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