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Object of the Month: Mary Watts in profile, glass plate negative

Posted 10th March 2018
Watts Contemporary Gallery

Alongside the main collection of work by George Frederic and Mary Watts, Watts Gallery also holds a collection of photographs. This significant collection offers a unique insight into the lives of the artists in the nineteenth century. The Wattses' were both alive and creating work at the time of the dawn of photography. Indeed, both artists were photographed by the trailblazer Julia Margaret Cameron.

This week Watts Gallery has been celebrating International Women's Day with talks, suffragist inspired crafts and a display titled Mary Watts: Pioneering Suffragist (until Autumn 2018). To coincide with this our object of the month is a photograph of Mary Watts. The glass plate negative, of which we have a number in the collection, was the preferred method of making photographs during the second half of the nineteenth century. The photographs in the collection document Mary Watts' work and life, including, of course, her most successful project, the Watts Chapel in 1898. Although this profile portrait of Mary Watts may seem rather plain, its quiet nature reflects Mary Watts' aspirations for a creative life here in Compton.

“And now the peaceful life in art began for me.” –Mary Watts

Roland Barthes, in his famous book Camera Lucia reflects on the memorial qualities of photographs, discovering in an old photograph of his mother, an emotive 'air' of her. He goes on to comment that this experience of the photograph “exists only for me” and for the viewer “it would be nothing but an indifferent picture”. Shown in profile, with her eyes closed in a pose of interior contemplation, perhaps this evocative photograph of Mary Watts conjures up memories of the important creative women in our own lives.

Emily Barrett, University of Sussex MA Placement Student