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A museum where time stands still

In the countryside of southwestern England, the Watts Gallery is virtually unchanged from the time of its founding a century ago.

August 22, 2003|Alan Artner | Chicago Tribune

COMPTON, SURREY, England — The distance from London to this tiny village in the southwest is only about an hour, although if you come to visit the Watts Gallery, it's a century.

Hidden behind a garden at the end of a long drive is a broad, low Arts and Crafts building that was constructed in 1903-04 to display the studio collection of George Frederick Watts, one of the most famous artists of the Victorian period, and provide lodging for apprentices of the Potters' Art Guild founded by his wife, Mary.

The "Signor," as Watts was called, died three months after the gallery's inauguration, but his widow maintained it for another 34 years, preserving everything down to gasoline receipts for her automobile.

Thanks to only three curators in the gallery's history, with the benefit of the first having been an uncle to the third, this art institution shows a continuity like none other: In both appearance and how it is run, the Watts Gallery has survived virtually unchanged from the day it opened.

A visitor thus may see more than 200 drawings, paintings and sculptures by Watts and some of his colleagues much as they did.

And if the spirit of modernity has touched the spaces with electricity, there still is nothing quite so contemporary as climate control or even heating that would allow the staff to shed mufflers and coats in winter.

Some changes were planned for the centennial renovation scheduled to begin this year, but enough funds were not forthcoming -- the gallery is an independent charity trust, with free admission -- and the project is now on hold.

Curator Richard Jefferies, who has the whiskers of Matthew Arnold and the wit of Oscar Wilde, says the refurbished spaces will not, in any case, be transformed into the Watts Gallery Experience.

"There will be no computers, interactive kiosks or sounds of dinosaurs breaking wind," he vows, fully expecting he still will personally attend to everything from the research and presentation of artworks to roof repair and the clearing of drains.

Jefferies has cared for the gallery for 30 years, although his time there goes back much further; as a child he visited here his great-uncle, who had accepted the first curatorship from Mary Watts partly because a cottage came with the position. Jefferies has thereby inherited knowledge about the painter that comes from as close as one could get to the source, and he generously shares it with visitors.

In the early 20th century, Watts' reputation rested on a series of paintings of eminent Victorians he gave to the National Portrait Gallery. The Watts Gallery owns several portraits as well, but some it doesn't have are nonetheless shown, quaintly, through yellowed black-and-white photographs titled with typewritten labels.

One is the likeness of essayist Thomas Carlyle. Jefferies tells you Carlyle thought it made him look like a "mad laborer." Then he gives poet Alfred Tennyson's view of the Carlyles, when asked whether Jane and Thomas shouldn't have married different partners. "No," Tennyson replied, "then two more people would have been made unhappy." And so the commentaries go, Jefferies setting Watts' world before you, sometimes with scholarship, sometimes humor.

After age 60, Watts wanted to be known for his imaginative paintings, largely allegories on life, love and death. These works would give inspiration to much younger artists in Europe who became famous as Symbolists and Idealists.

The paintings went into many collections around the world, including those of the White House and Art Institute of Chicago. One of the most reproduced paintings was Watts' melancholic image of "Hope," which found its way even into "The Marriage Circle," a Hollywood silent film by Ernst Lubitsch.

The Watts Gallery has, of course, several examples of this "grand art." But the two most remarkable late pictures, "After the Deluge: The Forty-First Day" (c. 1885-91) and "The Sower of the Systems" (c. 1902), are cosmic meditations and, as important, proto-abstractions.

When I first saw them in an exhibition at the Tate Gallery five years ago, they went to the top of my list of history's great forgotten paintings. Seeing them again only confirmed their elemental power, which in the first instance is so strong as to survive Jefferies' comically descriptive title, "The Fried Egg."

The Tate show in 1998 was the first in a long time to bring out some of the museum's 23 Watts canvases, and unlike in the case of the Pre-Raphaelites, rediscovery and newfound acceptance for the Signor has been slow.

Still, there are rumblings on the eve of the centenary of his death and a new biography, which one hopes also will bring admirers down the road to the Watts Mortuary Chapel, an extraordinary building designed by Mary Watts that brings together Celtic symbolism with end-of-the-century decorative sinuosities of architecture in France and Belgium.

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