Recently I posted some images for the travel photo challenge; ten days of photos with no explanation, mostly I chose some older photos from past trips overseas. Just thought I might do some brief posts on some of the lesser known but worthy locations from our past travels.
The very first image I posted for the travel challenge was taken in one of the most magical buildings in rural England, the Watts funeral chapel in Compton, an art nouveau masterpiece and a magnificent example of both the aesthetic and the ethos of the arts and crafts movement.
When the village of Compton needed to construct a new cemetery, Mary Seton Watts, wife of the Victorian artist/sculptor George Frederick Watts and an artist in her own right, leapt at the opportunity to design and build the new mortuary chapel. The Watts had built a house and studio nearby, “Limnerslease”, the cemetery and chapel are just a short stroll down a country lane from the Watts gallery and artists village. The gallery itself is always worth a visit, it houses a significant collection of Watts work and often hosts other exhibitions, often artists from the same time period. In the past I have seen some magnificent works by Evelyn and William De Morgan exhibited here. There is also a gallery displaying contemporary works for sale. I should also mention the centre has a fantastic cafe, excellent tea and cake, at least it was when we last visited. This quiet, out of the way location is just outside of Guildford, well worth making a special trip for. The chapel is a magical building and truly a remarkable location.
The chapel nestles gracefully into the tranquil rural setting, and is reached by following the path that winds beneath the magnificent yew trees to a slight rise where the chapel sits at the heart of this small country graveyard. It is a building that is breathtaking in its charm from the moment you first lay eyes on it’s ornate terracotta exterior.
A romantic amalgam of Celtic revival, Romanesque revival, Egyptian and Byzantine influences and art nouveau, it is a truly remarkable structure. It becomes even more remarkable when you consider that the structure was decorated by local artists, mostly women, who until the chapel project arrived had never had any training in art or pottery. Mary trained the local villagers herself, to create this masterpiece, in fact some elements were actually created by the village children under Mary’s guidance. Liberal and progressive the Watts were supporters of female emancipation, socialism and the arts and crafts movement. The Watts chapel is a stellar example of what the arts and crafts movement stood for ideologically and aesthetically and is a monument to Mary, her remarkable vision and the achievement of the villagers themselves. In fact, from this project was born a thriving village pottery business, the Compton Pottery, whose pieces are now treasured collectors pieces.
The chapel is very much a group effort but Mary is the creative force behind the rich symbolism and decoration. The actual Byzantine structure of the building was devised by the architect George Redmayne. That circular structure seems to enhance the feminine feeling of the building. Redmayne is also responsible for the magnificent gothic doors at the entrance to the chapel.
The decoration of the terracotta exterior is largely derived from celtic design, imbuing a deep sense of history and identity in the building. And while much of the ornate symbolism directly references biblical texts, it is also a very immediate, visual language that represents universal concepts like hope, comfort, sacrifice and wisdom, making the chapel an intensely spiritual experience regardless of the viewer’s religious knowledge or identity. As an agnostic with pagan leanings, I found this building deeply moving and filled with a profound, gentle wisdom.
As magnificent as the exterior is, it does not prepare you for the amazing vision within.
You enter via those magnificent gothic doors and find yourself drawn to the center of and completely immersed in a painted gesso vision of heavenly host, angels. They surround you, alternating an outward and inward looking, a light and a dark angelic figure, towered over by seraphs and cherubs and all interconnected by the intertwining of a vast tree of life. The interior of the Watts chapel is an intense experience. A moving experience, it does not feel like a place of judgement but rather a space of comfort and kindness. It feels out of place and time, it feels magical. And everywhere you look you find the motifs of nature, twining vines and leaves, and stylised plants and flowers. It was these individual plants and flowers that the children of Compton were enlisted to create. Virtually every member of the Compton community contributed something to the chapel design even the children. (Note the flowers at the base of the image above, these are the flowers the children worked on).
The chapel is not just a building, it is an experience. A strange, serene inspiring experience. The small nature of the structure and the round shape adds to the feeling of complete immersion. It is an inspiring space for contemplation and reflection. If I lived in the area I think I would find time to visit the chapel often and just sit in its embrace and reflect. The graveyard and chapel are still in use, with funerals and interments still conducted here. So it is important to be respectful of that if you do visit.
The truth is the area is quiet and does not normally attract a lot of tourists, mostly only knowledgeable enthusiasts of art nouveau or arts and crafts. Sometimes visitors to the Watts gallery will wander down the lane to the graveyard but it is not uncommon to have the space to yourself, at least on the occasions we have visited there have only been a couple of other visitors and with the beautiful country graveyard, with its collection of yews, oaks, and beech it is easy to find solitude, local squirrels and bird life excepted.
Behind the chapel itself is a beautiful cloister, also worth exploring and amongst the graves you will find some magnificent art nouveau headstones.
It is worth noting that aside from George and Mary Watts themselves the graveyard contains another distinguished family; the Huxleys. You will find Aldous Huxley in a plain family plot just behind the chapel. Afraid my daughter literally tripped face first into the grave and as she looked at the grave stone to utter an apology she was taken by surprise at the name and yes it is the Aldous Huxley who authored Brave New World.
The very first time I bought my cynical, sophisticated daughter to visit the chapel, it had been raining, the lane was deserted and a little muddy and I don’t think she could see the point in traipsing down a country laneway in what she considered the middle of nowhere. She was of the opinion we were about to become a plot in a Midsomer Murders episode, it is that kind of place. After leaving the chapel she conceded I did indeed have a point.
The Watts Gallery and chapel are in Compton which is just outside of Guilford, you can easily catch a train from London to Guildford and either take a cab to the Gallery or catch a local bus. It is worth the effort, it is a beautiful location, the gallery is a worthwhile experience but the Chapel and cemetery are simply magical. If you get the opportunity to travel to the UK it is worth making the effort.
There is a very good guide to the art and symbols simply called Watts Chapel and written by Mark Bills a curator at the Gallery and it is worth seeking out. I have copied a brief introductory video of the chapel below, (for information purposes, no copyright infringement is intended).
For further information check out the Watts Gallery web pages.
5 thoughts on ““A magic key… that unlocks a door into a world of enchantment” – Mary Watts”
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Yep it is a very wow place.
Great post Sharon, I really enjoyed reading it. Some fascinating history there. I particularly enjoyed the part about how Mary involved the villagers, training them and developing an industry. Those flowers and vines are just gorgeous. I can imagine it would be an incredible place to sit and think and reflect.
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Thank you. It is a very special place and yes Mary started running night classes to train the whole village, the Watts saw art as something empowering and enriching for everyone and out of that was born this amazing building.
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Beautiful images and I loved reading about the history!