George Frederic Watts in front of The Messenger,1895
George Frederic Watts (1817-1904) was born in London in 1817, the son of a humble piano player. He was a sickly child and is always portrayed as the archetypal delicate and sensitive sort. Yet he lived into his 88th year and continued to paint and sculpt with passion right up to the end. His connection with the Godalming area came when he and his second wife, Mary, built their ‘country cottage’ in Compton and followed this up with the Watts Gallery, which opened in 1904. Mary Watts was the driving force behind these more structural endeavours, which left Watts to concentrate on the all-consuming business of painting. He lived just long enough to set foot in his gallery and it has been open to the public ever since.
He studied only theoretically at the Royal Academy schools, having been apprentice to the studio of sculptor, William Behnes, when he was just 10 years old. His was a natural talent, recognised by his father at this young age. In later years he said that he could not remember a time when he did not draw. His first picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy when he was just 20 years old and he continued to exhibit there throughout his life. He has also had major exhibitions at the Grosvenor Gallery, the New Gallery and the inaugural exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He refused the offer of a baronetcy twice and eventually agreed to the new Order of Merit.
He and Mary were a formidable couple and their marriage and work flourished despite their differences in their ages, for she was just 36 when she married her 69 year old “Signor”, as he was known to close friends. They shared a passion for art in all its forms and a belief that art could and should communicate something worthy to everyone, to uplift the soul and mind and to comfort the troubled. Watts’ belief that art should be accessible to everyone led to great donations of his work to public collections, including the Tate and the National Portrait Gallery. His art had a serious message at a time when other Victorian artists were more concerned with domestic trivialities, whether contemporary or classical, and he was therefore never an easy figure to fit into the series of ‘-isms’ that art historian seem so fond of. He died in 1904 and his fame dwindled rapidly this century, his work relegated to ‘Victorian sentimentalism’. Yet at the end of the twentieth century we seem again to appreciate his uniqueness.
In 2004 Watts Gallery, a Grade11* listed, and early Arts and Crafts building built in solid concrete, celebrated its centenary, and is the only purpose-built gallery to show a single professional artist’s collection. The structure of the building was at serious risk and became runner-up in the BBC Restoration Village in 2006. Watts Gallery secured £4.3 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund and work on the restoration started in autumn of 2008. The Gallery reopened on the 18th June 2010 at a cost of 11 million. Watts Gallery was awarded another funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund towards buying ‘Limnerslease’ the house and art studio of G F Watts. In 2016 Watts Studio was opened to the public as part of Watts Gallery – Artist’s Village telling the story of Watts and his wife, Mary.