Posted 19th February 2020
The Conservation of Watts Chapel
Emma Coburn, Collections Manager
As Collections Manager here at Watts Gallery – Artists' Village, I have the privilege of being responsible for the long-term preservation of the collections and buildings within our care. This can be daunting at times, but I also have the joy of seeing our collections and buildings from new and unique perspectives. On a cold January afternoon, I was able to see Watts Chapel from the height of the access scaffolding, installed for the current exterior conservation work.
This unique, Grade I listed building was the culmination of Mary Watts's creative work as an artist, designer and philanthropist. Situated in the heart of the Surrey Hills, the construction of Watts Chapel was a collective endeavour. The exterior, which features a unique decorative terracotta design, involved 73 people from the local community. Local people also worked with Mary on the chapel's interior, featuring one of the most significant and experimental wall paintings in England.
Having secured a 99-year lease to care for and maintain the Chapel and Cemetery in 2016, Watts Gallery Trust is now running a substantial programme of preservation work. The Chapel exterior is currently undergoing conservation work to assess the current condition of the structure, make necessary conservation repairs and remove vegetation from the roof tiles. This programme of work seeks to safeguard Watts Chapel for the future, both for the village of Compton and the wider community.
Scaling the scaffold was a challenge, but the view was worth the climb. The decorative terracotta is even more awe-inspiring close-up - to look down upon the quarter-dome roof is spectacular and to see the bell-cote in such detail reinforced the significance of this project.
Watts Gallery Trust commissioned a quinquennial inspection in 2019 and this highlighted a number of repair and conservation issues with Watts Chapel, the Cloisters and Wellhead, which needed to be addressed to safeguard their future. Work commenced late in 2019 and is being led by the author of the survey, John Bailey from Thomas Ford & Partners.
As a conservator, I seek to ensure our collections and buildings are in the correct environment. We cannot, however, change the weather or the plant growth, but we can remove plants and foliage from the roofs to ensure rainwater is shed away more effectively. Specific conservation repairs to weather damaged brickwork are also required. From the scaffold, we can assess the condition of the terracotta decorative elements and the Curatorial Team look forward to capturing these from the unique vantage point!
Following the completion of the conservation of the exterior of the Chapel, conservation of the exterior of the adjacent memorial Cloister will commence early in spring 2020.
Watts Gallery Trust is immensely grateful to the following individuals, organisations and charities for their support of this conservation work:
All Churches Trust
Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation
Anson Charitable Trust
Compton Parish Council
Goldman Sachs Gives (UK)
John S Cohen Foundation
Mr & Mrs Jonathan Bayliss
The Pilgrim Trust