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Watts Gallery in Compton - the multi-million pound restoration of Surrey's unique art gallery

PUBLISHED: 12:04 30 November 2011 | UPDATED: 15:49 16 July 2015

Watts Gallery in Compton - the multi-million pound restoration of Surrey's unique art gallery

Watts Gallery in Compton - the multi-million pound restoration of Surrey's unique art gallery

One of the country’s most historically important art galleries, the Watts Gallery in Compton throws open its doors again this month following an £11million restoration. Matthew Williams was invited behind the scenes at this unique venue, which celebrates the life and works of Victorian artist GF Watts, to discover whether the once leaking ceilings have been successfully replaced by a gallery fit for the 21st century

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine June 2011

Photography: Watts Gallery / Anne Purkiss

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It’s easy to forget that only a few years ago, Watts Gallery had reached such a decrepit state that it was closer to resembling an old leaky potting shed – albeit one of Arts and Crafts heritage – rather than a gallery of national importance. Unique in being purpose-built for a single professional artist, the Victorian visionary GF Watts, it was listed as ‘at risk’ by English Heritage, struggling with rising damp and leaky ceilings, and with no funds to do anything about it.

Two-and-a-half years of restoration later, however, along with the small matter of £11million (generated in the end by a significant contribution from the Heritage Lottery Fund and some impressive fund-raising through The Hope Appeal) and you’d hardly recognise the place. In fact, if you hadn’t just driven through winding Surrey country lanes, it wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine yourself on a lost wing of the National Gallery these days.

“We’ve still got some of the buckets around to remind us,” jokes gallery director, Perdita Hunt, who has admirably held the helm and overcome so many challenges during the project – not least when the original contractors fell into administration back in the summer of 2009, which delayed things considerably.

“But we would have never named the project Hope if we had thought it was a lost cause. We’re so proud of the efforts that have taken place. It’s incredible that during the closure, the number of people who volunteer here has actually increased. We feel this restoration is giving the artist another chance to be reappraised. It’s been a rediscovery for us; like seeing his work again for the first time.”

National significance
This rediscovery sees freshly lit, stunningly hung spaces marking what many hope will be Watts’ new dawn. Certainly, a new energy and excitement surrounds his work and, with paintings from the Tate joining the Compton collection for the opening months, it’s hoped that the general apathy that had replaced what was once fervour will be reversed.  

Only recently, for example, Charles Spencer, the Telegraph theatre critic who started his journalistic career as a cub reporter on the Surrey Advertiser, referred to the gallery in the Seventies as a place that ‘seemed dusty and neglected’ with a curator who ‘wasn’t exactly a passionate advocate of Watts’ work’. The story, as he told it, goes that when Wilfred Blunt asked people round for tea in the gallery, he’d often add: ‘Shame about the pictures’.

In fact, during his lifetime, GF Watts was one of that period’s most eminent artists. In 1910, the international art conference was held in London and a special train was laid on from Waterloo so that those attending could visit Watts Gallery; the Tate had a room solely dedicated to Watts until 1938; and the National Portrait Gallery, too, has the hall of fame series of portraits that are still on display today.

“It was at the start of World War One that things began to change,” says curator Mark Bills. “As the century wore on, Watts, like most things Victoriana, had begun to be seen as ugly and outmoded, and suffered terribly from the changing tastes. You cannot, whether you like his work or not, ignore him though. His work is simply too important. What we hope to do is give the right forum for people to rediscover his work for themselves. We are awakening a sleeping giant.”

While the gallery may have slept, those inside it and its collections have been anything but dormant. A key theme to Watts’ outlook on life was art for all, and during the restoration his works have taken centre stage in London, with an exhibition at St Paul’s Cathedral among the highlights, as well as further afield.

“It certainly wasn’t an idle collection,” says Mark. “As well as the exhibitions, we also did a lot of research. For example, there’s a piece from the 1850s, which had a mysterious line visible through it that had always seemed a little out of place. We’ve since discovered it was actually a portrait of a pair of sisters, but they ended up splitting it in half.”

Portraits were something of a forte for the artist and many famous people would have visited, staying over the road at his former home, Limnerslease.  George Meredith, Baden-Powell and Gladstone are just a few of the venerated names who would have passed through the area in their time.

New discoveries
One such portrait of note is a painting of family friend Virginia Dalrymple wearing a green dress. During the intensive restorations, an old tin trunk was discovered. Inside it: a certain green dress. They will now be displayed side by side in a room also housing original sketchbooks, a silver point that he used to etch with and paintbrushes.

“Virginia is part of Watts’ history at Little Holland House in Kensington,” says Mark. “He lived there for around 30 years, having originally intended to stay for just a few days. It was rented out by a family and they moved in circles that meant Ruskin, Dickens, Tennyson etc were all regulars – a great position for Watts to be in as a kind of artist in residence.”

In fact, it was when visiting one of the daughters of the family, who had relocated to Surrey after marrying, that Watts fell in love with the area and moved here with his wife Mary. They built their house and then the chapel, which can still be seen next door to the art gallery, the pottery and then the gallery itself. Watts only actually saw the final finished creation for three months before he died.

“The sad thing was that once Mary died too, the general modernisation of the gallery – repainting the walls new and trendier colours, for example – completely distorted its atmosphere,” says Mark.

“So, we basically ripped out all those changes, and yet it’s funny, while our vision has been to return the gallery largely to the original vision, it has taken a fair bit of modernisation itself to achieve this! The architects have done an incredible job though and really understood our ambitions.”

Let there be light
They faced a huge challenge, too: how do you bring a Victorian gallery into the 21st century without damaging its essential historic fabric?

One such problem was the lighting. Watts always intended his works to be viewed in as natural light as possible. The only problem, as anyone who has ever been inside an eerily dark, heavily curtained tapestry room in a country house will know, is that direct sunlight doesn’t serve the conservation of aged works well. Architects Lucy Clark and Adam Zombory-Moldovan of ZMMA lived up to the challenge, however, creating the soft, controllable viewing conditions that visitors will now experience, with lifted ceilings and state-of-the-art blinds.

Among the most impressive new additions are the huge glass doors that will showcase one of Watts’ most striking sculptures, the 3.5 tons of plaster that is Physical Energy, in its best light. Works such as this led to his tag as England’s Michelangelo and, as well as its original plaster model at Compton, three other bronze casts can be found around the world in Cape Town, London and Harare.

“It’s pretty amazing to note that he was in his eighties when he created it,” says Mark. “He suffered from arthritis and found clay too hard to sculpt and so used a sort of plaster of Paris with hemp and glue mixed in instead.”

Today, it will provide quite the eye- opening welcome; sitting, in full view of the car park, on special tracks that will mean on sunnier days it can ‘explore’ outside. Physical Energy was actually created in London before itself moving to Surrey, probably in pieces – the thought of such a large sculpture coming down the nearby winding lanes on horse-drawn carriages takes some imagination. Fortunately, it’s made of hardy stuff.

“Conditions had deteriorated to such an extent in the room, it was impossible for us to work around them during the restoration – usually such large sculptures would just be boxed around,” continues Mark. “So we had to house it in a purpose-made, heavily secured barn with the similarly grandiose 12ft Tennyson statue.”

The cabinets that sit alongside them both today, housing more modest anatomical creations, such as arms and legs, death masks (face casts were often sent in the post to help him work on his own sculptures or paintings – there’s one of Abraham Lincoln) and mini-sculptures etc, were actually commandeered from Kew Gardens’ seed bank.

The project’s efforts, however, have been far more than purely cosmetic, as gallery director, Perdita points out: “We now have government indemnity, which means that the conditions are a high enough standard to borrow works from major national galleries. Beforehand, this was impossible, but we’ll be opening with works from the Tate collection on display.”

Just the start of what promises to be an amazing series of exhibitions – and all in a building that is finally back in shape to do them justice.

A reputation restored
“People used to say it was a quaint place; that it had a nice tea shop but the pictures were a little muddy depending on the light that day,” says Mark. “Rather than seeing some barmy old eccentric who was rotting away, which I suppose had a certain level of charm, people will now be reminded that he was a serious artist.”

There is a magic in the air at Watts Gallery today and the excitement is such that this really could be the start of something. Not only restoring the reputation of the artist but putting Compton back on the map and, perhaps, something even bigger: placing Surrey’s arts heritage back at the centre of a countywide cultural identity occasionally lost because of our proximity to London.


  • Watts Gallery, Down Lane, Compton, Guildford, Surrey GU3 1DQ: 01483 810235. Watts Gallery will open to the public on Saturday June 18, with the exhibitions Painting for the Nation: GF Watts and the Tate and Hope: World Icon. For more information about the gallery and its events, visit www.wattsgallery.org.uk.

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