The studios of G.F. Watts and his wife Mary have been restored and opened to the public
The Watts Gallery and Mortuary Chapel in Compton, Surrey, have lengthy been areas of pilgrimage for any person fascinated by Victorian art and architecture. But now, with the help of a £2.4m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the studios exactly where George Frederic Watts and his wife Mary worked have also been restored and opened to the public by the Watts Gallery Trust under its director, Perdita Hunt.
Watts, popular, prolific and unabashedly higher-minded, was active all through Queen Victoria’s lengthy reign. Although a Londoner from birth, as he neared old age, he found the capital’s pollution increasingly attempting following his marriage to the artist and designer Mary Seton Fraser-Tytler in 1886, he leased the Compton land — a hilltop site with panoramic views of the surrounding woodland — and commissioned the Arts and Crafts architect Ernest George to design the capacious home he named “Limnerslease”. The couple moved in on July 18 1891.
As you walk into Watts’s lofty studio, it is the massive south-facing window that is most striking. Watts loved to rise long before dawn and to see how the advent of daylight transformed his paintings. He also relished the challenge of monumental compositions, and a single of his greatest paintings has returned right here, on extended loan from Tate. Known as “The Court of Death”, it dramatises Watts’s obsession with mortality. This overwhelming canvas, which he worked on for much more than three decades (1870-1902), has been placed on a reconstruction of the pulley technique devised by Watts for moving paintings up and down even though he worked on them.
Wandering round the studio, one particular gets a sturdy sense of this tireless artist’s preoccupations. His palette and brushes rest on a table, and nearby an image from the Sistine Chapel ceiling testifies to his enjoy of Michelangelo (he was dubbed “England’s Michelangelo”). A Van Dyck reproduction can be located on yet another table, and throughout the studio are fragments of classical sculpture, notably a reproduction of a figure from the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum.
Although Watts was esteemed as a portraitist, he never ever wanted to devote all his energies to painting eminent Victorian sitters — although radical girls fascinated him, and one particular vigorously handled canvas in the studio turns out to be an unfinished portrait of Florence Nightingale. Haunted by the transience of life, he kept a skeleton in his studio cupboard and continually laboured over such elaborate allegories as the immense “Love Steering The Boat of Humanity” (c.1900).
Living in the Surrey Hills also created him determined to tackle landscape painting. A single of the resulting functions, dominated by freely brushed pictures of trees, is displayed on an easel in his studio. A photograph survives of Watts painting avidly outdoors, as close as feasible to the organic globe he cherished.
Mary, 32 years his junior, was an extraordinary force, and her newly restored studio is alive with evidence of an irrepressible dynamism. No significantly less idealistic than her husband, she devoted herself to social enterprises. Her studio doubled as a teaching space for villagers who wanted to support create terracotta tiles and panels for her Mortuary Chapel in Compton’s cemetery nearby. The chapel became an Arts and Crafts showpiece, and a new model of the chapel, by Henry Milner, is on display in Mary’s studio. So is a series of decorative friezes, in gesso and wood, which she produced for the Cambridge Military Hospital Chapel in Aldershot — long-neglected religious operates that have now been totally conserved.
Fascinating examples of pottery can also be seen in Mary’s studio, testifying to her achievement in establishing the Compton Potters’ Arts Guild co-operative with nearby villagers. It won contracts with Liberty & Co as properly as commissions from architects including Edwin Lutyens.
For many years just before her husband’s death in 1904, Mary devoted a wonderful deal of time to assisting the octogenarian Watts carry on functioning. The depth of her feelings is poignantly revealed in her watercolour of him lying in bed, ill and fragile. She at some point died in 1938, and now the full extent of her commitment to a wide range of projects — she also ran the nearby branch of the Women’s Suffrage Society — is celebrated in the newly opened studio. The rescue of this important artists’ home reveals its significance as a power-hub for the work created by each husband and wife.
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