Celtic Cross: In Memory of G F Watts

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Posted 12th November 2019

The Celtic Cross:
In Memory of G F Watts

Lynda Whiston, Curator of Landscape

Along the tranquil woodland path leading up to Limnerslease, a lichen covered terracotta Celtic cross stands sentinel to the memory of 'George Frederic Watts, O.M. R.A.'. The cross is aptly placed just a dozen or so metres up a gentle slope near Pilgrim's Way, an ancient path between Winchester and Canterbury, which passes by Limnerslease, the former home of the artist and his wife, Mary. Mary Watts, a prolific designer, and founder of Compton Pottery was a devoted wife and in widowhood she was equally devoted to memorializing her husband and his work. The cross, along with Watts's name bears the inscription 'his pilgrim's way 1891-1904 by his wish this cross is placed here'. A small clearing around the cross, complete with a stone bench, invites visitors to pause and reflect on the tranquility to be found in nature.

Curiously, despite Mary Watts's extensive diaries, my hours spent scrutinizing her writings and notes in the archives here at Watts Gallery – Artists' Village, are yet to yield any reference to, or sketches of the cross. Thus, this researcher is left at a loss in determining just when it was created and placed in the woodlands behind the house they both loved so much. The Compton pottery industry Mary had pioneered in the 1890s bears witness to the couple's philosophy of supporting home arts and industry providing artistic outlet and work for local community members. Undoubtedly, we can conclude the cross was Mary's design and produced in the workshops of her pottery immediately across Down Lane, but just when it was placed, between George's death in 1904 and Mary's in 1938, is at present a mystery to me. The only mention of it I have discovered thus far is in the outdoor inventory of Limnerslease following Mary's death.

Celtic crosses, combining a circular shape with a cross, appeared in Ireland and Scotland and parts of northern England, Cornwall, and Wales in the early Medieval period with decorative aspects carried over from Roman times and others dating back to prehistoric times. This particular keyhole shaped Celtic cross is decorated in a relatively simple fashion with a sleek haloed Christ with arms outstretched, scenes of pilgrims on one side, a sword on the other and a selection of intricate Celtic knots and plaiting adorning the column. A revival of interest in these ancient monuments began in the mid-19th century, and Mary, perhaps harkening back to her own Celtic heritage in Scotland took an enormous interest in researching Celtic symbols. She spent countless hours studying ancient manuscripts such as the 7th century Book of Durrow. Mary made no secret of using these and other sources as inspiration in her work, stressing rather her focus on freely interpreting the symbols in a contemporary style. Along with a plethora of symbolism from all the world's religions, Mary Watts reveled in utilizing Celtic symbolism throughout all her works from her famous Arts & Crafts Watts Chapel to the ceiling of her home as well as in the pottery's tombstones and garden décor. And while reference to this particular special memorial remains elusive, I continue my research in hopes of some tiny morsel!