Watts the big secret?

Deep in the Surrey countryside just off the North Downs Way is  the village of Compton and a house called Limnerslease, home to the Watts Gallery (Artists Village), the home of renowned Victorian portrait painter, George Frederick Watts and his artist wife, Mary.  After their marriage in 1886, the Watts’ moved to Compton in 1891 into their newly built home, Limnerslease where they were to spend 13 happy years until G F Watts’ death in 1904.  On taking possession, the Watts’ led by Mary, decided to build a gallery to house the work of G F Watts (known to his friends as ‘Signor’); this gallery opened a couple of months after Watts’ death in 1904.  It remains one of only a few galleries dedicated to a single artist and is often hailed as “a national gallery in the heart of a village”.   On her death in 1938, the house and contents were sold but the gallery remained open under the auspices as a Trust.  It wasn’t until 2016 that the site reopened in its current form.

Entrance to the Watts Gallery in Compton
lead door opposite the main entrance to Watts Gallery

Their old home is now small museum housing works by Watts, as well as a few artefacts belonging to the artist including and easel, paint storage carousel and pigment paint.  In an adjacent gallery room there are on display 3 of the four rescued relief frieze panels made by Mary Watts for the old Cambridge Military Hospital Chapel in Aldershot. (The fourth is in storage). Alongside these are various items made by Mary and the Compton Pottery which she started for local people and other personal items such as diaries and notebooks. 

Mary Watts was a remarkable woman and artist in her own right, attending the Slade School of Art (at the same time as the painter Evelyn De Morgan) where she studied sculpture.  She was a firm believer that anyone, given the right opportunity could create something beautiful, and that everyone should have a craft through which they could express themselves creatively.  She designed and oversaw the construction of the Watts Mortuary Chapel, which was a gift to the people of Compton to afford them a place where they could lay out their dead prior to burial so that others could ‘pay their respects’.  She designed, made and instructed others in the making of the terracotta tiles that cover the outside of the building and was responsible for the design and making of the internal relief work.

terracotta bust of Clytie by G F Watts outside the Watts Gallery
winter view of Clytie by G F Watts

In addition to showing artwork by G F Watts, the gallery holds four temporary exhibitions a year by artists connected to, or contemporary to Watts.  Connections are not always obvious which makes for surprising and interesting exhibitions. 

the Watts Contemporary Gallery

During 2019 temporary exhibitions have been about the moon, called moonscapes this exhibition celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landings through artworks and artefacts by artists contemporary to Watts’ lifetime.  The summer and early autumn showcased the work of the Orientalist painter J F Lewis, showing his keen eye for minute detail, outstanding skills as a draughtsman and colourist.  The late autumn and winter offering was devoted to the portrait painter and WW1 war artist, William Orpen.

Daughters of Theia by Mary Branson, created as part of the community programme connected to the Moonscapes exhibition in 2019

The Watts Gallery Artists Village offers a very pleasant day out in beautiful, tranquil countryside with the opportunity to see some incredible art by one of the greatest painters of his time.  The site also boasts an excellent gift shop selling interesting, high quality gift items and cards and an excellent tearoom.  Coffee and cake definitely recommended!  Above the visitor reception and shop is a contemporary gallery space which hosts rotating exhibitions by selected artists and groups relating to the Watts programme or the wider Artists Village.  There is plenty of free parking on the site.  A varied and extensive programme of community-based activities runs all years round, together with several ‘special event’ weekends.

Physical Energy by G F Watts
Alfred, Lord Tennyson by G F Watts

The Artists Village is open 7 days a week from 10.30am to 5.00pm.

A Right Swanky Pad

What to do on a warm summer afternoon? Try a visit to Polesden Lacey House near Dorking in Surrey. This impressive mansion looks like a Georgian Palladian house, but was in fact built in the Edwardian period of the early 20th century, remodelling an older, smaller property that stood on the site. This was to be the country home of wealthy socialites, Ronald (Ronnie) and Margaret Greville, but tragically Ronnie died in 1908, so Margaret lived there alone. The couple filled the house with a vast collection of paintings, porcelain, silver and furniture and Margaret took great delight in holding lavish parties at the house to which the crowned heads of Europe and anyone who was ‘anyone’ was delighted to receive an invitation.

Polesden Lacey House

Margaret herself was from humble origins, being the illegitimate daughter of William Younger the Scottish brewery magnate. When she was 21 years old, William Younger acknowledged her as his daughter and sole heir, which secured her future financially. All she needed now was a husband of suitable standing to allow her access to London Society, and this she found in Captain Ronald Greville of the 1st Life Guards. They married in 1891 and sadly had no children.

After her husband’s untimely death, Mrs Greville threw herself into the social whirl of the age, becoming great friends with the future King George 6th and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother), whom she invited to spend part of their honeymoon at Polesden Lacey. After her death she left her jewels to Queen Elizabeth (Queen Mother) who said of her “so shrewd, so kind and so amusingly unkind, so sharp, such fun, so naughty; altogether a real person, a character, utterly Mrs Ronald Greville”. (Bradford, S, 1989; King George VI, p11). Mrs G. (as she is often referred to) was a real ‘marmite’ person – love her or loathe her. It seems that the society photographer Cecil Beaton was a loather and is reported to have described her as  “a galumphing, greedy, snobbish old toad who watered at her chops at the sight of royalty … and did nothing for anybody except the rich” (Buckle, R (Ed), 1979, Self Portrait with Friends, selected diaries of Cecil Beaton, p.215-16).

Whatever the truth about her may have been, her home was definitely built to impress, she and Ronnie could be described as the Posh and Becks of their day, their home, while having ‘all mod cons’ being very ostentatious to the point of being vulgar.

Gold Room

Today part of the ground floor of the house is open to the public, dressed out as if a weekend party is about to take place. Entry through the front door reveals a symmetrical pair of curved bays, one with windows one without, with the window areas being obscured by trimmed hedges. This second bay housed the kitchens and did not have windows looking out to the front of the house, as Mrs G did not wish for her servants to be able to ‘gawp’ at her important guests arriving. Having the kitchen at the front of the house was very modern indeed as it was close to the dining room which meant that food at the Greville’s parties would always be served hot! (In most other large house the kitchens were in basements or in a separate annexe because of the danger of fire, it also meant that food was invariably cold by the time it reached the dinner table). A guided tour reveals some interesting snippets of information about the Grevilles and life at Polesden, but a free flow visit is also interesting. The upstairs of the house is laid out mainly to offices and is currently not open to the public. A warning to visitors, the lighting at Polesden is particularly low due to fragile nature of some of the furnishings and other display items.

Library

Polesden Lacey has a fantastic Rose garden as Mrs Greville was very fond of roses. The NT have commissioned Peter Beale Roses to create a Mrs Greville rose, and this can be purchased from the garden shop on site. In August however, the rose garden is past its best, which is during June and early July when the property hold an annual Rose Festival. There is a small formal walled garden with flowers for cutting for display in the house, with a long herbaceous border along the outside wall. Behind this is a small kitchen garden, tiny orchard and a new area for chickens, a bug hotel and a wormery, all in tune with the conservation ethos of the National Trust. To the front and side of the property are magnificent lawns where visitors can sit and admire the view across the Surrey Hills, or children can run about in safety.

Long Border
Sun Dial in Walled Garden wall
Peace Rose

From humble origins

Having a ‘spare’ afternoon is always a luxury but sometimes it seems a shame to waste it doing nothing, so with this in mind I went to visit the National Trust property, Oakhurst Cottage in the village of Hambledon in Surrey.

Originally built in the 16th century most likely as a workman’s cottage, this tiny home saw some remodelling during the 19th century and since then time has largely stood still.  We met our guide (visits are by pre-booked guided tour only) in the garden of the cottage and were then treated to an interesting introduction in the adjacent store barn.  One of the most interesting things about this building, is that it is built in the same way as the main cottage as a large square timber frame with in filled panels of brick.  The original cottage was one large building with a central fireplace and smokehole in the roof, but during the 19th century this was altered and a small extension was added, the fireplace was moved to the side and a chimney built on.  The biggest change was the addition of an upper floor with two distinct rooms for sleeping.

sitting room fireplace
sitting room dining table
second bedroom with hand knitted blanket coverlet and hand made rag rugs
all mod cons, the outside ‘convenience’

The National Trust acquired the cottage as a legacy from two sisters who owned several properties in the village in the 1980’s together with its sitting tenants, who were living in the house without the benefit of mains drainage, electricity, central heating and hot and cold running water.  The Trust have dressed the cottage to look as it most likely would have done during the 19th century, sparsely furnished and with many handmade items of furniture, rugs and coverlets.

Victorian hand made ‘paper pieced’ quilt bed cover

At the same time as our visit a young family was visiting also, and I take my hat off to the two young boys (probably aged 5 and 7) who were for the most part very well behaved, for what must have been for them,  pretty boring.  In the scullery the guide talked at length about it being the women’s domain as it housed the bread oven, the washing tub and copper.  The mother of the family group seemed to take quite violent exception to this idea, which is a bizarre notion, as this is exactly how it would have been over 150 years ago for women.  It was very funny hearing her protestations about equality and her views on the subjugation of women in the past!  The poor tour guide (an elderly gentleman) was quite bemused by this “strong independent woman”. 

pantry and food store

It is interesting how many younger people see the past through a 21st century lens, constantly calling out perceived injustice and malfeasance.  I find this fascinating, it seems to me that there are many who are only interested in a sanitised version of history that fits with their own experience and ideals.  This is plainly ridiculous and it is the duty of organisations such as the NT to present the past as accurately as possible, while being mindful of current sensibilities.  However, no heritage organisations should be afraid of tackling ‘difficult’ issues from the past.  These cannot be airbrushed from history, it is so important that younger people know about past problems and what was done, to avoid them happening again.

Outside Oakhurst Cottage is a small garden filled with flowers and vegetables.  There are some interesting architectural features on the building, the oak timber frame beams being the most obvious, while at the back of the property is a nice example on the rear wall of bricks laid in the Rat Trap pattern.  This is a method that can save up to 30% on the number of bricks needed to cover a 1m square and up to 50% on the amount of mortar required.

Rat Trap brick pattern
rear cottage wall showing rat trap brick pattern and tin bath

The cottage is tucked away at the far edge of the cricket green in Hambledon village, which in reality is little more than a hamlet (although there is a village shop that also has a small café serving excellent food), it is open for 4 days a week, Wednesdays and Thursday and Saturdays and Sundays between April and October for pre-booked guided tours only. Also available at the cottage are some albums and books showing the cottage at different stages in its life including a book of prints of watercolours by the well-known Victorian painter, Helen Allingham who painted the cottage. It seems that it is this painting on which the Trust have modelled the cottage we see today, and which includes the replacement of the windows from rectangular panes to diamond lattice panes.

Image result for oakhurst cottage surrey by helen allingham
Oakhurst Cottage, Hambledon Allingham
from the book “The Cottage Homes of England by Helen Allingham and Stewart Dick

Oakhurst Cottage is tiny gem, like an oversized dolls house frozen in time. Definitely worth a visit.