Byzantium baked in Surrey: the extraordinary legacy of Mary Seton Watts

She was dismissed as an artist’s wife – or written out of the story – but now at last it’s time for Mary Seton Watts’s big reveal.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In 1870, Mary Seton Fraser Tytler, an aspiring artist, made a visit to Little Holland House, the home in Kensington, central London, of George Frederic Watts, the best-known painter in all the land. For anyone, this would have been a red letter day: Watts was then as admired and as beloved as his near contemporary Charles Dickens. Mary’s admiration of him, however, bordered on the obsessive, and as she passed through the baize-covered door to his studio, the beating of her heart was ­unnaturally fast.

Much later, in the three-volume life of the artist she published in 1912, she recorded her first impressions – still swoony, four decades on. Having described his beard, only lightly touched with grey, and his hair, still quite brown, she noted his famously courteous manner (friends knew him fondly as Signor). So distinctly did he suggest to her “the days of chivalry”, that she would not have been at all surprised to have found him “clad in shining armour”.

What followed was a courtship, albeit a prolonged one. Watts was content for Mary to be his pupil, but he tried to discourage her affections; perhaps he still felt scalded by the failure of his first marriage (to the actress Ellen Terry). It wasn’t until 1886 that they wedded, by which time he was about to turn 70, and his student approaching 40. What did their union mean for Mary? Devoted as she was, at first she was uncertain. Her diaries speak of her deep happiness – how thrilling it was to eat breakfast surrounded by his portraits – but also an awareness that it was going to take “a little while yet to get over being under the shadow of his great work”. She wanted to give her husband, in whose genius she wholly believed, all the love and attention he needed. But she also longed to make her own art.

After honeymooning in Egypt, Turkey and Greece, the couple returned home to London. But Watts was in poor health and needed a place to escape the winter damp – and maybe Mary now longed for her own realm. Either way, in 1890, they began building a house in the village of Compton, near Guildford, Surrey. It was designed in the arts and crafts style by the architect Sir Ernest George and they named it Limners­lease, from “limner”, meaning artist, and “lesen”, or to glean (“our hope being”, as Mary said, “that there were golden years to be gleaned in this new home”). The house came with a studio for each of them and, in the fullness of time, a series of gesso reliefs created by Mary. In 1902, by which time they were in Surrey all year round, they bought a three-acre plot nearby, on which they built a gallery, dedicated to Watts’s pictures and open to the public. Mary was widowed just two years later but she reigned over it, like a queen, until her own death in 1938.

Mary was devoted to Watts. But she longed to make her own art

In subsequent decades, Watts’s reputation deteriorated sharply, and with it the condition of the gallery. By the 1990s the building was on the English Heritage “at risk” list. But then, salvation. Barack Obama’s admission that Watts’s allegorical Hope – of a blindfolded woman, perched atop a globe and caressing a broken lyre – was his favourite painting coincided with a revival of interest in Victorian art generally, and G F Watts in particular. In 2011 Watts Gallery reopened after a £10m refurbishment, its spaces restored and expanded by the architects Adam Zombory-Moldovan and Lucy Clark of ZMMA.

Now more change is afoot. Five years ago, Limnerslease, long in private ownership, was bought by Watts Gallery. Stage one of its restoration is almost complete. Later this month, the studios of both Watts and his wife will open to the public for the first time – at which point, perhaps, Mary Seton Watts will at last begin to enjoy a little of the recognition she deserves.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has no entry for Mary Watts, and in the long essay devoted to her husband she is the object of some derision: for her role as keeper of the flame, for the unreliability of the catalogue she produced of his work, for having separated the artist, in his last years, from some of his friends. To me, this is more than baffling. When I visited Limnerslease in the days before Christmas, it was impossible not to feel enraged by the way she is often written out of the story of Compton. It’s not only that the gallery, and its legacy, would not exist without her. Standing in her studio in front of the stunning frieze she created for the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot (rescued from the bulldozers in the late 1990s, this tender depiction of Christ surrounded by angels has enjoyed 14 months of conservation work), I was struck all over again by her energy, determination, skill and, above all, extraordinary eye. If she turned her hand to something, the result was inevitably singular and lovely. To think of her as little more than a crazed amanuensis is to ignore the evidence of all that she left behind.

The daughter of a civil servant, Mary was born in India in 1849 and grew up on her grandparents’ estate in Scotland. Her introduction to Watts came through her family connections to the Isle of Wight, which was home to Alfred Tennyson and Julia Margaret Cameron, both members of his circle. In an 1868 photograph by Cameron called The Rosebud Garden of Girls, Mary appears with her three sisters. Already, there is something different about her. In her embroidered shift, long hair flowing, she looks beautiful, but distant: Guinevere waiting for her Sir Lancelot.

Though she had trained as a painter at the Slade, it was obvious after her marriage she would not be able to continue as one; beside her husband’s extraordinary oils, her own work paled into significance. But a period spent with the French sculptor Aimée-Jules Dalou had encouraged an interest in terracotta sculpture that would now stand her in good stead. Clay was her saviour. At Compton, she did two remarkable things. First, she established a social enterprise, the Potters’ Arts Guild, which would thrive until the 1950s, selling work at Liberty & Co and receiving commissions from such eminent architects and designers as Edwin Lutyens, Clough Williams-Ellis and Gertrude Jekyll. Second, she designed and built her masterpiece, the (Grade I-listed) Watts Chapel, which was consecrated by the bishop of Winchester in July 1898. The highly symbolic Celtic-influenced, rust-red tiles that cover its exterior were all made by villagers, many of them unemployed agricultural workers whom Mary trained herself at evening classes.

Marks of a fair hand: Self-Portrait (1882). Watts Gallery, Compton, Surrey, UK/© Trustees of Watts Gallery/Bridgeman Images

How to describe this astonishing building? Seen from the outside, it looks as if a miniature Byzantine cathedral – in fact, its design is based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – had been transported brick by brick to this bucolic Surrey lane. Inside, where every surface is covered with painted panels of swirling cobalt, seaweed green and bronze, it is as if you’ve strolled into the pages of Le Morte d’Arthur or, more likely, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (the vast model for Watts’s Monument to Tennyson can be seen at Watts Gallery, and it fair makes the knee tremble). The chapel’s riot of influences includes Edward Burne-Jones, art nouveau, the Lindisfarne Gospels, even the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, yet the result is harmonious and tranquil. For G F Watts, the building’s inspiration, its construction might have been disconcerting. It is a mortuary chapel, and it was not long before he rested beside it (his grave, and Mary’s, lie by a cloister to the east, an addition that was completed on his birth date in 1911). It was largely Watts who paid for the building, however, and on 15 April 1904 a version of his allegorical painting The All-Pervading – a hooded figure of the Creator, the spirit he saw as governing “the immeasurable expanse”, holds a green globe in His hands – was hung above its altar. On that day, Watts marvelled at his wife’s achievement. “He had not realised what I had aspired to in the matter of this glorious wallpaper,” Mary noted, drily. Less than three months later, he was gone.

At Limnerslease Mary’s restored studio, and a new gallery next to it, are full of treasures. Here you will find her honeymoon sketchbooks and photograph albums; extracts from her diaries (“We planted gentians and had tea in the drawing room,” she writes of their first day in the house); the books she liked to read to Watts (Dickens, Gaskell, the Russians); a collection of pots made by the couple’s cook, Mary Head, under Mary’s tutelage; her sketch of Watts as “an Epsom beggar”. But most fascinating of all is the display that shows the intricate process she used to create the panels for the chapel’s interior. To a base of chicken wire, sacking hemp and rough plaster, she added her beloved gesso, a combination of fine plaster and animal glue. Having carefully raked it with a comb to create texture, she would then use hatting felt to build up her design. After this, more gesso: at least eight layers of the stuff, sometimes 12. Finally, the panel was painted and gilded.

Was this physical work a substitute for something that was missing from Mary’s life? No. Even if we take her biography of him with a pinch of revisionary salt, her marriage to Watts was abidingly happy. The couple adopted an orphan, Lilian, who would one day inherit their estate, and the family was a cosy one. In photographs, sitting nestled together in the niche of the Red Room at Limnerslease, they look content, companionable. In the agonising period before Watts’s death, Mary recorded in her diary how difficult she was finding it now that they were no longer able to share a bed. Nor were they isolated. They had close friends nearby, and the stream of visitors to Compton included William Gladstone, Josephine Butler and Vanessa Bell.

Is this Mary’s moment, the big reveal after close to a century of semi-invisibility? I hope so. The many fans of Edmund de Waal, not to mention those who are still basking in the warm glow of the BBC’s Great Pottery Throw Down, could do worse than travel to Compton, where Mary’s kiln, shaped like a beehive, can be seen. She was, in my eyes, the very model of all that a woman can hope to be: a partner to her husband, a mother to her daughter, a friend to her neighbours; an artist, a worker, an altruist and a campaigner (after Watts’s death, she hosted at least one meeting at Limnerslease of the Godalming branch of the Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies). Meanwhile, the restoration of the rest of the house continues. By 2020, we should be able to see those gesso ceilings, and even her carefully chosen bedroom furniture, in all their confounding and deeply intimate glory.

The Watts Studios in Compton, Surrey, are open to the public for the first time from 26 January onwards. For more details visit: wattsgallery.org.uk

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 21 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war