George Frederic Watts studio in Compton, Surrey will open to the public, for the first time since major renovations, on 26 January. The studio was of the home and workplace to the celebrated Victorian artist, and his wife, the sculptor, designer and potter Mary Watts. The restoration was generously supported by a £2.4 million lead grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
From January, visitors to Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village will be able to experience the restoration of G F Watts’s studio as the artist left it, one of the most dramatic spaces created by a nineteenth-century artist, to be open to the public with its original collection conserved and returned. Many of the artist’s most important paintings on display in neighbouring Watts Gallery were created in this space.
A highlight will be the return of The Court of Death (c.1870–1902, Tate), Watts’s last major work, the epic resolution to a career that stretched back to the age of Turner and Constable in the 1830s, displayed upon a recreation of the original pulley system designed by the artist to allow him to work upon the vast canvas in its entirety.
The studio of Mary Watts has been restored and remodelled to present key objects from the Mary Watts Collection. These include a highly decorative frieze, rescued from the Cambridge Military Hospital Chapel in Aldershot, and now conserved.
In this space, visitors will discover the story of Mary Watts and of the neighbouring Grade I-listed Watts Chapel, an Arts and Crafts masterpiece designed by Mary and realised through a community arts project in the last decade of the 19th century.
The Compton Gallery will share the story of the Wattses in the village of Compton, from the commissioning of Limnerslease – now the last remaining artists’ house and studio by illustrious Arts and Crafts architect, Ernest George – to the foundation of Watts Gallery, the only purpose built art gallery in the UK dedicated to a single professional artist. The Watts legacy of an artists’ village includes the Pottery Building created by the Compton Potters’ Arts Guild, a social enterprise founded by Mary Watts that thrived in the village until the 1950s, selling at Liberty & Co and receiving commissions from eminent architects and designers including Edwin Lutyens, Clough Williams-Ellis and Gertrude Jekyll.
The Watts Studios will feature the new David Pike Conservation Studio – with a viewing window for visitors – in which conservators will work on the Gallery’s collection on site, and the Clore Learning Space and Peter Harrison Community Learning Studio, enabling Watts Gallery Trust to extend further its pioneering Art for All education and outreach activity.
Located in the Surrey Hills, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the woodland surrounding the Watts Studios has been carefully restored and replanted. Plants appropriate for a woodland garden, recalling Gertrude Jekyll, have been given by RHS Wisley.
Hundreds of terracotta birds, created by participants in Watts Gallery Workshops over the summer months, will be installed throughout the woodland, inspired by the Terracotta Evening Classes Mary Watts held for local villagers in her Compton Studio and G F Watts’s own support for the emerging RSPB.
The project has been made possible through support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Trusts, Foundations and many generous individuals. Architects ZMMA and Garden Designer Todd Longstaffe-Gowan have worked with Watts Gallery Trust to realise the project.
Commenting, Perdita Hunt, Director of Watts Gallery Trust, said: “The opening of the Watts Studios is the next phase in completing the Artists’ Village in Compton. Watts Gallery, the Watts Chapel, the Pottery Buildings and now the Watts Studios offer a unique window upon the Arts and Crafts Movement and enable the Watts Gallery Trust to take a further step towards creating an internationally important centre where visitors and students can explore Victorian art, social history, craft and design.”
“We are grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund and to the Trusts, Foundations and many generous individuals who are enabling us to save this important part of our cultural heritage, and who share our vision of upholding this incredible legacy by establishing an Artists’ Village here in Compton.”
Watts Gallery and Studio Compton, Surrey UK