Watts @ Compton

The danger of living on the outskirts of London is that when looking to explore art and culture, anything outside of the capital is overlooked. Having attended school in Surrey, most of my art-based trips were to the same central London galleries and museums that people know nationwide as household names. Thus, it came as a surprise when I first heard the Watts Gallery mentioned in my second year of university, especially as it is located less than half an hour away from the school that I attended for nine years! Having recently taken the time to visit it, I can tell you that this is a real shame.

The Watts Gallery is located in the Compton countryside and is a vast juxtaposition to any gallery you would expect to come across in London. The Watts Gallery was opened in 1905 to display the artwork of George Frederick Watts, a Victorian artist who enjoyed much fame. Having previously lived in London, Watts came to Compton late in life, which has been described as a ‘haven’ for both him and his second wife, potter Mary Seton Fraser-Tytler, whom he married at the age of 69. When driving up to the gallery that still lies among farms and fields, one can easily see how it might have served as a place of retreat in comparison to busy London.

The gallery today displays more than 100 paintings that cross a variety of genres. These are displayed against rich walls of reds and greens. The images are mostly uncaptioned, giving the viewer the chance to look at the work without being distracted by wall text, with added information being provided on boards that viewers can pick up and take round the galleries with them. There is also a sculpture gallery, which really impressed me. Having studied Watts and Victorian art at university, sculpture was never mentioned. Perhaps this is because the artist only tried his hand at it in his fifties. On display at Watts are various objects however the most impressive was an equestrian structure of a horse titled Physical Energy, which takes up most of the gallery space and diverts the eyes (not in a bad way) from the rest of the work on display.

Also on display at Watts are a rotating series of temporary exhibitions that centre on Victorian art. Currently there is a display of Richard Dadd’s artwork titled The Art of Bedlam. Dadd’s Shakespeare’s illustrations are stunning however, his potential of achieving popular recognition was hindered by his mental health, which saw him institutionalised at Bethlem and Broadmoor hospitals. On display at Watts are images constructed before and during Dadd’s time inside hospitals and is a wonderful exhibition.

Before I finish this piece on Watts, I must mention the Chapel that lies a few minutes down the road. From the outside, a red brick building stands proudly on top of a grassy hilled cemetery. It has been decorated with angels, which are also found in its stunning interior. Inside is an overwhelming display of terracotta tiles adorned with angels in luxurious greens and reds. These tiles were made in collaboration with Mary Watts and the villagers she taught to make them. In fact, the Chapel was not directed by Mr Watts but was predominantly developed by Mrs Watts. This remarkable Chapel still runs today as a working village parish church.

Hopefully this piece has inspired you to take a trip out of London. The Watts Gallery is stunning and really ought to be revered by more people.

The Art of Bedlam: Richard Dadd is on display at Watts Gallery until 1 November

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier aka Gallery Girl is a writer and curator based in London. Her work has been featured in publications including Dazed, Hyperallergic and Vogue Arabia. She was curator of Perpetual Movement during AWAN Festival 2018 and in 2019 had a residency at the Lab at Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordan. She has also worked with Armenia Art Fair for its inaugural edition and previously worked as an editor at I.B.Tauris Publishers. In 2019 she co-founded Arsheef, Yemen’s first contemporary art gallery. She has given workshops at Manara Culture in Amman, Jordan and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. As of 2020 she is currently in law school, with the ambition of greater understanding the intersection between art and the law.

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