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Maev Kennedy, arts and heritage correspondent
Monday June 28, 2004
Walkers unfamiliar with the Pilgrims' Way in Surrey often gape in disbelief as a bend in the path reveals an extraordinary building half smothered in roses and honeysuckle. The Watts Gallery looks as startling today as it did a century ago, when it was built as a living monument to a painter who would sink into the deepest obscurity, but was once recklessly described as "England's Michelangelo".
The gallery will this week celebrate a double anniversary with The Vision of GF Watts, an ambitious exhibition bringing together loans from the Tate - partly founded with a major donation from (George Frederick) Watts - and other collections from Britain and overseas.
The curators hope it will restore the once towering reputation of the artist. He just outlived the gallery, the first purpose-built public gallery in Britain devoted to a single artist. It opened in April 1904, and he died on July 1. His much younger widow, Mary, fiercely guarded the building, the collection and his reputation until her death in 1938.
Its only income since then has been the dwindling resources of the charitable trust she founded. Until very recently its finances were swelled by selling free-range eggs and muddy vegetables from a box by the gallery door, but they've lost their farmer and the curator, Richard Jefferies, explains he has been too busy with the centenary to find another egg supplier.
The gallery in Compton, just south of Guildford, built near the Watts country home, Limnerslease, has been described as one of the country's best-kept secrets.
Perdita Hunt, who has been appointed the first professional director in the gallery's history, calls it "a sleeping beauty who must be brought back to life with the lightest possible touch".
While she plans a £5m appeal to restore the building and add a study centre, she helps Mr Jefferies place buckets under the many leaks in the roof.
Their first light touch was to force open the lower gallery doors, and let daylight in for the first time in half a century on to the giant plaster maquettes for two monumental sculptures by Watts. The gallery once promised visitors that the enormous figures of Alfred Lord Tennyson with a giraffe-sized dog and "Physical Energy", a Titanic horse and rider, would be wheeled out into the open air every fine afternoon.
Even in his day, many regarded Watts's art as hard work; he despised the superb portraits that earned his living and longed to devote his time to re-inventing English history painting, and to his doomy allegorical canvases, tackling themes of love, life and death.
After his death the Bloomsbury Set and the young artists of the modern movement mocked what remained of his reputation. It has slowly been restored in the last decade through his inclusion in exhibitions, including those about the Symbolist movement, and the Victorian Nude, at Tate Britain.
Veronica Franklin Gould, the art historian who is co-curating the exhibition and completing a new biography of Watts, said: "His vision, his philosophy, his ambition and his unique use of colour are extraordinary, and well in advance of his time."
Her book will also examine the thorny subject of Watts's love life. He was already middle-aged when his friends in the artistic colony on the Isle of Wight, including Tennyson and the pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, brokered a disastrous marriage with the 16-year-old actor Ellen Terry. When they separated, Watts agreed to give her £300 a year, or £200 if she returned to the stage.
The formidable Mary was his second wife. A fine artist and designer who created the famous Celtic range for Liberty and founded a pottery in the village which survived until 1955, she first met Watts when she was 20 and he was 53, braving the notice on his studio door: "I must beg not to be disturbed till after two o'clock". She was dazzled, describing him as the soul of chivalry. She married him 17 years later, outlived him by 34 years, and devoted most of the rest of her life to his reputation and the gallery.
• The Vision of GF Watts, Watts Gallery, Compton, Guildford, July-October 31 2004.