Another historic house – visiting the Watts Gallery – Artists Village
I recently visited the Watts Gallery – Artists Village, primarily to see their wonderful exhibition ‘Christina Rossetti : Vision and Verse’, but my Elizabeth Gaskell antennae are are always finely tuned and were twitching!
In 1891,the Victorian artist George Frederic Watts moved with his wife Mary Seton Watts to Limnerslease, the house they had commissioned at Compton from Ernest George . Once established in Limnerlease, and with her characteristic energy, Mary used the skills of local people she’d taught to work in clay, to build the Watts Chapel with its extraordinary decoration. This local skill base became the foundation of a pottery business which she established – the Compton Potters Arts Guild. By the beginning of the twentieth century, a separate building on the site housed the pottery, and to provide accommodation for the potter apprentices and also a space to showcase Watts work, the Watts Gallery – shown below – was built and opened in 1904. The whole complex celebrates the artistic vision of the Watts and in particular Mary’s energy and dynamism.
I went on a tour of Limnerlease, the Watts house, ( thank you to my tour guide! ) and discovered that it is a member of Historic Houses, like our own Elizabeth Gaskell’s House . Historic Houses represents the nation’s largest collection of independently owned historic houses – a treasure trove to explore!
George Frederic Watts is probably best known for his large allegorical and symbolist works. He said ‘ I paint ideas, not things. I paint primarily because I have something to say, and since the gift of eloquent language has been denied me, I use painting. My intention is not so much to paint pictures which shall pleasure the eye, as to suggest great thoughts which shall speak to the imagination and to the heart and arouse all that is best and noblest in humanity.’
Returning to England in 1848 from travelling in Italy, he completed a number of paintings expressing his shock at the poverty and destitution which he saw on the streets of London. Elizabeth Gaskell would certainly have been drawn to his pictures of workers fleeing the famine in Ireland, or to the tragic woman who has drowned herself in the Thames – pictures which paint such poignant stories of personal pain and wider social injustice.
Of all his work, I’m particularly drawn to Watt’s portraits – which he always said he painted to pay the bills! There is a wonderful portrait of Charles Hallé in the Gallery, our Marianne’s piano teacher and the founder of the Hallé orchestra, and also a portrait of Hallé’s wife with her violin which I found very tender. We’ve been looking at the friendship between the Gaskells and Charles Hallé recently as 2019 is the bicentenary of his birth. I also enjoyed this unfinished portrait of Florence Nightingale, also a friend of Elizabeth Gaskell. Do read our blog which explores a little of their connection.
In 1850, Elizabeth Gaskell had hatched a plan on behalf of Thomas Wright, a local foundry worker who had taken up the cause of prison reform after a religious revelation. Watt’s painting ‘The Good Samaritan’, which he had exhibited at the Royal Academy, has an inscription honouring Wright. Gaskell’s plan was that various Manchester dignitaries should contribute to a fund to buy the painting, although in the event Watts gave it to the Manchester Corporation ( now Manchester Art Gallery) in 1852 in honour of Thomas Wright.She certainly sent friends to visit Watts at his London studio : writing to Eliza Fox in February 1850, she says ‘I have sent such a number of charming people to see Mr Watts, he must think I have a glorious circle of friends‘
Most interesting to map some of the links between the Watts Gallery – Artists Village and Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, and very many thanks to the Watts Gallery for allowing the use of the images of the portraits of Mrs Hallé and Florence Nightingale.
Lesley – House Volunteer