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What's next for Watts Gallery in Compton

PUBLISHED: 16:48 12 November 2010 | UPDATED: 08:57 21 February 2013

The gallery is about to undergo a multi-million pound facelift

The gallery is about to undergo a multi-million pound facelift

Deep in the heart of rural Surrey, a slumbering gallery of international importance is about to close for two years before its rebirth in 2010. Hurry along before the restoration team move in and see Watts Gallery, in Compton, now in its unto...

Words by Paul Murphy. Photos by Andy Newbold
This feature original ran in Surrey Life August 2008

Deep in the heart of rural Surrey, a slumbering gallery of international importance is about to close for two years before its rebirth in 2010. Hurry along before the restoration team move in and see Watts Gallery, in Compton, now in its untouched, fragile state...

It is raining when I arrive at Watts Gallery, in the leafy village of Compton, near Guildford. Like Compton itself, the building oozes charm and individuality and the exterior reminds me of an antiquated school or village hall. Inside, buckets are collecting water. Not quite what I'd expect from a gallery of international importance, admittedly, but I hardly notice them, entranced as I am by the different styles of art on display.

Is that a Turner over there? Is this a William Blake, and here perhaps a Rossetti? No, they are all, of course, by George Frederic Watts (1817-1904) - one of the greatest artists of the Victorian age.

He moved to Compton with his wife Mary, a talented craftswoman, in 1891, when they decided to swap the fog and grime of London for the fresh air of rural Surrey. Once there, they set about building their own house, Limnerslease - which now comfortably accommodates three private homes - and from there they supervised the building of the Watts Gallery, just across the road.

Intended to be both public picture gallery and accommodation for Mary's pottery apprentices, the gallery opened in April 1904, just a few months before Watts' death, and went on to become a permanent exhibition of his art for whoever wished to see it, enshrining his vision of art for all.

Cold and draughty

Fast forward a century, however, and the Grade II* listed building, designed in the Arts and Crafts style by local architect Christopher Turnor, is in desperate need of repair. Aside from the holes in the roof (hence the buckets), there is rising damp to contend with and no heating.

"In winter, it is extremely cold here," says gallery director Perdita Hunt, as we sit in her office - itself a kind of microcosm of the gallery, full of curious arty bits and bobs, Arts and Crafts movement vignettes and small reproductions of Watts' greatest works. "And that's no good for the paintings or for us.

"At the moment, the building is just hanging on by a thread. It is listed as 'at risk' by English Heritage, there is no access for disabled people and every rain storm results in further buckets being brought in."

Perdita, who lives locally and has strong links with the Surrey community, has been responsible for a well-publicised fundraising campaign that has brought the gallery from the edge of extinction to the nation's TV screens.

Star turn on TV

"When we just failed to win the BBC's Restoration Village in 2006, we were really disappointed," she says, of the popular TV series, in which viewers vote for the historic building they want to save. "But coming second meant we gained a huge amount of sympathy and support."

And thanks in part to that exposure, the gallery is now just 200,000 short of its target to raise a staggering 4.3 million, which the Heritage Lottery Fund has pledged to match. Even 8.6 million is not enough, however, as another 1.5 million reserve has to be raised to ensure the ongoing financial health of the gallery.

As Mark Bills, the enthusiastic curator, shows me round, we see where some of the 10 million-plus will be spent - aside from proper heating and a weatherproof roof.

"The real challenge is not to modernise the building but to lovingly restore it and bring back the best of its original features," he says.

Plans include an additional gallery (in what was the apprentice potters' washroom); a new Arts and Crafts garden; an educational studio; an archive; new environmental controls and security; full facilities for disabled visitors; stripping back and restoring original wallpapers, colour schemes and tile picture hanging rails (scandalously overpainted in a ghastly mauve colour); and reinstating windows that were blocked up.

The last part is crucial as the gallery is a long, low building, therefore not blessed with natural light and needs to be 'top lit' to honour Watts' insistence that his work be viewed under natural lighting.

Ambitious plans

While all this work takes place, starting in October, the Watts Gallery collection will go on tour as part of a major Watts in the City programme from this November to June next year. To date, exhibitions at the Guildhall Art Gallery, London, and St Paul's Cathedral have been confirmed.

Meanwhile, the gallery will close for two years. However, the wonderful Mortuary Chapel, built by George's wife Mary with the help of some 70 Compton villagers, will remain open, as will the charming tea room.

"Here is one of our favourite pieces," says Mark, pointing to Alexander Constantine Ionides and Euterpe Ionides with their Children, painted in 1840-1, but so fresh and bright that it looks as if the paint has only just dried. "The remarkable thing is that last year the descendants of this gentleman all visited the Watts Gallery - it was marvellous - like a wedding reception!

"In fact, we have a very strong community outreach programme, working with local groups, young offenders, even HMP Send. Watts Gallery still retains the beliefs upon which it was founded - that great art should be accessible to all."

A giant of the art world

My tour ends with Watts' sculptural masterpiece, the magnificent equestrian monument Physical Energy. In fact, the finished version stands in Kensington Gardens but here in front of me - or rather towering above me - is a model to rival the Wooden Horse of Troy. Although it is only made of gesso - a mixture of chalk, glue and fibre - it weighs over three tons and sits on a carriage on railway tracks so that it can be moved. It is a fitting tribute to one of the giants of the British art world.

  • Watts Gallery, Down Lane, Compton, Guildford, Surrey GU3 1DQ

Watts, wheres & whens!

Watts Gallery is in Compton Village, just off the A3, sign-posted to the left as you enter Compton. It is open until Sunday September 28, Tuesday to Saturday 11am-5pm, Sunday and Bank Holidays 1-5pm. Admission: Adults 3 (Tuesdays 1). Children under 16 free.

If you are not able to visit before its closure in September, do the next best thing and visit the wonderful Mortuary Chapel, built by George's wife Mary with the help of some 70 Compton villagers. You pass it en route to the Watts Gallery, it is open during daylight hours and admission is free.

Adjacent to the gallery there is a charming tea room and the KD Fine Art Gallery - both will remain open (daily 10am-5.30pm) during Watts Gallery's closure.

How you can help?

Why not become a Friend of Watts Gallery? It costs just 20 per year, which entitles you to newsletters, special invitations, a magazine (three times a year) and unlimited gallery visits. Moreover, as part of the fundraising campaign an anonymous donor has pledged to match every Friend's subscription: add to this Gift Aid tax benefits and your 20 becomes worth 50 to the gallery! For all donation inquiries, call 01483 810235

George Frederic Who?

George Frederic Watts was one of the greatest artists of the Victorian age.

As well as being a fine portraitist, he was also a sculptor, landscape painter and symbolist, which earned him the title 'England's Michelangelo'.

In 1843, he won first prize in the competition to design murals for the new Houses of Parliament, he was the first living artist to have a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and he donated paintings that helped to found both the Tate Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery.

Furthermore, Watts was a great influence on his contemporaries: The Irish Famine (1850) is every bit as powerful as the world-famous Gleaners (1857) by Millet and Found Drowned (1850) is Millais' Ophelia transferred to the mean streets of Victorian London. Surely, it is no coincidence that both masterpieces were painted a few years after Watts' works, just as George Frederic also went on to inspire the likes of Rodin and Picasso.

However, his career was anything but easy. Choosing to portray the dark underbelly of Victorian society had not endeared him to the Establishment, as The Spectator pointedly noted in 1881: "You come too close to home, Sir, to our consciences to be agreeable." No doubt had Watts remained in London, rather than hiding his light under a bushel in leafy Surrey, then that might also have helped recognition to come earlier.

Either way, it was only in the last two decades of his life that he gained the acclaim he so richly deserved.

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