Tuesday 14 February 2012: Love on Valentine's Day
Had a day out at the Watts Gallery in the village of Compton near Guildford. Haven't been since the restoration in 2010 and what a great job they've done.
The Gallery houses a collection of the paintings and artefacts of GF Watts [1817-1904], plus quite rare collections of Victorian photographs.
The Hall of Fame Exhibition is stunning, a collection of portraits by Watts of influential people of the time inc Swinburne, William Morris, Millais and Tennyson. I'm not a portrait lover generally but there is something alive about these. Watts seldom paints much background or even the shoulders of the sitter, instead the face is lit in such a way to bring out the features. I got a real sense of character from many of these portraits. At the end of his life, Watts gave over 40 of these portraits to the National Portrait Gallery. This exhibition runs until 3rd June, should you be within striking distance. And if you go on a Tuesday the entrance fee is only £2. Word of advice. If you intend having lunch in their tearoom on a busy day, get in early, at least by noon, or you will be queuing. Even so, queuing is worth it.
A short way down the road in the same village stands the Watts Cemetery Chapel, built by Watts' wife Mary. She believed in encouraging the lower classes to use handicrafts as a way of social improvement.
"Mary passionately believed that anyone with a real interest and enthusiasm could be taught how to produce beautiful decoration, if in the process it kept them away from the 'gin palaces' of Guildford, this was surely a good thing". Bet Guildford is delighted with this quote.
So when she discovered a seam of clay in the grounds of their house, Limnerslease, Mary invited anyone and everyone from the village, from the lady of the manor to farm boys, to learn clay modelling. When they were proficient, they made clay tiles which were to become part of the Chapel. The design is totally appropriate for Valentine's day, being based on circles and crosses symbolising the power of redeeming love stretching to the four quarters of the earth.
The interior has many influences but for me it's the fusion of Celtic and Art Nouveau which is so enchanting. I have to say I find the interior a little overwhelming, every surface is covered with ornamentation in stunning colours. Very hard to take it all in. Even harder to choose a blip out of the many photographs, but settled on one with a heart included. The whole interior design is made of gesso, a traditional mix of glue and chalk, presumably over wood carving. Only the best craftsmen were brought in by Mary for this formidable task.
George Frederick Watts and Mary, though prolific and influential in their lifetimes, never achieved the same fame as some of their friends in the Pre-Raphaelite movement. This remarkable collection and its home, plus the chapel, is testament to them and their ideals of Hope, Truth, Love and Light. Do go if you can!
Study the Past; Live in the Present; Work for the Future - GF Watts.