Surrey’s artists’ village celebrates 200 years since the birth of GF Watts

Watts Gallery - Artists' Village has become one of Surrey's leading tourist attractions

Watts Gallery - Artists' Village has become one of Surrey's leading tourist attractions - Credit: Archant

This month, Watts Gallery - Artists’ Village launches a celebratory programme of events to mark the bicentenary of the birth of GF Watts

Watts's Good Samaritan will be on display in Compton, thanks to Manchester Art Gallery

Watts's Good Samaritan will be on display in Compton, thanks to Manchester Art Gallery - Credit: Archant

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine February 2017


George Frederic Watts (1817 – 1904) was one of the world’s greatest artists – an outstanding painter, sculptor and draughtsman and notable muralist. To celebrate his remarkable life, Watts Gallery - Artists’ Village is planning a programme of events in 2017 to mark the bicentenary of his birth.

Launching on Watts’s birthday, Thursday February 23, highlights include an unprecedented display of the artist’s epic murals, an unparalleled exhibition of his masterpieces from public and private collections, a concert of music beloved by the artist and his eminent friends, and a conference focusing on science and art in Victorian Britain.

“During this bicentenary year, we intend to decisively reinvigorate the artist’s reputation, and to achieve this the Watts 200 programme offers everyone fresh opportunities to enjoy the work of this wonderfully charismatic figure,” says Dr Nicholas Tromans, curator of Watts Gallery. “Our main exhibition will combine colour, cosmos and celebrity to show how George F Watts’s art is mysterious, powerful and experimental.”

Watts 200 follows on from a highly successful year during which time Watts Gallery was thrust into the cultural limelight with the restoration of the former home and studios of Watts and his wife, the designer Mary Seton Watts. The Watts combined limner (meaning artist) and lease (meaning in the sense of gathering) to create the unusual name of ‘Limnerslease’ for their new house and they took possession in July, 1891. They immediately fell in love with the surrounding community and landscape, and the studio became the heart of their home.

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Watts painted prolifically, rising early to spend the day exploring grand themes in his allegorical paintings, usually dressed in his now famous Titianesque cap and robes. Mary was also a dedicated designer and artist, and was among the first generation of Victorian women to receive formal art training. Her love of art was infectious and her sense of community led to the creation of the Watts Chapel, designed by Mary herself in a wonderful fusion of art nouveau, Celtic, Romanesque and Victorian style.

The Compton Gallery at the Artists’ Village shares the story of the Watts’ personal lives – from the commissioning of Limnerslease to the foundation of the Watts Gallery, the only purpose-built art gallery in the UK dedicated to a single professional artist.

Justifiably nicknamed ‘England’s Michelangelo’ by his close friend, Frederic, Lord Leighton, Watts shared Mary’s desire to spread the joy of art throughout the neighbouring community.

“Watts really was the Michelangelo of his time, a prolific artist who incredibly painted for almost seven decades,” continues Nick. “He worked from memory and inner vision, rather than still life or sketches. George and Mary Watts shared a belief that art could and should reach all and that it could transform lives and the continuing success and interest our projects reinforces Mary’s dream of ‘an artists’ village in Compton’.”

Shortly before his death in 1904, Watts Gallery was opened to the public, by which time George Frederic Watts was a household name, both nationally and internationally. His talents are now enjoying renewed recognition and, following a major restoration funded by generous benefactors and a £2.4 million loan from the Heritage Lottery Fund, visitors now have access to Limnerslease in addition to the existing gallery, studios, shop and nearby chapel.

The main event of Watts 200 will be the exhibition, A Life in Art: G F Watts (1817 – 1904), which offers a chronological journey through the artist’s life, illustrated by some of his most exquisite drawings. By highlighting key occasions in his 70-year career, we learn the story of Watts and his rise to prominence, from humble origins to world-famous artist. The display will present hitherto little-known drawings from the Watts Gallery collection and will provide the master draughtsman element to ‘England’s Michelangelo’.

Watts’ delicate drawings often sowed the first seed for more elaborate compositions which became sizeable paintings or sculptures. Many of the exhibits have been chosen to enrich the wider bicentenary displays, for example the elegant Study for the Figure of Life for Love and Life (1880-89), which captures the profile of the artist’s muse and first wife, Ellen Terry in sanguine chalk.

Her tilted head, parted lips and yearning expression were replicated in the prime version of Love and Life (1884), famously shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is generously being loaned to the June exhibition from a private collection.

There seems no limit to the exciting developments at this creative community in the heart of Surrey. Nick expands on this celebration of Watts’s work,

“Watts worked on such an ambitious scale in sculpture, fresco and oil painting. His ambitions for the purpose of his art were enormous too – he genuinely believed it would change the lives of those who experienced it,” says Nick. “As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth, we will be building on the recent success of Watts Gallery - Artists’ Village in bringing this wonderful artist back to public attention. We’ll be looking in particular at the ways the artist engaged in the world beyond his studios – at his interest in music, in philanthropy and in science. Through a series of exhibitions and events, we’ll be inviting everyone to explore with us the strange, beautiful and thought-provoking world of GF Watts.”

With so many wonderful events planned in 2017 to celebrate the life of Watts, this is the perfect time to visit this artists’ haven in Surrey. Who better to re-enforce the idea than Diana Roberts, tourism marketing and development manager for Visit Guildford.

“Watts Gallery - Artists’ Village is a gem in the list of places people can visit in the area, and exceptionally popular with groups,” she enthuses. “It is a destination in its own right with its superb café and its excellent reputation for delicious food; the delightful gift shop; good parking; and, of course, the multi-site visit to include Watts’ Studio and the Watts Cemetery Chapel. It is such a fantastic place to visit that is easy to recommend to visitors, as we know they will get a quality experience.”

For more information about Watts 200, visit


Did you know?

The Watts Gallery Trust has just received a £75,000 grant from the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation, which will be used to restore the arts and crafts masterpiece, Watts Chapel. The grant will contribute to the restoration of the chapel’s renowned gesso panels and return it to its original purpose to serve the community for burial and memorial services. Providing invaluable conservation experience for students, the work will be undertaken by 10 City & Guilds London School of Art students and graduates, who will work under the guidance of leading expert Patricia Jackson. This grant has been offered as a ‘challenge grant’, with Watts Gallery Trust working to match the donations in order to release the funding.


Key 2017 Dates for your Diary


Monumental Murals

Tuesday February 28 to Sunday November 5

The first exhibition of the year ahead at Watts Gallery will showcase Watts’s mural projects, and includes the very first public display of his Apollo and Diana (1855).


The Art of GF Watts


This book by Dr Nicholas Tromans, curator of Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village provides an engaging introduction to one of the most charismatic figures in British art history. Covering all aspects of Watts’s career, it places him back at the centre of the visual culture of the 19th century.


Watts Bicentenary Lecture

Monday March 13

The President of the Royal Academy, Christopher Le Brun, will visit Charterhouse in Godalming to discuss painting today, his own work and what GF Watts has to say to artists of our own era.


Freshwater by Virginia Woolf

Saturday March 25

The popular Compton Little Theatre head to Watts Gallery - Artists’ Village to give a reading of Virginia’s Woolf’s only play, Freshwater, a farce telling the tale of Julia Margaret Cameron, GF Watts, Ellen Terry and their bohemian artistic circle on the Isle of Wight.


An Evening of Victorian Song

Wednesday May 24

Compered by David Owen Norris, An Evening of Victorian Song is one of a number of productions to be held in Watts Gallery during the year ahead.


GF Watts: England’s Michelangelo

Tuesday June 20 to Sunday November 26

A number of the artist’s most important works from museum and private collections will be brought together at Watts Gallery, including one of the nation’s top ten favourite paintings – the iconic Choosing (1864) – and the emblematic Good Samaritan (1850).


Artists as Reformers in British Art c.1850-1900

September (invite only)

A one-day seminar at Watts Gallery exploring the roles played by GF Watts and his Victorian contemporaries in promoting social and political causes through art.


Science and Art in Victorian Britain


Watts was fascinated by the latest scientific discoveries, especially in evolution and astronomy. This conference will investigate the relationships between science and art in the nineteenth century and Watts’ work.