George Frederic Watts was, according to the gallery guide, one of the most celebrated artists of his day. And walking around The Watts Gallery, it soon becomes clear why.
Watts’ work is powerful and has an instant impact. Travelling from room to room, one sees a transformation in style and approach, from idealistic doll-like figures, to textural symbolist works. Throughout this transformation, a strong connecting thread persists: Watts was not afraid to deal with significant social and historical subjects. Subjects that I imagine were very popular during the Victorian era. Dramatic works like Found Drowned , for instance, are captivating and haunting, and have the ability to really draw the viewer in.
The means of display in the gallery is also strong – each wall decorated in a bright colour, and paintings hung boldly from long chains, suspended from a high-up dado rail. The story of how Watts’ paintings ended up in this unique space is interesting to consider. George and his artist wife, Mary Seton Watts, moved to the village of Compton in 1891, seeking refuge from the hectic life of their London residence, Little Holland House (perhaps a future Maximal Space?) The gallery opened in 1903 – designed by architect and social reformer Christopher Hatton Turnor – just one year before George Frederic Watts’ death.
Before he passed away, Watts’ opinion of the space seemed less than positive – he was particularly displeased by the cramped nature of the space (which can be seen in the photographs below):
‘Everything must be crowded here…I am sick of the whole thing!’
After his death, Mary Seton Watts was determined to expand the space, and over the years the gallery was altered and added to, allowing for more comfortable viewing. Walking around today, there are still whispers of that old cramped world – pictures hung in a very traditional way, and a lower ground floor filled with objects, archival material and paintings.
Mary Seton Watts was an important figure in her own right, both artistically and in terms of her theories on art education. Specialising in works in 3D or relief, she encouraged the local community to engage in similar artistic practise. She was a firm believer in art for all. One of her most ambitious projects was the chapel, located just up the road from the gallery. After the couple bought land on Budborrow Hill for a new cemetery, in 1894, Mary began to plan designs for a chapel there. The beautiful embellishment of this building, inside and out, was painstakingly made with the support of the local community. And walking into the space today is just fantastic.
On first entering, just a hint of the decoration is revealed (especially on a rainy winter’s day). But, with the click of a light switch, all is revealed – and there is so much. Every possible spare inch of the chapel is brought to life with detailed embellishment. And although the space is small, it really does take a long time to take it all in. From angels towering above on beams, to ornate gold patterns, words cannot describe the amount of time and effort that must have gone into decorating the space.
Even if you don’t have time to spend a whole day in the gallery, I wholeheartedly recommend spending a few minutes to rest and relax in the chapel.