MARKING A BICENTENARY
In celebration of the life and works of George Frederic Watts, described as England’s Michelangelo, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village are marking 2017, the two- two-hundredth hundredth anniversary since his birth, with a series of special exhibitions and e
Explore the remarkable legacy of G F Watts RA, ‘England’s Michelangelo’ at Watts Gallery - Artists' Village in Guildford.
THIS YEAR, motorists on the A3, the great arterial road out of London, south towards Portsmouth, have a new landmark and a huge reason to seek out the story behind it. A monumental, more than twice life-size bronze statue of Physical Energy, a classical figure astride a prancing horse, will be prominently sited at Compton, outside Godalming. Watts created the original in his mid-fifties, after an early-modernist style, in ‘gesso’, a sort of cloth-reinforced plaster. Although Watts, born in 1817, had a precocious passion for art, studying sculpture in his preteens and progressing to the Royal Academy Schools, it was in painting that he sprang to prominence in the mid-1800’s. From the exquisitely accurate portraiture of his early years he followed the artistic trend of the time into the ancient milieu of ‘murals’, vast, colourful depictions painted directly onto the walls of grand structures. When only 25 years of age, Watts entered, and won, an international competition for the design of the decoration of the newly-rebuilt Houses of Parliament. The prize money enabled him to travel to Italy to further his studies, particularly of Renaissance art and fresco techniques, and his five years away from England rekindled his passion for this. His prolific, multi-faceted output caused no less a figure than Frederic, Lord Leighton, President of the Royal Academy, to pronounce him ‘England’s Michelangelo’ and his fame led to ‘retrospective’ exhibitions in Manchester London and New York a full twenty (very productive) years before his death in 1904. Now, on the 200th anniversary of his birth, not only will the statue of his iconic sculpture be cast but also a programme of events has been announced, to bring his achievements to a greater public. As well as a series of concerts and lectures, some of his epic murals have already been brought to the Gallery, a selection of his perfectly beautiful drawings is on display and masterpieces from private and public collections are being assembled for a unique exhibition, running from 20th June – 26th November. The choice of a hillside in leafy Surrey to display the tribute is not random. Watts’ private life had largely been overtaken by the sheer volume of artworks he produced and, despite a brief, failed marriage to the actress Ellen Terry, he only ‘settled down’ when, aged 69, he married a much younger (by 33 years) woman, Mary, who had been a teenaged pupil of his and who was, in her own right, a gifted designer. Moving out of Kensington, where Leighton was a nextdoor neighbour, they settled in Compton where, having ornately decorated their new Arts & Crafts home, they offered local people art lessons, particularly in ceramics and pottery. Immediately over-subscribed, larger facilities were established and these became the home of her fledgling business, the Compton Potters’ Art Guild, and the first step towards the Artists’ Village which followed. Mary’s relative youth and enthusiasm had earlier enabled local residents to fund the construction of her design for the extraordinary Watts Chapel, a circular redbrick and terracotta space, with a cruciform roof, whose interior and exterior decoration shows more reference to the Celtic and Byzantine Christian traditions than those of Canterbury.
This same confidence inspired the building of the Watts Gallery, both properly to display some of his vast output and to provide living space for the many young students eager to learn from ‘Signor’, the preferred name for Watts in later life. Sadly, he died later that year, leaving Mary to widowed solitude and the perpetuation of his legacy until she, too, passed away in 1938. Without her, the pottery business declined, finally closing in 1956, and the remarkable adventure might have disappeared. Fast forward to 2006 and a television series called Restoration Village, and the exposure of the overgrown wreck of the Artists’ Village to a public becoming hooked on property preservation. Although not winning (it came second), it had come to the notice of the Heritage Lottery Fund which, seeing just how much of the original had survived the ravages of time, encouraged the trustees of Watts’ estate to launch their own, highly successful fund-raising enterprise. By 2011, the Gallery had been gloriously restored and the art collection once again appropriately displayed. Remarkably, sufficient momentum had been created for the other derelict buildings on the estate to be acquired and the programme has continued until the present day, when you can now visit, in fullyrestored condition, all the Watts’ visionary achievement. This includes the Chapel, the Cemetery Cloister, the original Gallery and the Studio where he worked. Only the house, Limnerslease, remains to be completed and this is scheduled for next year. Echoing the pioneering spirit of the Watts, the trustees have established a further gallery, on-site, to display and sell the work of numerous modern artists. The whole group of buildings, with ample parking, a good visitor information centre and first-class tearoom, make for a fascinating opportunity to sample, at first hand, the lifework of two of Britain’s most inspiring cultural figures. » wattsgallery.org.uk