On a recent visit to the Watts Chapel in Compton near Guildford in the south of England, I was struck by how Arabic the decoration appears.
In Islamic art, one would not find the human faces but the fluid grace of the lines is strongly reminiscent of Arabic calligraphy. The Watts Chapel was designed by Mary Watts, herself a distinguished artist and married to the Victorian painter George Frederick Watts.
Mary and George Watts went on an extended visit to Egypt and the near east for their honeymoon, and the influences of the art and architecture they must have seen evidently stayed with Mary.
The chapel was completed in 1904 and is dedicated to ‘All who rest near its walls.’
Mary Watts, who was born in 1849 and died in 1938, was a pioneer in community arts. While living in London, she ran clay-modelling classes for shoeshine boys in Whitechapel in the east end of London. Later, when living at Compton, she began art classes in the home she shared with G.F. Watts. Local villagers modelled the decorative tiles of the memorial chapel in local clay, according to the patterns she designed.
The richly-decorated interior of the chapel is intended to illustrate the ‘dual nature of everything, from day and night, growth and decay to stability and change’.
Mary Watts outlived her husband by more than 30 years. In her design of the friezes around the exterior of the chapel, she used birds to symbolise qualities; the peacock represents Hope, the owl Truth, the pelican Love and the eagle Light.
G.F.Watts is buried in the chapel grounds, naturally.
But a more unexpected person rests near its walls.
I went to the Watts Chapel and nearby gallery with the brilliant and friendly club London Historians.