I paint ideas, not things.

(George Frederic Watts)

The easiest way to find the Artists Village in Compton is to get lost in the Surrey countryside. Eventually, you will come upon a sign indicating the direction towards Watts Gallery. Follow the sign and you will miss your destination. To find it, better follow your instinct.

Or if you are on foot, join the Pilgrim’s Way, which runs from Winchester to Canterbury through some of the most beautiful areas of Southern England and passes through the gardens of Limnerslease, the Wattses’ home. The Village is right there, in the heart of the Surrey Hills.

Beyond its idyllic rural location, what makes Compton an artists’ village is a community spirit focused on creativity. There are purpose-built studios for painting, ceramics and textiles work. Workshops are running all year round and during school holidays the village hosts activities for local children and teenagers.

This hub of creative activity was conceived and realised by the Wattses – George Frederic and his wife Mary Fraser Tytler. From the moment they moved to the village, the couple was committed to supporting local artists and craftsmen. The architect chosen to design the now Watts Gallery was the young and relatively unknown Christopher Hatton Turnor, who lived within a mile of Compton. The brief was to ‘keep it a simple and rural type of building’. It was constructed using Surrey tiles; the foundation was laid by George Watts, who lived to see the opening of the gallery, but passed away a few months later, aged 87.

England’s Michelangelo

Alongside the workshop and the modern exhibition spaces, the gallery was planned as a one-man show, to display the work of George Frederic Watts.

I like the intimacy of a museum or gallery dedicated to a single artist. Immersing myself in the life and times of Rembrandt, or Matisse, or Rodin, gives me the illusion of knowing the artist, of understanding his work in a different, more profound manner. Watts, and his popularity with his Victorian contemporaries, still remains for me something of a mystery. His ‘Michelangelo’ sobriquet was probably due to the fact that he spent time in Italy, studying the technique of Renaissance painters, or to his versatility in the creation of sculpture and paintings; portraits as well as landscapes and genre. Or maybe his extravagant habit of wearing Renaissance robes on a daily basis.

Victorian audiences liked symbolic art, and Watts responded to this preference, painting subjects such as life, love, hope and progress. He produced work that appealed to the taste of his contemporaries: large canvases of mythological (Diana, Thetis, Arcadia, Aurora) biblical (Eve, Cain) and literary (Ophelia, Paolo and Francesca) characters. His allegorical works brought him a reality that other artists can only dream: of fame and appreciation in his lifetime.

Painting ideas, not things, is something that defined the Symbolism movement. Reacting against the rationalism and materialism that dominated Western culture at the end of the 19th century, Symbolist painters believed that their art should express an emotion, an idea. Like the Romantics before them, they looked to create paintings of symbolic value or meaning.

In Watts’ paintings Life and Death, Faith and Innocence dress in human form to present the narrative of their condition. Particularly emotive is the canvas titled Hope (1886). Alone in the world, Hope inhabits a globe rising from the mist. Sad, blind and barefooted, the female figure is listening to the last remaining chord of her broken lyre.

Among celebrities

It is said that London’s rich and famous were queuing up to sit for Watts. Several of the 50 works donated to the National Portrait Gallery are now on display in the Watts Gallery: the poet laureate Lord Tennyson, Sir Charles Hallé, Violet Lindsay, Frederic Leighton. Some of the portraits are serious, even sombre, with dark background and black clothes. But there is luminosity emanating from the eyes and the faces of the people portrayed, who were often close friends.

There is also a touching portrait of his first wife, actress Ellen Terry. During their short marriage when Ellen was 16 years old, Watts painted several portraits of her; the one in the Gallery depicts the teenage actor behind the curtain, moments before stepping on stage.

The portraits of Mary Fraser Tytler, Watts’s wife, exude warmth and tenderness. They show a beautiful woman, with strong features and an intelligent gaze; looking at the viewer sideways, or turning her face away so that the artist and the viewer’s gaze can linger on the strands of hair escaping onto her nape.

About Mary

The self-effacing good wife, agent and business manager, later nurse and biographer, Mary Watts dedicated her time to her famous husband. Her own career as a painter (she was among the first women to enrol at Slade and was an illustrator and designer for Liberty of London) was put on hold when she married her teacher and mentor George Watts, 32 years her senior.

A gifted writer, ardent suffragist and educator, Mary’s role gradually changed to that of intellectual companion and artistic equal. Soon after their move to Compton, Mary set up free pottery classes for local people. The terracotta tiles created in class decorate the exterior of the Compton Cemetery Chapel. Mary established the Compton Pottery, which provided employment for the local rural community for over half a century.

To the Chapel

Rising through the treetops like a fairy tale chimera, the chapel was designed by Mary and financed by George Watts, no doubt with money earned from commissioned portraits. It is a fascinating fusion of arts and crafts, of landscape and design, of Celtic and Art Nouveau decoration. The quirky, red brick building looks attractive enough from a distance. Come closer, and admire the detail on the terracotta tiles, lovingly and skilfully crafted by 74 local potters. Step inside, and you will be so glad you made the journey: from the cool shadows of the chapel, an explosion of rich colours and the song of angels fill the senses.