Last updated on June 30th, 2021
If ever there was an excuse to visit the village of Compton in Surrey, the Watts Gallery is it. Located near Guildford, the Watts Village is dedicated to the works of the Victorian painter and sculptor, George Frederic Watts, and it’s one of the few galleries in the UK devoted to a single artist. And with all the post-lockdown social distancing measures now required, I have to give this cultural outpost ten out of ten for effort. With its colourful collection, charming gift shop, tea room and gardens, and a chapel that will leave you speechless, the Watts Gallery and Village is definitely worth the one hour jaunt from London.
George Frederic Watts
The painter and sculptor George Frederic Wats was a celebrity of the Victorian age. He was born in 1817 and named after George Frederic Handel (whose birthday he shared). With a successful Royal Academy exhibition and an extended cultural trip to Italy under his belt, he gained success at a young age, becoming known as England’s Michelangelo. In 1884, he became the first artist to have a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Watts first married the celebrated actress Ellen Terry. He was 47 and she was 17, so unsurprisingly, the marriage collapsed in less than a year. Aged 69, he married Scottish artist and suffragette Mary Fraser-Tytler who was only 36. They moved to Little Holland House in Kensington which bordered the home of fellow artist, Lord Frederic Leighton.
The Wattses eventually moved out to Compton in Surrey, building Limnerlease in 1891. They also built a chapel and a pottery house. The Watts Gallery opened in 1904, but Watts died a mere three months later. By the time, he had produced 800 works of art and was considered one of the most famous painters in the world.
Mary continued to live at Limnerlease until 1938, becoming the custodian of her husband’s legacy. She was also a prolific artist, and her legacy can be seen in the magnificent Watts Chapel.
What to see in the Watts Gallery and Village
The Watts Gallery opened in 1904 as a showcase for Watts’s works. Over one hundred of his paintings are on permanent display here, including portraits, landscapes and symbolic works.
One of Watt’s most famous paintings is Hope. This is thought to be Barak Obama’s favourite and the inspiration behind his The Audacity of Hope book title and presidential campaign.
The gallery houses a temporary exhibition area which is currently showing Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin. Get to know Victorian art critic John Ruskin with his paintings, drawings and manuscripts. The exhibition also features works by J. M. W. Turner, John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones and other leading artists of the nineteenth century. On until 1 November.
The gallery is also offering creative fun for the family in Make Space, a series of online art tutorials. More information here.
See Watts’ magnificent Physical Energy (a copy of which you can see in Kensington Gardens) as well as the towering model for the Monument to Lord Tennyson. This gallery also houses a collection of death masks and anatomical casts.
De Morgan Collection
Arts and crafts power couple William and Evelyn de Morgan were firm friends with the Wattses and were frequent visitors to the Watts Gallery. See Evelyn’s symbolic paintings and glorious ceramic works by William in the exhibition Decoration or Devotion? Highlights include William De Morgan’s Moonlight Suite lustre-glazed bowls and Evelyn’s Boreas and Oreithyia.
There’s something terribly romantic about the Watts Chapel and cemetery grounds. It’s a mélange of arts and crafts, Celtic and Art Nouveau, and oozes pre-Raphaelite style. I imagine the Wattses friends Tennyson and Rossetti would have approved of this mesmerising structure. If you’re in any doubt about travelling out to Compton, make the trip just to see this.
Designed by Mary Watts, this magnificent chapel was decorated by 74 locals from the village of Compton. Mary ran terracotta classes, teaching the locals how to create the tiles that adorn the jaw-dropping structure. The Watts Chapel is bonkers and not to be missed.
Please note: the Watts Chapel and Cemetery are a 300m walk from the Watts gallery area. There is limited parking nearby. There is no charge to visit the chapel and cemetery.
Watts Contemporary Gallery
The gallery is located on the first floor of the former Compton Pottery building. It sells contemporary artwork to support the Watts Gallery Trust’s Art for All programme. Curated exhibitions support and showcase work by emerging and established artists.
The Watts Studios house further galleries including the Compton Gallery, the Mary Watts Gallery and the G.F. Watts Studio. At the time of my visit, these were not open.
The Pottery Building
The Wattses setup a pottery house to train local people in ceramics. This is now home to the Tea Shop, the Old Kiln, the Visitor Centre and Shop.
This Grade II listed house was designed by Arts and Crafts architect Ernest George. You can only visit this as part of a tour.
You can enjoy a picnic in the pretty woodland and grounds of the Watts Village. Make sure you visit the pet cemetery and listen out for various species of birds including woodpeckers, goldcrests and jays.
Covid-19 social distancing measures at Watts Gallery
- You will need to pre-book your ticket. It will need validating this in the shop when you arrive,
- There are plenty of hand sanitiser stations throughout the village together with one-way systems.
- The toilets are open.
- There is plenty of parking, including disabled spots.
- Tables in the tea room are spaced out to allow for social distancing, and the staff regularly disinfect the tables and chairs.
- You will need to wear a face mask when indoors.
Visiting the Watts Gallery and Village
Tickets cost £13.75 and include the historic galleries, the De Morgan collection and the exhibitions. Under 18s go free. Students, and Art Fund and English Heritage members get a discount. There is no fee to enter the Watts Chapel or to wander around the gardens.
George Frederic Watts in London
There are some splendid examples of Watts’ work around London. He was born in Marylebone, and spent much of his working life in the capital.
The magnificent Physical Energy, was posthumously erected 1907. It stands in Kensington Gardens, and is one of the artist’s most famous pieces.
Postman’s Park next to St Paul’s Cathedral is home to the Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, erected by Watts in 1900. The memorial features 54 tablets designed by the artist’s good friend, William de Morgan.
Tate Britain had a room dedicated to Watts until 1938. Today, you can see Hope and Eve Repentant in Tate’s Walk through British Art section.
You can see Panoramic Landscape with Farmhouse in Room 46 at the National Gallery.
Catch a glimpse of the great man on the façade of the Victoria and Albert Museum (Cromwell Road facade).
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