"I had no idea that here in Surrey, there was a collection of such richness and a story of such depth. That one man with his devoted wife could leave so much - which makes Compton a unique artists' village and Watts one of the most important artists and philanthropists of the 19th century." - Penelope Keith CBE DL
Too often we do not visit the wonderful places on our doorstep. Most of us see far more when we are away on holiday than we do when we are running around at home.
This week I was reminded of how special Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village is and how long it is since I visited. Having spent many formative years in Compton, riding my horses past Watts Gallery most days, I am thrilled to now start becoming acquainted with this unique place.
First opening its doors to the public in 1904, Watts Gallery is a purpose-built art gallery created to display the works of the great Victorian artist G F Watts. After a major restoration project completed in 2011, visitors can once again experience stunning artworks whilst wandering through the atmospheric historic galleries.
G F Watts holds a unique position within British art. In his own time Watts was critically acclaimed, admired by his fellow artists, both at home and abroad, and was popularly adored, allowing him the public platform to explore his idea of a poet-painter who could preach eternal truths and provoke social reform.
Over 100 paintings by Watts are on permanent display. Spanning a period of seventy years, they include portraits, landscapes and his major symbolic works. From the dramatic entrance of the Livanos Gallery to the monumental artefacts in the Sculpture Gallery, Watts Gallery beautifully presents the unique collection left by the artist.
Watts Gallery also has a programme of temporary exhibitions showcasing some of the finest works relating to Watts, his inner circle and the Victorian age in general.
"A hidden treasure in Compton in Surrey, stuffed with huge allegorical paintings and sparkling portraits that were the talk of Victorian society" - Maev Kennedy; The Guardian
The History of Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village
Throughout his life, Watts had commissioned a number of leading architects to design buildings for him. However, Watts selected a relatively unknown architect to design his Gallery. Christopher Hatton Turnor (1873–1940) was living within a mile of Compton with his parents and was thrilled to receive a commission from such an established artist. Watts's choice of Turnor reflected both his and Mary's ethos by supporting Arts & Crafts in the local community.
The building was constructed using Surrey tiles, and its foundation stone, a beautiful terracotta block, was laid by Watts on his eighty-sixth birthday. He lived to see the gallery open for only three months, passing away on 1 July 1904.
Watts's death sent shockwaves throughout the art world and had a devastating impact on the gallery, which Mary closed so that the collection might form the core of a large travelling memorial exhibition. This allowed Mary the opportunity to expand the gallery, allowing for the display of more works, something that Watts himself had wished for before his death.
Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village today
By 2004, 100 years after it first opened, conditions at Watts Gallery had deteriorated so severely that it was deemed "at risk". The Trustees launched the aptly named "Hope Project" with the aim to save the building and its unique collection for at least another hundred years to come. Following an extensive restoration and extension, Watts Gallery re-opened in 2011.
Two new temporary exhibition spaces were added as well as an outer workshop equipped with a kiln as a learning and event space. The Watts' had always been keen to involve local communities in projects, a value that the Artists' Village endorses today with outreach programmes and learning programmes. The "Hope Wall" outside the Sculpture Gallery was also created; through word and image it records the thoughts and memories of the current local community.
My favourite aspect of the Artists’ Village is perhaps Limmerselease the artists winter home.