as well as the prestigious Guildford Roll of Honour award, has worked tirelessly in her aim to reinstate this Victorian artists’ village. Now that her quest has finally been achieved, she must surely feel enormous pride but is quick to deflect any praise to others.
“We are so grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund and to the Trusts, Foundations and many generous individuals who are enabling us to save this incredible past of our cultural heritage – and who share our vision of upholding this incredible legacy by establishing an Artists’ Village here in Compton,” she adds.
So, thanks to Perdita and her team, this leafy hollow in the hills is now well and truly on the international arts map – and, these days, those buckets of rainwater are nothing but a distant memory.
Where: Watts Gallery, Down Lane, Compton, Guildford GU3 1DQ.
Contact: Tel: 01483 810235. Web: wattsgallery.org.uk
When: Open Tuesday to Sunday, 11am to 5pm. Closed on Mondays.
Admission: Adults, £9.50 (£10.50 with a donation for Gift Aid); students: £4.75; children 16 and under are admitted for free.
What: Admission gains you access to Watts Gallery, Watts Studios, Watts Chapel and the Artists’ Village woodlands and grounds.
Guided tours: Limnerslease, the residence of G F and Mary Watts, is only accessible by guided tour, which take place every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday from 12noon-1.15pm and 2-3.15pm. Tours cost £5 per person. To book a place, call 01483 813593.
* NB: There is a 10-minute uphill walk and Limnerslease is not currently wheelchair accessible.
• Limnerslease is the last surviving artist’s house and studio by eminent Arts and Crafts architect, Ernest George
• GF and Mary Watts married at Christ Church, Epsom, on November 20, 1886
• Sir Edwin Lutyens commissioned the Compton Potters’ Arts Guild to make the miniature terracotta pots for the garden of Queen Mary’s doll’s house
• Clough Williams-Ellis chose the Guild to create the decorative terracotta ware at his Italianate village, Portmeirion
• The famous BBC Potter’s Wheel Interlude Film, introduced in 1953, featured George Aubertin from the Guild
• GF Watts was the first living artist to be given a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York