Monday, 13 February 2012

The Watts Cemetery Chapel, Compton, Surrey

National Portrait Gallery, London via wikipedia
George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), portrayed as a Renaissance Florentine by Louis Reid Deuchars - for those who read my post on Tuscany, Italy have you noticed a roundel by Della Robbia in the background of the painting?
National Portrait Gallery London via wikipedia
Dante Gabriel Rossetti by George Frederic Watts (1817 - 1904)
courtesy Wyrdlight via wikipedia
The Watts  Cemetery Chapel sits on the corner of a pretty Surrey country Lane in Compton, which leads on down to the Watts Gallery. The Gallery houses paintings and sculpture by George Frederick Watts the eminent Victorian artist, widely considered to be the greatest painter of his age.
We had visited both the Gallery and Chapel many, many, moons ago, and the Chapel in particular has lingered long in my memory.
When we were invited to lunch in Surrey yesterday, I suggested to H that perhaps we could leave our home earlier than necessary in order to renew our acquaintance with the Chapel - no time to do the Gallery as well.
The Chapel was designed and built by Mary (1849-1938), wife of George, and is a unique fusion of Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts, Celtic, and Romanesque influence with Mary's own original style. It is impossible not to admire the work and inspiration that lies behind this beautiful little building. It is built on a grassy mound and the deep red terracotta brickwork contrasts strikingly against the surrounding cemetery landscape.
The interior is colourfully decorated in hand painted gesso designs, rich in symbolic representation. It illustrates the dome of heaven with cherubim and seraphim. Winged messengers of darkness and light which alternate to face the viewer and then turn their back. In front of each is a disc that represents in turn light and dark, day and night, decay to stability. The whole is linked together by the tree of life whose roots are at the base and whose branches intertwine the symbols above.

The eternal circle at the apex of the dome representing God. Radiating from this the angels closest to God are Cherubim, represented by babies' heads, each haloed by four wings in pink, blue, and gold, and seraphim in red.
Seraphim in rich red blessing those below. Lower level winged messengers of darkness and light. 
Two of the discs held by the messengers of darkness and light - light holds birth and dark holds death.
The tree of life is represented by a vine laden with grapes symbolic of “I am the true vine”. 
A golden terracotta girdle circles the interior with symbols representing the Holy Trinity.
Whilst closely managed by Mary Watts the decoration of the Chapel was a community affair, with more than 70 villagers taking part.
Many of the graves are also made of terracotta, and it is said that  Mary Watts was concerned by the ugly appearance of her Aunt's grave and from this developed the idea of producing gravestones in terracotta.
When her husband died, she placed his ashes in a gesso casket she had made two years earlier and set it on the central pedestal of the Chapel. Her own handmade terracotta candlesticks and a wreath of laurel, lilies and bay lay in front of the altar.

28 comments:

  1. gosh, how intriguing... terracotta gravestones, i find they age beautifully... and what unique design on the whole... a place of visit to remember when next traveling that a-way.
    (ps - next weekend, the drawing challenge, yes).
    n♥

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    1. Dear ♥Woolf♥ - the terracotta gravestones are a delight, so much more warmth to them than the usual marble or granite. They were not looking at their best with a sprinkling of snow. In the late Spring they look charming when complimented by the first daffodils.

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  2. Interesting to see the greek labyrinth i none of the Cltic details. But I might am wrong here- I do tend to see Greece everyehre ; )

    oh! Rosemary can I visit you???

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    1. Well spotted Demie - that is a Greek labyrinth. Most art forms do draw on your rich Greek heritage in one way or another.
      Yes, I would welcome a visit from you anytime.

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    2. dear Rosemary! you are realy kind to me ( and my obsessions!) your posts make me travel with you, places. Interesting places. Without moving my feet. At all ; )

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    3. Dear Demie - you are a delightful companion, and I am very happy for you to join me along the journey.

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  3. Hello Rosemary

    I have goose bumps as I read this interesting, historic and artistic post. The church feel so holy and the terracotta headstones surrounded by snow. This is a post I will re-vitit and linger among the angels.

    Thank you for a spectacular post and for stopping here yesterday

    Helenxx

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    1. Hello Helen - I am pleased that you enjoyed the post. You have probably gathered that I love this little Cemetery Chapel, and particularly the way Mary taught the villagers new skills. As a result of this work, the villages were able to form a pottery guild, and a great deal of it was successfully sold in the Liberty shop, which I featured last week. Unfortunately the guild was disbanded in the mid-20th century.

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  4. Such an interesting blog Rosemary.
    You truly do write so well .
    The Della Robbia art is superb.. i have never seen it before.. also the one on your photo in Tuscany.
    The Chapel itself is unique and the art work superb.. its a beautiful place.
    I like the terracota tombstone.. its warmer than the marble.
    thank you Rosemary.. a lovely post
    val

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    1. Thank you Val - the chapel really is unique and the result of one women's dream. The little chapel is literally just where funerals are held. There is no seating, but a pedestal for the coffin or urn before burial.

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  5. A wonderful post. Beautiful work, my friend.

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    1. Your very kind comment has made my day, thank you.

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  6. Stunningly beautiful! Arts and Crafts lovers from everywhere would love this beautiful little gem.
    Carolyn

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    1. Dear Carolyn - you are right it is a beautiful little gem. Having not seen it for so many years, I was really excited as we climbed the steep pathway up to the door yesterday.

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  7. That door is just gorgeous in it's craftsmanship. I do so enjoy what you cover in your blog Rosemary and I have never seen terracotta headstones before. Joe and I visit cemeteries often and I snap images here and there. None here are as beautiful as this. hugs, olive

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    1. Dear Olive - I agree the door is stunning, and most readers of the post seem to be taken with the terracotta tomb stones. I wonder why they are not used more often? I think it was rather inspirational of Mary to decide to make them out of clay.

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  8. Rosemary it's hardly to believe there is so much to see at this beautifull chapel. I also pleased with your background information.
    Lovely post. Thanks for sharing.
    Marijke

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    1. Dear Marijke - unbelievably there was such a lot more I have not shown. The outside of the building is covered in so much symbolic terracotta work that I had to draw a line somewhere. There is a wonderful arched arcade up the hill from the chapel with seats, and containing beautiful memorials. The whole place is somewhere that is well worth a visit.

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  9. Rosemary, your photos and detailed descriptions brought me right to the chapel with you. A hidden treasure, no longer hidden, thanks to this post!

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    1. It is a hidden treasure Rosemary, I have spoken to people who live very near to it and they are completely unaware of its existence.

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  10. What an amazing place! Now I must see it....*reaches for diary*....

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    1. It is a great place to visit Kate, and the Watts Gallery is just next door.

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  11. Rosemary,

    What a fascinating post! I was very inspired by the cemetery at Highgate, in London, where my husband and I made a special trip, to visit the grave of Karl Marx. The little chapels, covered in ivy (did you know that Van Gogh's grave is just simply covered in ivy?) were very old and beautiful.

    The place you showed us in this post is truly spectacular!

    I also noticed a portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, whom I admire very, very much! I especially love his painting "Bocca Baciata" which shows (this was in Victorian England!) a Miss Cornforth (the model-possibly a prostitute-very beautiful!) wearing wonderful brocade clothes, luscious red hair (masses of it!) and showing a beautiful, sensual face.

    I decided to study Rossetti and his sister Christina (her poem "A Birthday" was the reading at my wedding) and consequently the brotherhood and I even went to visit (I phoned first) a Mr. Rossetti, who lives 5 miles away from me, in a cottage "The Silver Star." He kindly invited into his house and showed me objects which had belonged to D.G. and Christina Rossetti, and even a book which they had both presented to their mother. Inside, D.G had drawn something, in pencil, and Christina had written a long, loving inscrition. I spent a few hours there and took photos.

    Dante Rossetti (their father, was Italian and had to leave the country for political reasons. In London, he married Francis and become involved in art and literature. He was an expert on Dante and wrote an "interesting" critic of Dante's Divina Commedia, which you could purchase at his house, in London! Not quite the critic!)

    A few years later, I was lucky enough to be able to go to a show in London, where a series of Pre-Raphaelite paintings were shown (they belong ro Andrew Loyd Webber.) Seeing Proserpina (she was so beautiful!) and Pandora was a fantastic experience. I don't remember seeing Bocca Baciata, which I have so many times "read" in all its details.

    Well... I am going to stop here, or my comment will be too long and boring.

    I love your blog!

    ANNA

    xx

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    1. Dear Anna - I loved your reply thank you. Now, you must write a post on your visit to the Silver Star.
      I too went to that exhibition of Pre-Rhaplite paintings owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
      Highgate has also been a haunt of mine, it is a wonder we have not bumped into each other!
      Do you know the story about Elizabeth Siddal, Rossetti's wife who died after taking an overdose of laundanum. She was buried in the Rossetti family tomb in Highgate and Rossetti in his grief put is manuscript of poetry in the coffin with her. Years later he regretted parting with them and became obsessed with retrieving the poems. He applied to have the coffin exhumed to retrieve them. It was done in the dead of night so as to avoid public attention, Rossetti was not present. He was told that her corpse was remarkably well preserved and her delicate beauty intact. Her hair was said to have continued to grow after death so that the coffin was filled with her flowing coppery hair as it did in the painting of her as Ophelia by John Everett Millais.

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  12. Hi, Rosemary,

    Thank you for sharing this astonishing project. I like the scale of the chapel — in the full-view Wikiphoto, at least, there is a sweetness to it, though I might be misjudging the size. I look at this and think that the chapel would be an impressive legacy, even if one were remembered for nothing else.

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    1. No Mark - you are completely right, the scale of it is very small. It is circular inside with standing room for no more than 30 people around the central pedestal, which holds the coffin.
      Mary initially was a portrait painter, but then studied clay modelling at the famous Slade. She taught the villagers their skills which after the completion of the chapel resulted in her helping them to set up a very successful pottery called the Compton Potters' Art Guild.
      I am pleased that you enjoyed seeing it.

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  13. My stitching group regularly met at the local tearoom. One of our exhibitions used it as a design source. There is so much to see there - a positive visual delight.

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    1. I agree, it is a feast for the eyes, and requires several visits to be able to absorb it all.

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