Even though I tend to think I’ve covered London and its surrounds pretty well on this blog, every once in a while I manage to track down a museum that has previously escaped my radar (sometimes simply because I dismissed it years ago due to it looking tiny or boring). The Watts Gallery Artists’ Village is one of those. Although I haven’t been out to Surrey as much in recent years as I had back when we owned a car, I have managed occasional excursions when we’ve borrowed Marcus’s brother’s car, and we recently had access to it for a couple of months, hence some of the recent-ish posts on non-London locales. Knowing we would have to return the car soon, I was searching for one last place to visit that we hadn’t already been that was also open on a Monday (a tricky task these days when a lot of museums are open weekends only or Wednesday-Sunday) and found the Watts Gallery. Assuming I had seen it advertised it somewhere before, I know why I would have instantly dismissed it. It absolutely looks boring, and I suspect something about it reminded me of other, creepier art collectives, like Eric Gill’s incestuous paedo group in Sussex. But then I read they had a tea room, and whilst in pre-Covid times that wouldn’t have been enough to get me to make a special trip, in this corona-world, I had not been to a tea room in bloody ages, and the idea of a pot of tea, a piece of cake, and their supposedly famous Welsh rarebit sounded absolutely delightful, especially as the weather had abruptly taken a turn for the cold again (in June).
I booked tickets the night before, and there were still plenty of time slots available, though it being a Monday probably helped somewhat with that. Admission is £12.50, though the main house, where the Wattses lived, is currently shut. I can’t say if it is normally more expensive, or if we were just being ripped off by paying full price and not being able to see half the property. But since we were only paying £6.25 with Art Pass, I decided I didn’t care all that much and just went ahead and booked. We arrived a bit early, as the website stated that we only needed to check in to see the gallery at our appointed time, and were free to explore the rest of the property until then. Upon pulling up, I noticed we were at least thirty years younger than any of the other visitors, and though this of course could have been because it was a Monday, I typically see at least some other people my age when visiting exhibitions in London during the week, so I suspect we simply aren’t Watts Gallery’s target audience, which was pretty much confirmed by our experience there.
With half an hour to kill before our admission time, we headed down the road to see the cemetery and Watts Chapel, which is meant to be one of the most important Arts and Crafts buildings in Britain designed by Mary Watts (much more impressive until you get to the disclaimer “designed by Mary Watts”). The chapel is a terracotta affair, and does look pretty cool from the outside, but unfortunately my view of the inside was initially hampered by a man with a tripod set up in the middle of the chapel. He appeared to be a professional photographer accompanied by a member of staff, and I get that sometimes photographers make special arrangements to come photograph things, so I was fine with waiting a few minutes for him to finish. But then, as he was finally packing up his equipment, an older lady who had also been waiting marched over and stood directly in front of me so she could take a few photos. The entranceway is pretty small, so I backed up to give her some room, but she just kept backing up into me, and backed me right out of the door without an apology. Then, she just stood there for about five minutes holding her phone up but not actually taking any photos with it, so that she was blocking off the chapel for everyone for no real reason. Eventually I just got super irritated and stalked off angrily to explore the rest of the cemetery. Marcus did come back after she’d finally left to grab some pictures, but I was so irritated and afraid of running into her again that I just stuck my head in for a quick peek and returned to the cemetery, which did have some interesting graves in it, though I was disappointed I couldn’t find any pet ones, as I recalled reading about a pet cemetery on their website. Maybe they were in another part of the estate? Apparently Aldous Huxley is buried in the cemetery (non-pet one, obviously), but I totally missed his grave.
By the time we’d waited to get photos and looked around a bit, it was time to see the gallery, so we headed back down the road. We were not allowed to take photographs in the gallery, but it contained pieces by GF Watts, who was one of the founders of the Watts Artists’ Gallery along with his wife Mary, who built the aforementioned chapel. GF Watts was a painter and sculptor who was part of the “Symbolist” movement, whatever that means, but his stuff bore a resemblance to the pre-Raphaelites, and indeed, he seemed to be kind of in with that crowd. He married actress Ellen Terry when she was 16 and he was 46, which is super disgusting, though they soon divorced and he married Mary instead some time later, when he was 69 and she was 36, though the museum glossed over the huge age gaps (I only found out about them when doing research for this post). I found his art mostly pretty meh – didn’t hate it, didn’t love it. Fortunately, the museum is also home to a collection of art by the DeMorgans, William and Evelyn, who were frequent visitors, and I like their stuff a whole lot better, even though the display was rather small. William’s animal tiles and pots are excellent, and Evelyn’s paintings look weirdly modern and New Age-y for the 19th century, with rainbows and sparkles everywhere.
The gallery also hosts temporary exhibitions, and the one at the time of our visit was on Henry Scott Tuke, who is best known for painting a lot of nude boys and men. He liked to hang out in Cornwall where there were lots of private beaches where his models could pose nude. I don’t know if this was a special display for Pride, or if the two just happened to coincide, but it did discuss Tuke’s sexuality, and how his adoration of underage boys is problematic today, but was common amongst Victorian gay men. I don’t know why they didn’t similarly discuss this with Watts’s apparent fascination with much younger, sometimes underage women, but whatever, I’ll just always think of Watts as a gross old pervert in my head. After the Tuke section, there was a gallery of Watts’s sculptures, but they were even more boring than his paintings. The little railroad tracks he’d built to transport pieces a few metres forward so he could work on them outside was the best thing about this gallery. The gentleman working there was having a friendly and lengthy conversation with the visitors ahead of us when we walked in, but after they left, he settled back into his chair to silently glare at me from the corner, so I didn’t linger here, even though the woman at the front desk had told us we could photograph the sculptures if we wanted.
The property has quite a large shop full of products designed to appeal to people more in my mother’s age bracket (I definitely saw multiple things she would have liked), and there was also meant to be a “Contemporary Art Gallery” upstairs, but it was just a collection of fairly uninspiring prints all by one artist that they were trying to sell, with not much explanation about the pieces. We quickly left and headed over to the much-anticipated tea shop to settle down for that pot of tea. They hype up the rarebit quite a lot on the menu and their website, and it certainly looked good when it arrived, but unfortunately it tasted super strongly of mustard (it actually burned my throat, there was so much mustard) and not at all of cheese, and had a horrible claggy texture, possibly from the granary bread not being sufficiently toasted. I make rarebit at home a lot, and though I do have a bit of a heavy hand with the Colman’s mustard powder (though obviously not as heavy as theirs), I also put a TONNE of cheese in it so it tastes really cheesy and lovely. The cakes were a bit better, but Marcus said his coffee and walnut tasted really artificial. Mine was chocolate fudge, which is hard to go wrong with, and it was fine, but it did taste more like those little chocolate fudge “celebration cakes” you get at Sainsbury’s than something homemade, even though it allegedly was. The tea shop is also incredibly expensive – it was almost thirty quid for two small pots of tea with no refills offered, two orders of rarebit, and two small slices of cake. Them’s even higher than London prices!
Having finished our rather disappointing tea, we finally walked across the road to see Limnerslease, the Watts’s home. It’s a mock Tudor Arts and Crafts style home, which they thought of as a small country retreat, but of course it is practically a mansion by today’s standards. As I said earlier, it is not currently open to the public, so we just stood outside and looked at it for a bit, and also checked out the terracotta cross designed by Mary to mark the part of the Pilgrims’ Trail to Canterbury that runs through their estate (after my experience with Thomas Becket’s relics at the British Museum, I was scared to even look at it in case he cursed me again, but I fortunately escaped unscathed this time). I think the buildings of the “artists village” promised in the name of the place were also on this side, but they weren’t open, and we didn’t even see where they were, so I don’t really know anything about the village and who lived in it, since I assume they were keeping all the information in the village itself. This is also probably why we didn’t learn much about the Wattses – presumably all the info was in Limnerslease. As you can probably tell, I was not impressed by my experience of the Watts Gallery, and I highly doubt I’ll be returning, even when Limnerslease reopens. I’m relieved I only paid £6.25 for admission, because I would definitely have been annoyed about the £12.50 (spending all that money on tea was bad enough, but at least we got some food in exchange). The chapel and cemetery are the best things about the property, and you can see those for free, which I would advise doing and giving the gallery a miss. 2/5.