27.7.06

Watts Gallery

When I lived in Guildford it was always a treat to visit the nearby village of Compton. It was great for jumble sales, antique shops and homely tea rooms – and The Watts Gallery. Watching the Restoration Village TV programme on BBC2, I was surprised to see The Watts Gallery listed as one of the buildings under threat. It always was a bit run down, a secret place you could take people and watch their eyes light up as we ventured inside. The curator at the time was Wilfred Blunt, brother of the famous spy Anthony Blunt, later replaced by Richard Jeffries. It was built in 1903-4 by George Frederic Watts and his second wife Mary in the Arts and Crafts style. His short-lived first marriage was to the 16-year old actress Ellen Terry – his famous portrait of her shows her smelling camelias, a flower with no scent. Victorian symbolist and allegorical painting may not be everyone's cup of tea, but this gallery, purpose built by 'England's Michaelangelo' is a gem and my kind of museum, with its mixture of important pictures (as well as the Watts, some lovely ones by Albert Moore and Edward Burne-Jones, I seem to remember) and domestic items - plus fabulous back studio rooms containing many maquettes and two full-size plaster sculptures: Physical Energy (in Kensington Gardens, London and Cape Town) and Tennyson (outside Lincoln Cathedral), which we were sometimes allowed to peep into. I visited the Gustave Moreau museum in Paris recently and in my opinion, Watts gallery is the more important. Mary, as well as repainting some of Watts' pictures after he died, to cheer them up, started a pottery to help the local unemployed and the more talented of them helped her to build the marvellous Art Nouveau memorial chapel in the nearby graveyard, where GF is buried – it was a favourite subject of mine to draw and paint. The outside of this remarkable red building is covered in intricate Celtic designs in terra cotta; inside it is decorated in sumptuous blue, red and gold gesso with pictures of angels, and an alterpiece by GF. Well worth a day out in Surrey. So vote now and save the Gallery!
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