The Watts Gallery is snugly placed in the Surrey Hills and is an art heritage site.
George Frederic Watts was considered the greatest painter of the Victorian Era and is dubbed ‘England’s Michelangelo’.
I’d occasionally seen his work in TV history programmes as they marked the most pressing themes and ideas of his generation.
The historic gallery permanently displays over 100 paintings by Watts, spanning 70 years.
‘Wounded Heron’ painted by the 20 year old G F Watts. At this point he was making a living painting portraits but longed to paint more historical themes.
This painting represents his passion regarding the protection of birds (a result of him accidentally killing his pet bird as a child). In the background, Watts includes a falconer in historical dress on horseback, giving the work a subtle historical theme.
The resulting canvas was Watts’s first prestigious piece.
His portraits showed that he was highly regarded by the well-to-do as he painted many a ‘lady’, an ‘Earl’, an ‘MP’ and an Italian military and political leader called Giuseppe Garibaldi, who I felt I’d heard of, only to realise I was thinking of a Sloppy Giuseppe (pizza) and the Garibaldi biscuit (favoured by my dad).
Watts had returned from France and Italy as an artist with new ideas, moved to Berkeley square and began working on his portraits. However, he became increasingly disturbed by the poverty in London and, at that time, in Ireland.
‘I paint ideas not things‘
‘The Irish Famine’ depicts the horrors created by years of the potato crop failing. Thousands died, many poor farmers were evicted from their homes and a mass migration resulted. This included the Irish ancestors of my hubby.
Sadly ‘Found Drowned’ wasn’t here as a few pieces were lent to the Tate. It depicts a woman who had committed suicide jumping from Waterloo Bridge, a regular thing at this time. She represented Watts’s revulsion of the despair of the poor.
But ‘Under a Dry Arch’ was another of Watts’s uncompromisingly realistic pictures that showed his dismay at what he saw. He hoped this canvas of this desperate and tired old lady would arouse pity for those like her.
The ‘Song of the Shirt’ dealt with the difficult lives of Victorian seamstresses. These women were forced to work exhausting hours for very little. Watts showed his support for reform through this canvas.
The rather gorgeous ‘Bust of Clytie’ is the mythological nymph. She loved the sun god who didn’t love her back. Rather rudely he turned her into a sunflower, so she was destined to turn her head towards him as he passed through the sky.
Watts was interested in the emotional expressiveness of necks.
It was Watts’s first large, ideal sculpture in the round and was the only one exhibited during his life. It was hugely popular and many replicas were made.
Watts described his paintings as ‘Poems painted on canvas‘. He had a unique position within British art being critically acclaimed and admired by his fellow artists. He was popular both at home and abroad which allowed him the opportunity to explore his idea of a poet-painter. He wanted to reflect eternal truths and provoke social reform.
Watts took an original approach to depicting ‘Hope’ in this canvas. A woman is hunched on top of a globe, blindfolded and clutching a wooden lyre with only one string left intact. Her head leaning towards the instrument seemingly so she can hear the faint tune from the sole remaining string.
According to Watts, “Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests here rather the music which can come from the remaining chord”. Watts’s soft brushwork, creates a melancholy and desolate depiction of hope. It was criticised and some suggested Despair would have been a better title.
Medusa is placed centrally. This ‘hideous’ woman has no hair but living venomous snakes instead. Best avoid gazing directly at her, it’s never convenient to be turned to stone.
‘Time, Death and Judgement’ exemplifies Watts’s commitment to the portrayal of eternal subjects and abstract spiritual themes.
The male youth on the left strides forward with monumental strength and indifference, to illustrate the relentless march of time. Time holds hands with the female figure of Death, who gazes down at freshly cut flowers, leaves and blossoms. Judgement can be identified by both her set of scales and the blindfold she wears to symbolise impartiality.
I prefer this one. ‘A Sea Ghost’ was inspired by a stranded ship the honeymooning Mr and Mrs Watts came across on a foggy day off the Italian coast.
It’s been compared to Turner’s sea painting among others.
Great to see Watts himself in one of the self portraits.
Stepping into the Sculpture Gallery, it took my breath away. The size of some of the sculptures and the light flooding in from all angles in this beautiful room gave us a ‘Wow’ moment.
This sculpture is a monument to Lord Tennyson, the famous poet and his lifelong friend.
Perhaps this friendship explains Watts was so often merging his art with poetry.
It’s made of gesso grosso, a mixture of plaster, glue and chopped hemp. It’s modeled when soft and carved when hard. The brass version stands outside Lincoln Cathedral.
‘Physical Energy’, said by Watts to represent ‘the restless physical impulse to seek the still unachieved. His equestrian model symbolises energy, continual motion and ambition, suspended in time.
Just scanning the horizon.
I love this photo of Watts at work. It’s taken just outside the barn doors of the Sculpture Gallery where it now stands.
All this brain work has made us work up an appetite. We head for the cafe. It’s a delightful space with staff who are genuinely happy to see you.
I love this sign outside.
It’s clear the sign works, these shelves are full of homely and quirky teapots and plates.
Cheerful staff took our order, I’m craving a coffee and hubby a pot of tea.
The daily specials looked great (seasonal, fresh and English) but the Welsh Rarebit is what they are famous for so I was excited to try it. It didn’t disappoint, I ate every bit.
I couldn’t resist trying this plum and ginger handcrafted cider. It was fantastic!
The cakes sounded really interesting and tempting, but I was too full.
Just time to pop into the Watts shop. A vast treasure chest of bespoke hand-made craft gifts.
On the way out we spotted this Victorian contraption. Watts wife was also very artistic – a potter! She discovered clay in their own grounds and used this machine to extract it.
We leave with both my head and belly bulging, a sign of a great day out.
Surrey, GU3 1DQ
Take a stroll just a few minutes to the Watts Chapel it’s beautiful and extraordinary.