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

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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

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