A lasting memorial to a remarkable woman – Mary Seton Watts and Compton cemetery – Part 2 of a visit to Compton, UK

 

Autumn view over the churchyard showing the cloisters from the road oustide. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Autumn view over the churchyard showing the cloisters from the road oustide.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The golden autumn sunshine of the last afternoon had created long shadows and bathed the leaves on the trees in gold.   It was one of those autumn days on which you’re glad to be outdoors to make the most of the last golden days before the dark season sets in. Once you’ve gorged yourself on the beautiful Watts Chapel, make sure that you have left yourself enough time to explore the churchyard.  This is a tranquil place which was created by Mary Watts and Compton Parish Council and has gorgeous views over the surrounding countryside from the cloister at the top of the hill. From the road outside we could see the cloister and several of the terracotta memorials, two of which are Grade II listed.  The Wattses erected the picturesque oak lych gate at the entrance in 1897.  Mary Watts’ terracotta wellhead, encircled by a yew hedge, is along the left hand path.  This was designed in 1906 and also Grade II listed.    There are inscriptions on its top sides; ‘ the lord god planted a garden eastward in eden and a river went out of eden to water the garden.’

Mary Watts and the Parish Council laid out the cemetery which is also known as the Watts cemetery, in 1895-8.  It’s Grade II listed and was created as the old Compton churchyard was completely full.  At an 1894 meeting of the Parish Council it was proposed to buy land from the nearby Loseley estate and the Council agreed to raise a sum of £1300 from the poor rate of the parish for the purpose of ‘providing and laying out a Burial ground and building the necessary Chapel or Chapels thereon.’   Mary Watts wrote to the Council a year later, offering to build a cemetery chapel, with her husband’s financial help and inspiration.  Evergreens were planted which included cedars and yews and Mary planted the Irish yews. The graveyard and chapel were consecrated by the Bishop of Winchester on 1 July 1898.   It was extended in 1950 and a garden of remembrance was added in 1959.  The Parish Council still own and manage the cemetery.

The graveyard feels like a much older cemetery and a real part of the community.  It was created from local materials and local people with Mary Watts as part of the Compton Potters Guild. As with the Watts Chapel it’s in the Arts and Crafts style that was popular at the time.  Mary was fully involved with the churchyard as, from September 1896, she sat on the Parish Council sub-committee that was responsible for the graveyard together with the rector of St Nicholas, H H Gillett, the Loseley landowner William More-Molyneux and Mr Andrews, estate steward at Limnerslease, the Wattses nearby home.  It was landscaped in the Romantic style with winding paths and the choice of trees was designed to inspire feelings of mourning and contemplation.

Another view of the cloisters, Compton churchyard. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Another view of the cloisters, Compton churchyard.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The cloister was added in 1907.  It keeps to a similar Italianate theme as the Chapel.  Again, it’s also Grade II listed and has been compared to the loggia in Postmens Park.  This was G F Watts, Mary’s husband, memorial to self-sacrifice near St Paul’s in the City of London.    There is a memorial to G F Watts on the cloister wall with a small recumbent statue of ‘Signor’ as Mary called him flanked by two seated cherubs. Mary’s memorial tablet is also there.

We didn’t have enough time to find the two Grade II listed memorials; one to Margery Gillett, the Rector’s wife and the other to a novelist, Julian Russell Sturgis(1848 – 1904).   We also didn’t find the Huxley family grave either as the author of 1932’s Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s, ashes are interred with his parents.  We did find some m

 

A lovely Art Norveau memorial.  There is a very similar on in Golders Green Crematorium's cloisters. copyright Carole Tyrrell
A lovely Art Norveau memorial. There is a very similar on in Golders Green Crematorium’s cloisters.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

 

 

The churchyard is still open for burials and we did find one recent terracotta memorial dating from 2012.

A modern terracotta memorial in Compton churchyard copyright Carole Tyrrell
A modern terracotta memorial in Compton churchyard
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The Chapel and churchyard are the result of one woman’s vision and determination to create a lasting memorial to her husband and to give something lasting to the community.  I was full of admiration for Mary Seton Watts as she has left a lasting tribute to Signor and to herself.  A significant artist in her right, she was obviously extremely capable, talented and a born organiser.  Thanks to her and to Signor, there is a unique place in the Surrey hills for which she will always be remembered.

© text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References:

Watts Chapel; An Arts & Crafts Memorial, Veronica Gould & Joanna Howse, Books for Dillons, published 2 October 1993  (NB: This may be out of print but the Gallery may still have a few copies)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watts_Cemetery_Chapel

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1417498

 

 

 

 

 

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A unique gem in the Surrey hills – The Watts Memorial Chapel – Part 1 of a visit to Compton, UK

Exterior View of Compton Chapel in autumn. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Exterior View of Compton Chapel in autumn.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

 

On a Surrey hillside near Guildford, hidden behind tall Irish yews, nestles a secret jewel of the Arts and Crafts movement.  It’s a short walk from the Watts Gallery along a busy road with no proper pavement so be careful but it will be worth it.  This leads you to Compton churchyard.   Walk in under the lychgate and climb the twisting, winding path that leads you up through the trees to a building that looks as though it belongs in Italy instead of England.  Unique is an often over-used word but here it’s the only one that adequately describes the beautiful structure before you.  It’s the exceptional  and intriguing Watts Memorial Chapel.

The Grade 1 listed chapel is best viewed on a sunny day when its terracotta walls turn to orange and the dazzling reliefs, figures and symbols on the frieze around its exterior become three dimensional. Walk around the outside of the chapel and marvel at the sumptuous combination of Celtic,  Art Nouveau and Romanesque patterns and styles. The calm faces of angels look down surrounded by stylised animals, birds and labyrinths.

Section of exterior frieze around Chapel. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Section of exterior frieze around Chapel.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

This is a building created by love and faith. The metal cross on the imposing Romanesque entrance door was inspired by one on Iona. The pillars on each side contain the letters ‘I AM’ symbolising God as creator guarding a kneeling, reading man surrounded by animals and insects. In many ways this doorway reminds me of the entrance to the little terracotta mausoleum at Nunhead  Cemetery . A carved border of angels’ faces looks down at you, as your eyes are drawn up to the Garment of Praise above them. This resembles an embroidered wall hanging but in clay, depicting angels blowing trumpets,  phoenixes and birds.

Entering the chapel, after ensuring that neither of the ginger and white cemetery cats, obviously art lovers, haven’t followed you in, is like going into darkness from light.  I’d seen the cats on previous visits but on my trip in October 2015 they were nowhere to be seen.  Take time for your eyes to adjust.  Pale faces suspended in the shadows watch you. Then suddenly the light through the tall narrow windows begins to illuminate the glittering, swirling ‘glorified wallpaper.’ All around the dome’s walls are lifesize pairs of angels in red and green, either staring towards or away from you.   The ones facing you are angels of light and the ones looking away are angels of darkness. Symbolic medallions around them intertwine with the sinuous Art Nouveau whiplash and golden tendrils of the Tree of Life. The upraised arms of the angels direct your eyes to the dome’s roof and to the 100 cherubs’ faces on the crosspieces, the four larger angels on each of the corbels and finally the sun in the roof’s centre.

interior view of Watts Chapel showing one of the Celtic inspired Angels of light. copyright Carole Tyrrell
interior view of Watts Chapel showing one of the Celtic inspired Angels of light.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

 

The gilded terracotta altar is opposite the entrance.

 

Incredibly, the Watts Chapel was created by an amateur.  Mary Watts, the devoted second wife of the Victorian painter, George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), designed the entire building without any prior experience.  It must be one of the very few 19th century buildings designed by a woman. Mary dedicated  it to:

the loving memory of all who find rest near its walls, and for the comfort and help of those to whom the sorrow of separation remains“.

She  formed the Compton Potters Guild with local villagers and they assisted with the carvings and gesso decorations. A coachman modelled the angels’ faces above the entrance. Even the local children each painted a leaf, a flower or fruit on the interior walls. She also saw the Guild as a way of keeping the locals occupied and away from bad influences such as drink. The chapel was her husband, G F Watts’, gift to the village of Compton.   He was also known as Signor and financed the building  by painting commissioned portraits.

The Chapel was begun in 1895 and the gesso interior painting was completed in 1904. The Archbishop of Canterbury attended the consecration ceremony, together with Signor, amongst others. The Watts  lived at ‘Limnerslease’ which was near the churchyard and it was from their grounds that the clay to build the chapel came.  Burne- Jones, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, somewhat unkindly, renamed the house ‘Dauber’s Den’ which reveals how G F Watts was viewed by some of his contemporaries.   The Gallery has had a refurbishment and Watts’  paintings now have interpretation boards and are better displayed with additional sculptures.

However, although G F Watts was a celebrated painter in his day he has fallen out of favour as have other artists of his time. He was notorious for marrying the actress Ellen Terry who was just 17 to his 47 and it barely lasted a year. Mary was his second wife and 36 years his junior. She was an inventive and accomplished artist in her own right and devoted herself to her husband and his memory. Signor painted Society portraits and subjects taken from mythology such as ‘Clytie’ and moral, storytelling pictures. But he was also an important precursor of Symbolism with such work as ‘The Sower of the Systems’. 2004 was his centenary year and he was commemorated with an exhibition at the nearby Watts Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery.

However the Watts Chapel isn’t for everyone. Some may find it too overpowering in its use of symbols and extravagant decoration and others may see it as an indulgent folly. But to me it’s a uniquely spiritual building. Mrs Watts used many sources for her creation including the Book of Kells and Egyptian sphinxes, and I find it fascinating to discover the symbols used and decipher their meaning or simply just enjoy them.

The Watts Gallery sells an excellent book on the meaning of the carvings and the chapel’s background, if you wish to explore further. They also have further examples of the work of the Potters Guild which finally closed in the 1950’s and their works are now collectors items.  West Norwood cemetery has a piece on a grave.  However, the Gallery does sell modern reproductions and had some on display on my visit in 2015.  There is also an excellent tea shop at the gallery.

 NB: Please remember that the chapel is also a parish building and may be in use on some days.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

Reference:

Watts Chapel; An Arts & Crafts Memorial, Veronica Gould & Joanna Howse, Books for Dillons, published 2 October 1993  (NB: This may be out of print but the Gallery may still have a few copies)

http://compton-surrey.co.uk/watts-chapel/4518411494

Part 2 – A lasting memorial to a remarkable woman – Mary Seton Watts and Compton Cemetery.

 

 

 

Symbol of the month – The Ouroboros

 

For every end there is a beginning.

This is only one of the several  positive and powerful meanings  of the ouroboros which is one of the most ancient  symbols known to man.  It’s depicted as a snake eating its own tail to sustain its life in an eternal cycle of renewal and it usually forms a full circle.  It occurs in many cultures,   religions and beliefs.  The psychologist, Jung, called it an archetype which is best described as

a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.’

The ouroboros appears in Victorian cemeteries as a symbol of resurrection.  The snake is reborn as it sheds its skin and this fine example is on each of the 4 sides on top of the columns at the imposing entrance to Nunhead Cemetery,  London. Victorian visitors would have understood its meaning.   As a resurrection image it can be very positive as some of its other attributes are immortality, eternity and wisdom.  However, as with most symbols , it can have several meanings.  These include the Universe’s   cyclic nature and life out of death.  It constantly appears to return as it sheds its skin and, Phoenix-like, has a cycle of life, death and rebirth.

There is also a magnificent ouroboros on the gates of Sheffield General Cemetery and one in Highgate Cemetery West on the doors to a mausoleum.  It inspired the tattoo worn proudly by Jeane Trend-Hill a photographer and fellow cemetery explorer.

Photographer and fellow cemetery enthusiast, Jeane Trend-Hill's ouroboros tattoo and Whitby mourning bracelet based on one in Highgate. copyright Jeane Trend-Hill Used with kind permission.
Photographer and fellow cemetery enthusiast, Jeane Trend-Hill’s ouroboros tattoo and Whitby mourning bracelet based on one in Highgate.
copyright Jeane Trend-Hill Used with kind permission.

 

But the ouroboros’ origins lie in either ancient Greece or Egypt as both cultures have claimed it.  In Greece, Plato described it as ‘the first living thing, a self-eating, circular being’.  In fact, the Greek translation of ouroboros is ‘tail devouring snake’ and it’s associated with something constantly recreating itself and the eternal return.

In Egypt, the ouroboros reputedly appears for the first time in the 14th century BC in Tutenkhamen’s tomb on an ancient funerary text.  This depicts the Sun God Ra and his union with Osiris in the underworld and is illustrated with two serpents , holding their tails in their mouths, coiled around hands and feet. This may be a representation of the unified Ra-Osiris.  Both serpents are reputedly the manifestation of the god Mehen, who in other funerary texts protect Ra in his underworld journey.  I haven’t been able to find an image of this particular representation but I did find this one which purports to be even older.

It’s from a papyrus dated 1077 – 943BC, from the papyrus of Dama and is of the ouroboros surrounding the Sun-Ra. http://earthmonsterworld.ning.com/groups/serpent-mysteries/serpent-world-mythology/ouroboros
It’s from a papyrus dated 1077 – 943BC, from the papyrus of Dama and is of the ouroboros surrounding the Sun-Ra.
http://earthmonsterworld.ning.com/groups/serpent-mysteries/serpent-world-mythology/ouroboros

It’s from a papyrus dated 1077 – 943BC, from the papyrus of Dama and is of the ouroboros surrounding the Sun-Ra.

The ouroboros appears in Hindu, Norse, Aztec and Chinese religions.  It’s also a significant alchemical symbol as well and features in Cleopatra the Alchemist’s work.   There are also Masonic associations from seals dating from the 17th century.

The ouroboros is displayed on numerous Masonic seals, frontispieces and other imagery, especially during the 17th century. http://earthmonsterworld.ning.com/groups/serpent-mysteries/serpent-world-mythology/ouroboros
The ouroboros is displayed on numerous Masonic seals,
frontispieces and other imagery, especially during the 17th century. http://earthmonsterworld.ning.com/groups/serpent-mysteries/serpent-world-mythology/ouroboros

In fact, on a recent edition of BBC TV’s Antiques Roadshow shown on Sunday 1 May 2016, a triangular Masonic clock was shown and among its several motifs was an ouroboros.   In China it can also take the form of a dragon. In the Waite deck of Tarot cards it features on the Magician card.

I found this quote online:

‘In other myths the ouroboros encircles the whole world, a circumference of the waters surrounding the earth.  It can support and maintain the world and also inject death into life and life into death.  Although apparently immobile, it’s actually in perpetual motion, forever recoiling upon itself.’

 Here is a selection of ouroboros  representations from other cultures:

 

One of the many fascinating myths surrounding the ouroboros is the experience of the chemist, August Kekule, who was trying to discover the structure of benzene.   This is how he described his Eureka moment :

‘I was sitting, writing at my text-book; but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by the repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation: long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together; all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis.’

As I said earlier, Jung would see this dream as evidence of the ouroboros and its effect on the collective unconscious.

Although the ouroboros is usually depicted as a full circle, this is one that I found in my local church.  On first glance, it merely looks like an attractive, rippling border around the name Harriet and  It dates from 1815. But on a recent visit, I looked closer and realised that it was actually composed of 2 entwined snakes, each biting their own tail.  When I spoke to a churchwarden, she had always thought that, due to the patterning on the snakes’ bodies, that it was two entangled pieces of rope.   It is a memorial to a young wife who died aged 25 after suffering the ‘most acute and lingering pains.’   So it would have been a potent reminder of resurrection.

What initially looks like a simple pattern is two snakes entwined - tail to head. copyright Carole Tyrrell
What initially looks like a simple pattern is two snakes entwined – tail to head.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The ouroboros is one of the most intriguing and interesting symbols that I have researched so far.  A universal image of rebirth and hope.

References;

http://tokenrock.com/explain-ouroboros-70.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ouroboros

http://www.crystalinks.com/ouroboros.html

http://mythologian.net/ouroboros-symbol-of-infinity/

Douglas Keister – Stories in Stone

Clare Gibson How to read symbols .

What is the Ouroboros – youtube

An Illustrated Encyclopedia of traditional symbols J C Cooper, Thames & Hudson originally pub 1979, reprinted 1993

©All photos and text Carole Tyrrell unless stated otherwise.