A Breathtaking Gem in the Middle of Surrey : The Watts Chapel

On the North Downs Way nestled in the heart of Surrey, near Guildford, is a village called Compton. Here you will find the Watts Gallery, built by George Fredric Watts (1817-1904), who was widely considered to be the greatest painter of the Victorian age. In 1886, Watts aged 69 married his pupil Mary Fraser-Tyler, aged 36 and a few years later, in 1891, they moved out of London to Compton, where he built a house called Limnerslease and a gallery for his art, which was opened just before his death in 1904. The Watts Gallery is inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement and well worth a visit.

What is equally worth a visit is the delightful cemetery Chapel, just down the road, built by the Watts for the Parish and designed by Mary Watts.

Mary Watts went to art school in Dresden and the National Art Training School in South Kensington. From 1872 to 1873 she studied at the Slade School of Art learning about clay modelling.

In 1894 Compton Parish bought land near to the Watts’ home for a new cemetery and George and Mary Watts offered to design and build a new chapel for the cemetery. When the offer was accepted Mary began to design the cemetery chapel and sought the help of the local villagers to build and decorate the Chapel using art nouveau, Celtic, Romanesque and Egyptian influence.

A follower of the Home Arts and Industries Association, set up to encourage handicrafts for the lower classes, Mary started ‘Terra Cotta Home Arts’ classes in 1895 for the local villagers on Thursdays evenings. They learned how to handle clay and model simple decorations and begin to make clay tiles from the plates Mary Watts had prepared for them. They became the Compton Potters Guild.

Over 70 villagers craftsmen and craftswomen worked on the terracotta decoration modelling and painting the stunning interior, its patterns were modelled in gesso which is felt dipped in a mixture of plaster and glue. It took them almost 10 years to complete the chapel.

The dome is traditionally seen as emblematic of heaven, the four panels on the exterior contain friezes symbolising the Spirit of Hope, the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of Love and the Spirit of Light. The faces are said to be that of the children belonging to those who modelled the designs.

The design is an amalgamation of inspiration, every aspect having symbolic meaning. The Circle of Eternity with its intersecting Cross of Faith is from pre-historic times and symbolises the power of redeeming love stretching to the four quarters of the earth.

To stand in the middle of the small circular chapel and look up at the intricate decorations is just breathtaking, especially when you know that all the designs were undertaken by local people from the village.

The exterior of the Chapel was finished in 1898, but the decoration of the interior took a while longer and was finally completed in 1904. When you visit, take as long looking at the decoration on the exterior as you do viewing the interior. Walk around the outside of the church and take in all the terracotta carvings that were done to make this gem of a chapel.

The Chapel is open to the public daily and about a 5 minute walk from the Watts Gallery. It is extraordinary and original and a must to be seen if you ever get the opportunity.

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