Monday, 1 January 2018

Compton, Watts Artist's Village - some parallels Part 1

Watts, M.S., George Frederic Watts: Volume 2, Hodder & Stoughton, 1912
The nearest Arts and Crafts movement to Haslemere was at Compton, what is now called Watts Gallery Artist's Village, online here.  Compton is a short distance away from Haslemere, just off the A3 outside Guildford, a distance of twelve miles.  Here the celebrated Victorian painter G.F. Watts lived with his wife Mary Seton Watts in their house, Limnerslease, that they built in 1891.  Mary established the Compton Pottery (1904) and spearheaded the creation of the unique Watts Chapel (1898), the Watts Gallery (1903).

The Haslemere Peasant Arts movement definitely knew the Watts.  Although how well they knew each other, and how much they shared the same beliefs is not documented.  Godfrey Blount and Ethel Blount were on the General Committee of the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union when Mary Seton Watts, "Mrs G.F. Watts" was a Vice-President, as can be seen from the photograph below - Mrs G.F. Watts being the last Vice-President listed, the Blounts being the second and third General Committee members, after Mrs Janet Ashbee.  I have posted more about the Blounts and the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union in this post.

The Dress Review,
listing of the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union committee
January 1904
So what parallels are there?

1. The Watts' enterprises involved the local community, as did the Haslemere Peasant Arts movement.  The Compton Cemetery Chapel is renowned to have been decorated by all inhabitants of Compton village.
2. The Watts were husband and wife as artists, as with Godfrey and Ethel Blount.  
3. The Home Arts and Industries Association (HAIA).  Prior to her marriage, Mary had been a committee member of the HAIA and G.F. Watts was "the biggest financial supporter of the movement" (Bills, Mark, An Artists' Village: G. F. Watts and Mary Watts at Compton, Philip Wilson Publishers, 2011).  We know that the Kings and Blounts exhibited for the HAIA.  There is not a great deal of information available about the HAIA, perhaps because the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society which seemed to have the more renowned Arts and Crafts makers has eclipsed their memory in history.  The Art Workers Quarterly said of the HAIA in 1904 that the HAIA 'is a society for teaching the working classes handicrafts such as wood carving, inlaying, metal repousse, basket weaving, leather work, book binding, and for encouraging these and others such as lace, embroidery spinning, weaving, pottery etc, by means of an annual exhibition' (from Arts and Crafts metalwork web).  

In a letter to The Spectator (1 November 1919, p13) Lady Mary Lovelace describes "Beginning in 1884, under the presidency of Lord Brownlow, with about 40 branches and 320 students spread all over the United Kingdom, the progress of the Association has been rapid and continuous, and included in the year 1913 200 classes with about 5,000 students. Th9 handicrafts taught are as follows Simple carpentry, wood-carving, inlaying and veneering, wrought-iron work, hand-beaten silver and other metal work, basket-work, rush matting, hand-weaving and spinning, carpet and rug-making, toy-making, lace-making, embroidery, smocking, knitting, pottery, plain and ornamental leather-work, bookbinding, stencilling, &c., &c....Two great men, John Ruskin and G. F. Watts, were from the beginning in heartiest sympathy with the work of the Association. In a small volume called Plain Handicrafts Mr. Watts wrote : " The rush of interest in the direction of what are understood RS worldly advantages has trampled out the sense of pleasure in the beautiful, and the need of its presence as an element essential to the satisfaction of daily life, which must have been unconsciously felt in ages less absorbed in acquiring wealth for itelf alone, proved by the fact that in everything done or used then, there was an apparent touch of the artistic sense, in buildings, in costumes, in pageants, in all things from a temple to the meanest utensil. Our Art Congresses would have been in old times as needless as congresses to impress on the general mind the advantages of money-making would be in these. The necessity to make all classes acquainted with the written language by which human thought is conveyed is now universally felt; the object of plain handicraft is to widely open the book of nature. The boy encouraged to imitate some natural object will ever after see in that object something unseen and unknown to him before, and he will find the time he formerly did not know what to do with (a state of being that continually drives thousands to the congested Metropolis) henceforth full of pleasurable sensations."

Before their marriage in 1884-1885 Mary Watts had organised an evening clay-modelling class at a boys' club in Whitechapel.  She described her pupils as 'chiefly shoe blacks'.  In June 1886 she was elected to the Council of the Home Arts.  Once married, G.F. Watts became a major donor to the movement, contributing £1,000 in 1895 and painting special commissions to fund the movement (Bills, ibid).  In 1895 Mary set up a Home Arts clay-modelling class in her studio at Limnerslease.  

4. Mary Watts trained at the Slade c.1873, before Godfrey and Ethel Blount's time there.   They shared a love of John Ruskin, "both Mary Watts and her husband were great admirers of Ruskin.  The 1938 probate inventory of Limnerslease lists many of his books, and when a servant purloined one in 1890, Watts asserted: 'He could have taken nothing from me that I value more." (Bills, ibid.).

The Great Studio, Limnerslease,
The Victorian Web
5. Limnerlease, designed by the architect Sir Ernest George had a particular emphasis on the studio, referred to by Bills (ibid.) as "the studio home".  The Blounts and the Kings also had a strong emphasis on home-working on the loom; when living at Foundry Cottage Blount is thought to have used the next door house, Meadow Cottage, as a studio, and at St Cross, buildings in the garden.  Watts had a different level of studio home, the studio at Limnerslease is an enormous room designed to accommodate his massive painting 'The Court of Death' (c.1870-1902, Tate), which is described as "intended for the chapel of a paupers cemetery.  In this 4.5 metre x 3 metre painting, Death is shown as an enthroned angel, holding a baby which shows, according to Watts that, 'even the germ of life is in the lap of Death'.  The allegorical nature of G.F. Watts' work seems to exhibit similarities with the novels of George MacDonald, Greville MacDonald's father.  Also, I wonder if Maude Egerton King's father, Henry George Hine, the Vice President of the Royal Institute of Watercolours, was acquainted with Watts?

Those familiar with the al fresco working on Kings Road, Haslemere post, will appreciate the joy of seeing Watts also working outside, below.  

G.F. Watts at work upon the statute of Lord Tennyson, August 1903
Watts, M.S., George Frederic Watts: Volume 2, Hodder & Stoughton, 1912
6.  Both movements attracted visiting artists and notables to the area.  Bills (ibid.) describes Limnerslease as attracting "many of the most notable continental musicians came to play to Watts at Limnerslease.  And it was not just musicians, authors too visited the shrine, as well as leasding figures of the age such as William Gladstone.  It was also a place where people stayed to have their portrait painted by one of the most sought-after portraitists of the day.  Mrs Josephine Butler, for whose heroism he [Watts] had a deep veneration was painted at Limnerslease where she came to stay" (ibid).  I wonder if the Dolmetsches visited?  Josephine Butler was an acquaintance of the MacDonalds as Greville describes "my parents' intimacy with such protagonists of the feminist movement as the beautiful and devoted Josephine Butler…" (MacDonald, Greville, Reminiscences of a Specialist, London, George Allen and Unwin, 1932).

Josephine Elizabeth Butler (nee Grey) by G. F. Watts, 1895
National Portrait Gallery
7.  A community of buildings was built to further the values of the cause.  In 1895 Mary had the support of the parish council to purchase land and erect a memorial chapel.  A wood-fire bottle kiln was built in Limnerslease's grounds, across the lane from the cemetery, with the advice of William De Morgan; "every aspect of Compton's cemetery chapel would be a symbolic celebration pf spiritual and material life, from birth to death and beyond, from the distinctive ground plan of the Eternal Circle intersected by the Cross of Faith, the intricate terracotta mouldings on the building, and the wooden door and its iron hinges to the glorious painted gesso interior." (ibid.)  The pottery produced there used the local clay from the iron-rich seam running through the grounds of Limnerslease.  This gave the pottery a distinctive terra-cotta hue. Locals were taught to model the terracotta tiles for the chapel at her Terra Cotta Home Arts classes run at Limnerslease.  It is said that the Watts Chapel was built by all the residents of Compton village, Mary listed 73 modellers plus 4 permanent staff in her book of the chapel which she dedicated to the HAIA founder, Eglantyne Jebb.
Mary Watts and her students making gesso panels for the Watts Chapel
at Limnerslease
Source: BBC

The infrastructure for the Watts Chapel helped to establish the Compton Pottery.  Underwood (Underwood, Hilary, 'Compton Pottery', An Artists' Village, ibid.) writes:

"The specialist kiln-burner left when the exterior of the chapel was finished, but the successful clay-modelling class continued.  During the chapel project it had met twice a week with thirty or forty pupils aged from ten to sixty.  Mary Watts re-employed the kiln-burner to fire their work, and provided him with a wheel to make additional pots to offset his wages.  Orders grew and 'several of the younger members of the class were so attracted by the artistic nature of the work that they expressed a desire to devote their whole time to it.
Potters' Arts Guild booklet
source: BBC

8.  The creation of a guild and a local industry.  Around 1900 Mary Watts decided to turn the successful class into a Home Arts 'developed industry', which would provide paid employment for its workers."  A house was built for the new pottery manager.  James Nicol from the Cumnock Pottery in Ayrshire.  Mary Watts had written to Nicols "offering him a 'delightful village industry - beautiful things beautifully made, by people in beautiful country' (ibid).  In 1904 the pottery was constituted as the  Potters' Arts Guild, similar to the many guilds established by the Haslemere Peasant Arts movement.   "Half the profits were retained by the guild as capital but credited to the individual worker's accounts, paying interest and available to them on departure" (ibid).  The pottery closed in 1951.  There is an interesting short film on the Compton Pottery in 1933 available at Pathe here.  The sitting fairy statute in the film, or one remarkably like it, was until recently by the entrance to the Watts Gallery.

Compton Pottery building
Source: BBC

Limnerslease, the Watts' home,
Compton, Surrey

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