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Watts Gallery, Compton

Having submitted my PhD thesis a couple of days early I took today to visit the Watts Gallery in the rural village of Compton, Surrey.

Ever since it was refurbished, and opened in June this year (thanks to funds from the National Lottery, amongst others), and a review featured in The Guardian, I'd been meaning to go. The only work of Watts that I knew, like many others, was Hope (or, as some critics and myself would have it - Despair), from its home in Tate Britain. It is now at what feels like its natural home in Compton, but will be returned to Millbank in November.
It wasn't a long or arduous journey - the Haslemere train can be picked up from Clapham Junction, from where it takes about 25 minutes. If you're not driving the tricky bit is timing your arrival into Guildford train station for around quarter to the hour. This then gives ample time to walk to the bus station to pick up the no.46, which only runs at five minutes past each hour. The bus journey is only ten minutes. I was dropped off at the twee, yet inviting gates of the - it's not exactly a complex and estate sounds too grand - Gallery.
The Gallery was designed by local architect Christopher Hatton Turnor. The foundation stone was set by Watts himself - on 23rd February 1903 - his eighty-sixth birthday. The choice of relatively unknown architect and the design of the building both bear the imprint of the Arts and Crafts movement.
The visitor centre holds many interesting books on the art of the nineteenth century aimed at the general reader, and there's even a glass case housing rare and early editions of various books. The gallery itself is towards the back - up past the tearoom. As soon as I entered I was greeted as though I was a long-lost friend by an ageing, yet sprightly volunteer who asked each visitor whether it was their first visit, and then proceeded to explain the simple enough layout, before letting you off on your slow shuffle around the various rooms.
One of the first portraits that I felt arrested by was that of the sardonically titled 'Sympathy' (1892). It portrays a rather stern and anaemic woman - a nurse called Katherine Webster. She looked like she could plot poisonous deeds at ten a penny. However, the first that I felt moved by was a portrait of two angles of Watts's muse, Mary Bartley, known as 'Long Mary' because of her statuesque proportions. Painted in the mid-1860s Bartley was the daughter of a gardener. She worked as a housemaid for the Princeps at Little Holland House, in Kensington. I found a suggestion of what I can only describe as a subdued madness - what looks like strawberry-blonde hair has strong kinks, and there is a small flat space at her left temple that reminded me of electrodes!

I had not anticipated the sheer volume of work - industry - that GF Watts created. No mere portraitist he also created epic sculptures, such as the touching statue of fellow Victorian 'celebrity', poet laureate Tennyson, his dog, a wolfhound by the name of Karenina at his side.
It is, however, his three full-size bronze casts of 'Physical Energy' (not in Surrey but one each in Harare, Cape Town, and London), that bear testament to his industrious approach to his work. The Gallery has to make do with a reduced size model by Thomas Wren (1914).

These casts are less about movement that a man on a horse would suggest, (no hint of Degas or Muybridge), but embody sheer effort. It felt to me to contain the same energy of some of Barbara Hepworth's work. It was apt, then, to see another work 'Time, Death and Judgement' (late 1870s-1896), framed with the following script:

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest. He that observeth the wind shall not sow, and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.

Watts may seem like a quirky artist, resurrected by a band of devotees, but it is hard to realise just how famous - and successful - he was during his lifetime. He was the only living artist to have a one-man show at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance. He also had a gallery open to the passing public at Little Holland House - suggesting both savvy self-promotion and keen to be as accessible as possible.
His work of the 'hungry forties' is symbolic, yet emotive, particularly 'The Irish Famine'. The man - sat in between a deathly pale wife and scraggy child and an older person whose head is down in despair - has some fight left in him, as his clenched fists clearly show. Two other works, 'The Dispossessed' and 'Found Drowned' are similar to the 'Past and Present' triptych of Augustus Egg (which 'Hope' can often be found beside in Tate Britain).
There is so much here that I may write a follow-up post soon, or when I return for a planned visit to the archives and the famous chapel (a few minutes walk from the gallery). Autumn would make a great time to enjoy both the work and the gardens.


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