Walking into the newly renovated and remodelled Watts Studio was breathtaking . A contemporary public entrance of oak and glass has been added reflecting the honesty of the original Arts and Craft house designed by architect Sir Ernest George. The attention to detail from the local materials e.g. oak and terracotta to the colour choices of rich purple and magenta on the walls truly reflect the understated splendour of the Symbolist and Arts and Crafts period. Once again ZMMA Architects and Exhibition Designers have sympathetically and meticulously done an outstanding job bringing George Frederic Watts and his inspirational wife, Mary Seaton Watt’s creative environment to life. The Studio of Mary Watts, a trained painter and sculptor, is the first space exclusively dedicated to her and demonstrates Mary’s fascination with ceramic and plaster techniques. It shows her creative endeavours and talent off beautifully. The carefully designed display cabinets and drawers also display the sketchbooks from her exotic travels, designs and mementos clearly. The studio has been cleverly curated and gives a succinct and historic account of her huge influence on the lives of the villagers of Compton. It is evident that Mary Watts was a driving force for many gargantuan projects including: The Mortuary Chapel, 1895-8; Aldershot Panels, 1916-20; and the Pelican carpet design, 1899. She was also devoted to promoting her husband during his life and subsequently after his death, she was his muse and illumination.
George Frederic Watts’s studio leads on from Mary’s. It is a huge double height space which unusually faces south and due east. Watts would often begin working at 4am and continue on until the fading light to capture maximum working time. His studio accommodates several canvases in progress, and was a fully working space unlike many of his contemporaries who used their studios as a place to show off work and collections. His masterpiece ‘The Court of Death’, 1870-1902, hangs proudly in the place it was executed. Watts was fascinated by pigments, he had an ongoing battle trying to perfect ‘purple lake’ and was in constant contact with experts at Windsor and Newton keeping them up to date with his experiments. Unfortunately he was unable to find a way to stop the pigment from fading to sludge brown. There are fascinating displays of his brushes, pigments,paint tables and general paraphernalia which gives a realistic and authentic glimpse into his world as an eminent Victorian Artist. It is unusual to see such a visually stunning and vibrant renovation project come to life the way this does. ZMMA have completed an outstanding piece of work, The Watt’s legacy is now safely restored.
I was first introduced to The Watts Gallery and the Mortuary Chapel of George Frederic Watts (1817-1904) and his wife Mary Seaton Watts (1849-1938) over thirty years ago by my art tutor. In those days the Gallery was in a decrepit state. Ivy had virtually obscured the roof, wallpaper was faded and torn and buckets were strategically placed throughout the studios to catch rain water. Everything was lack lustre, covered in what seemed to be a century of dust and fungi spores. Neglect had literally sucked the life and colour out of the gallery and art work. Even in this sorry state the place had a magic quality, a quintessence which shone through the ordinary. In those days there was no mention of Limnerslease the Watts’s home just across the lane, or of their adjoining studios. Both had been privately owned and split into smaller dwellings around 1938.
In 2004 the centenary of the artist’s death marked a major turning point. The Watts Gallery was already on the English Heritage ‘At Risk’ Register, and the trustees decided to launch an ambitious rescue plan, ‘The Hope’ project was born (named after Barak Obama’s favourite painting ‘Hope’ by George Frederic Watts, 1886). With adequate funding in place, ZMMA were appointed as both Architects and Exhibition Designers for the transformation, renovation and conservation of the Gallery and out buildings. In June 2011 The Watts
Gallery opened to the public attracting over 100,000 visitors in it’s first year and became a finalist in the Museum of the Year Award, 2012.
Limnerslease and The Watts Studio were still not part of the Watts Estate. In 2011 the Trust were offered the opportunity to purchase the house and Studios and reinstate them. A mammoth fundraising plan was instigated and combined with the Heritage Lottery Fund, Trusts, Foundations and the generosity of individuals, enough money was raised . A few years ago, prior to securing purchase of Limnerslease I was taken on a small tour of the house and studio by the then curator Mark Bills. Many of the features in the house had been lost over the decades due to modernisation. The Studio had a mezzanine floor installed obscuring much of the character together with what appeared to be the entire catalogue of 1980’s fitted wardrobes. Very little remained of the Watt’s legacy or lifestyle. Phase one of the design and build was to concentrate on the complete renovation of Watt’s Studio. Once again ZMMA were appointed and work began. The Studio and key historic spaces have been integrated giving the visitor easy access between the rooms and surrounding woodland and gardens. The connection between the Watts’s domestic and creative life is reflected in the east- facing views towards the gallery and the village of Compton.
On the ground floor there are three state of the art studio’s. In keeping with the Watts’s legacy of sharing art with the community, The Clore Learning Studio and The Peter Harrison Community Learning Studio hold group workshops and classroom education activities. The David Pike Conservation Studio combines an art conservation and public viewing space. It is beneath Watts’s studio and houses the fascinating hatch and contraption used to hoist the giant masterpiece ‘Court of Death’ through the ceiling to the studio above. The Watts Studios and Artist’s Village are well worth a visit, for further information please click on the link bellow.
Words/Photos: Lisa Azarmi © Artlyst 2016