I recently went on a pilgrimage of sorts to this art gallery complex near Guildford in Surrey. The name is confusing as it is unclear whether the village is Watts’ or Compton. In the late 19th century, the great artist George Frederic (G.F.) Watts (1817-1904) and his wife Mary Sefton Watts (1849-1938) sought respite from the social pressures of London and also clean air. For several winters they stayed with friends nearby before commissioning their home, Limnerlease, named as a temporary home for painters. Their home included a south facing studio for G.F., which was unusual as most artists preferred more even northern light, but it was used mostly in the winter, and as he was an early riser, there is also a skylight facing east. This room has been restored to the state in which he worked, with many items such as the canvas lift which allowed him to raise or lower large pieces for access; when lowered, they entered the room below. G.F.’s mixing table is there, and in a drawer, the velvet skull cap which he wears in photographs. After he died his wife used to stroke it, and the top of it is now threadbare.
Mary Watts was 32 years younger than her husband; she was born in India to a Scottish civil servant but had grown up in similar circles to her future husband. Julia Margaret Cameron photographed her with her 3 sisters on the Isle of Wight and she studied art in London and Europe. She modeled in clay and taught this skill to poor young men in London’s East End. By the time she married, her husband was one of the greats of the art world. He had held retrospectives of his work in London and New York and awarded a Doctorate of Law by Cambridge University and Doctor of Civil Law from Oxford. He is often shown wearing the red gown from the latter. They were both passionate and active evangelists for art, inspired by the work of Ruskin. They saw art as a means of improving and ennobling the poor. G.F. was by then financially secure and Oscar Wilde called his paintings great poems. He studied in Europe and on his return was horrified by the levels of poverty, so became a social reformer and created many pictures to evoke sympathy for reform, especially of women. He saw himself as a servant of the nation and insisted that his work remains in the public realm. Mary was his second wife, after a brief marriage with Ellen Terry.
George Frederic and Mary married in November 1886 and embarked on a prolonged honeymoon to the Middle East which provided much inspiration for both their future work. They lived at Little Holland House in London’s Kensington and had many famous artists as friends and neighbours such as Lord Leighton. On weekend afternoons they opened G.F’s studio to the public, but they grew tired of the bustle of the capital and began spending their winters with friends at Compton, where they eventually decided to settle, in part for G.F.’s health. After several years they decided to build their own house, and Limnerlease was the result. Though the house was of G.F’s design, the interiors – especially the entrance and sitting room were decorated by Mary, and were a forerunner of what she achieved with their mortuary chapel.
The Watts Gallery was built to display the great artist’s work, featuring his own private collection. But it was also intended to demonstrate the importance of art. G.F.’s insistence on his art being in the public domain meant that much of his work had already been donated to galleries such as The Tate, National Portrait Gallery. He commissioned a local, unknown architect, to produce a rural looking building, and it has a very barn-like appearance. It was opened in 1904, only 3 months before he died. It has been expanded and improved to show a wide selection of his work and of special exhibitions such as the recent one on the lives of the Preraphaelites.
G.F’s reputation is largely based on his paintings, but in later life he took to sculpture, especially the much larger than life piece of his friend Tennyson commissioned by Lincoln Cathedral. For this he replaced a nearby barn and wheeled his work out into the open air where he worked on it. He also created bronze statues. Mary held terracotta classes for local people, to provide gravestones for locals, which developed into her creating a pottery to employ locals and provide them with access to art as an alternative to degrading industrial work. This also allowed her to build and decorate the mortuary chapel, funded by her husband as a gift to locals when their church burial ground became overcrowded. The pottery became so successful Mary turned it into a business, producing terracotta memorials, statues and jardinieres.
Ladies in the late 19th century were encouraged to work, but not to earn money as this would turn them into tradespeople. Many became involved in the Home Arts and Industries Association which taught arts to the poor. It was found that students took an interest in mending their clothes, and when such classes were founded in Ireland they were observed to be cleaner and less ragged. But these movements and other charities were not completely altruistic. The poor were no longer attending church, so such activities were designed to improve their behaviour and provide productive alternatives to drink and gambling.