Art, Socialism and Spies

This week I went with some friends to visit the George Frederick Watts Galley in Compton, Surrey. It was sunny and the countryside around Compton is lovely. The museum staff were all very pleasant. You don’t have to book and there is a small but very good café so you can spend the day in the area. The North Downs Way runs through Compton if you fancy walking on the Surrey hills.

Watt’s sculptures and paintings are very varied. Many of the portraits there are of people I mention on my walking tours in Holland Park in London so seeing them was like meeting old friends. As well as portraits Watts tried to express high ideals.  He was very concerned about the status of working-class people and their suffering. Other paintings are based on Greek myths, I really loved Endymion. In the story, the moon, Selena, falls in love with handsome young Endymion. She wants him to stay forever but he is mortal and must grow old and die. Zeus agrees to let him stay young with her but puts him into an eternal sleep. At night Selene joins him. In the painting she is a half moon cradling him and together they form the circle of the full moon.

At the moment there is an exhibition about John Ruskin which features a cartoon drawn by John Everett Millais when they were in Scotland together in 1852. It made us smile. It shows Ruskin and Millais with their heads swathed in cloth bags to escape midges but it looked very contemporary now that we are all wearing masks. I can’t show it for copywrite reasons but if you google Millais and Midges you should find it.

Watts married twice and both times to a woman much younger than he. His second wife, Mary was a potter and designed a memorial chapel to him. It is amazing. My camera would not do justice to the building so I didn’t take any pictures but the photo at the top of this blog will give an idea of the style. The church is in red terracotta and is in the form of a very tall Greek cross. It is decorated with interwoven, Celtic style designs.

There is a roofed shelter in the graveyard where Watts himself is buried which is reminiscent to the memorial in Postman’s Park, London. That shelter was designed by Watts to commemorate the extraordinary courage of ordinary people faced with danger, even risking their own lives to save others. The earliest commemoration plaques there are by William de Morgan. The Watts Gallery has a room with some of de Morgan’s tiles and pots in wonderful rich colours.

Compton is close to Wanborough, a tiny hamlet with a wooden tithe barn built in 1388. Normally the tithe would have been a tax of one tenth of a farmer’s produce given to the Church and stored here. Most of the tithe would be sold to buy things for the Church but some produce was kept. If harvests were poor one year and people were in need, the Church would give them a “dole”, a small portion, from the store in the tithe barn. We were lucky because the barn doors were open so we got a glimpse of the inside but what I really came to see was Wanborough Manor.

I am researching WWII spies for virtual tours I am planning and this is where the French SOE agents were given their basic training. Next to the manor is St Bartholomew’s C13th church.  

About the author: Gail Jones