The Easter break has arrived, the work-related course is finished, my completed portfolio with every T crossed and every I dotted is winging its way to be moderated. The pressure of homework has lifted and I’m feeling a little sense of freedom, unlike my students who should be furiously revising for their forthcoming exams. Time to roam with camera in hand and appreciate some local sites while the sun’s out and the wind is blowing.
Rather than use the busy A3 road when I drive to Guildford, I take a shorter, more rural route which was probably the old original way, weaving as it does from the village of Compton up to the Hogs Back. It’s called Down Lane but as I’m approaching it from the bottom end, so to speak, I always go up Down Lane which never fails to amuse me. I’m easily pleased.
However, there is something rather special about Down Lane. A local treasure nestles here amongst the Surrey Hills, surrounded by fields and partially hidden by high hedges. I drive by frequently, have visited several times and marvelled but I’ve never taken pictures until now. This place should be shared, after all.
Built from local red brick and completed in 1904, The Watts Chapel is approached from a lych gate along a twisty, uphill cobblestone path sheltered by giant yew trees. It’s an unusual, almost incongruous building, in a village where so many of the houses date back some five hundred years. Drawing nearer it is apparent that this little chapel is a testament to Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts Movement.
It was the brainchild of Mary Seton Watts, wife of the Victorian painter George Frederic Watts (more about him later) who designed and decorated the chapel with the help of around seventy eager Compton villagers: a true and very early community art project.
Detail of brick work on the arch above the oak door
The outside is adorned with intricate stylised brick work, each finished by a local hand, probably an attendee at one of Mary’s Thursday evening pottery classes. The faces on the stone work are all different; the feeling that this was a collaborative effort is reinforced. Either side of the main entrance are two curved stone benches in Art Nouveau style, the mossy patina only enhancing their design.
But it is inside the small circular chapel where the extent of Mary’s mission can be fully appreciated. I’d defy anyone not to gasp as the full impact of her vision comes into view as light floods in through the tall narrow windows throwing rainbow beams across the heavily decorated walls.
It is here that Mary has brought together angels of darkness and light, heaven and earth intertwined by the tree of life with its roots at the bottom and the branches curling ever skyward to embrace the angels nearest to heaven.
The centre of the ceiling with four angels pointing heavenwards
Many of the floral decorations around the mid rail were created by children under Mary’s guidance; her tree was fashioned from chicken wire and covered in plaster then painted in the same vibrant jewel colours that we can see today.
The altar carries an inscription and dedication from Mary to the people of Compton. Today the chapel is used for funerals – there is a lone bell reserved for such an occasion. The tolling of the iron bell…
Outside in the cemetery, the chapel is surrounded by gravestones old and new, some of which follow the Arts and Crafts design. George and Mary Watts are buried here, in front of the magnificent Cloisters. A simple gravestone marks the place.
The gravestone of George and Mary Watts. He died in 1904 just as the chapel was completed; Mary died in 1938.
Detail of iron gateway to the Cloisters
Headstone in typical Art Nouveau style
Arts and Crafts headstone among spring flowers
Mary and George Watts had settled in a house, Limnerslease, just across the hill from the chapel in the early 1880’s. George Watts was already an established Victorian painter so he was able to fund the building of the chapel for the village of Compton by selling commissioned portraits. He opened his own gallery – The Watts Gallery (as it is known today) – in Down Lane to display his paintings. Mary concentrated on her pottery – she had been a student at the Slade school of Art and was already forging her own style before she met George.
The gallery, which was recently the subject of complete restoration thanks to some lottery funding, is a testament to George’s prolific output as a painter. He was heralded in his lifetime but was never part of any one particular group or movement. His paintings are typical of the period – stern looking portraits, Italianate landscapes and dead animals. Not my particular cup of tea but definitely worth a look.
So, Down Lane is more than just my shortcut into town – it conceals this beautiful legacy to the Arts and Crafts Movement as well as a gallery full of noted Victorian paintings. Imagine my horror then, the last time I took this route, when confronted with these hideous carvings.
The residents of Down Lane have clearly let their association with the Watts’ go to their head. These hastily fashioned paintbrushes are, I presume, a nod to George. To me they look more like a left-over from one of those chainsaw competitions where tartan-shirted lumberjacks have to carve something recognisable within thirty seconds. And two more things about this irks me: part of an old hedge has had to be removed to make way for these monstrosities and the ghastly over-sized metal green sign is depicting Down Lane as anything BUT quiet. It looks monumentally busy, with children aimlessly wandering or cycling the middle of the road.
I‘m just off to make as much noise as possible and drive as recklessly as I can in the designated restriction free zone.
Happy Easter All!