Sunday, 23 August 2015

Watts Gallery, with Richard Dadd, Evelyn De Morgan and Watts Memorial Chapel

Last Sunday we had a trip out into rural Surrey, to Watts Gallery in Compton, a village just past Guidford. Very pretty countryside and very tame. But it was to a gallery dedicated to the work of the Victorian painter George Frederick Watts we went, small but in a very interesting building on a slight hill.

As a painter, Watts couldn't really make his mind up what he wanted to be, what style should be his. During his life there were lots of styles so it's understandable that his own work should develop but he seemed to jump around all over the place. There were lots of standard Victorian portraits, one wall full of them placed closely together so he certainly could paint. But there were lots of allegorical and symbolist paintings with grandiose titles like 'Time, Death and Judgement' (to the right), other paintings that seemed very Blakean and others that were very Pre-Raphaelite. He was all over the shop in terms of styles, some better than others.

He had a short 'social commentary' period around 1848-1850 and two paintings are represented here - 'Under A Dry Arch' shows a woman crouching down to keep warm and dry under an arch, and 'The Irish Famine' showing an obviously starved and starving family, desolate and without hope. Both are painted in very drab colours for emphasis. It stood out for me because of the famine and the influx of Irish people into Britain and the USA that resulted from it. I instantly thought, 'the influence of Dickens' but I may be wrong. It's interesting that he went down this route at all, even for a short period while still making his living with middle class portraiture.

There were also some giant molds for his statuary and I particularly liked the mold for his commemorative statue for his friend, Lord Tennyson. I sometimes go through a Tennyson phase so I gravitated to it. He's shown as an old man with a long baggy coat and baggy trousers with his faithful dog sitting as his feet. I liked it and might hunt out my complete Tennyson to browse through again.

Also in the Gallery at the moment is an exhibition of the works of Richard Dadd in a small exhibition called 'The Art of Bedlam' which is where many of his works were painted while an inmate/patient there. You may well have seen his 'fairy' paintings without knowing they were by him. His most famous is probably 'The Fairy Feller's Master' and that has pride of place in the exhibition. It's not very big but is incredibly detailed and populated by all sorts of fay folk. I like the prominence given to the daisies to give an indication of the size of the tiny people. Imagine any clump of weeds in your garden or tangle of vines and wonder what might be living in there, a separate world of wonder and mystery. Very hippy, of course, as was mentioned in the plaque beside the painting commenting on it! There were projections of the detail of the painting on the wall, changing every so often to show different details. What I would have really liked is a large magnifying glass and the time to look at it properly.

There are also some interesting paintings and sketches of his travels round the East before his illness struck. There's a lovely painting of Victorian gentlemen in Arabian dress with their beards all nice and bushy like hipsters today with fancy hats. And there's a lovely colourful painting titled 'Portrait of a Young Man' which is thought to be of the doctor in Bedlam that encouraged him to paint. It's in a very different style to his 'fairy' paintings, and reminded me a bit of Rousseau in his use of colour and the imagination that generated the garden scene (that isn't real and is entirely made up since there was no such garden at Bedlam). It's quite a striking painting when you see it in the flesh, with vibrant colours and the sombre young man looking out at you.

As if that wasn't enough, there's also a room dedicated to the works of William and Evelyn De Morgan, eminent Victorian ceramicist and his wife, a Pre-Raphaelite painter. A few of Evelyn's paintings were on the walls and William's ceramics in glass cases. I think I preferred the ceramics over the paintings but this one caught my eye, 'The Storm Spirits'. It couldn't be more identifiable as a Pre-Raphaelite painting if it tried. But it's quite dramatic and impressive in its own way.

After a browse in the shop and a tea and scone in the cafe, a 200 yards walk down a lane past a stud farm with horses wandering round takes you to Compton cemetary and the Watts Memorial Chapel designed and built by Mary Watts, Watts wife. It's like walking into and being part of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, surrounded by sombre colours with Celtic knots and Gothic styles. It was quite a surprise coming across a small, round chapel like that in a rural cemetary in the commuter (and retirement) belt of Surrey. I didn't quite know what to make of it but it's most impressive and demonstrates Mary's own artistic flair.

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