'A glimpse of extraordinary imagination': Rebecca Seedhouse discusses Mary Watts and Perdita Hunt

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Posted 14th July 2017

by Rebecca Seedhouse

I have an abiding memory of my mother taking me to Watts Chapel for the first time; it was 1974, I was 14 and reluctant. It was a darkening, rainy day and I really didn't want to be dragged to some boring old chapel. And then we got to the door. Heavy, carved oak, nestled in serried red brick arches, with angels heads carved in terracotta, strapped with fantastical metal hinges evoking a huge key. It was straight out of Hans Andersen, and it resisted and groaned as we pushed into gloomy darkness. We fumbled to find a light switch.

When the light eventually spluttered on, the enchanting decoration was an utter revelation. Gilded angels, with blessing seraphs and highest cherubim, watching over a winding tree of life, rooted in the flowers of the earth and reaching up to the blue heavens in the domed ceiling and ultimately to the circular symbol of the Almighty. There is not a square inch of surface that is not sinuously decorated with some form, colour or texture, all in a gloriously gilded art nouveau style.

Absorbing the sheer wonder of the interior decoration, I remember also the shock of audibly running water, simply pouring down the beautiful walls, and our earnest signing of a soggy petition on a lectern, urging English Heritage to fund repairs to the hopelessly leaking roof.

At the time, as amazing to me was that this jewelled treasured space was the work of a woman. This glimpse of extraordinary imagination made real – for me at 14, was a sudden, seminal life lesson in possibility.

Forty years later the Watts Enclave as a whole has been miraculously saved for future generations, largely during the last decade or so, due to the remarkable, collaborative leadership of Perdita Hunt.

Instructed by the volunteers now keeping watch over the Watts legacy, I designed and made a small, circular stained glass window: their permanent gift to Perdita who leaves as Director after 13 years. It is sited in the tea rooms where the esteemed Mary Watts — symbolist, craftswoman, artist and social reformer, and another great collaborator — displayed the Compton Pottery collection. The original brief was two items: a round, silver and turquoise enamel brooch depicting the George Cross entwined in Celtic linear decoration, and the mark and motto of Compton Pottery.

My design approach combines several considerations: the rebirth of the Watts Gallery enclave, the particular turquoise glaze used by Compton Pottery, the symbols chosen by Mary Watts for the terracotta Frieze of the Spirit of Hope on the southeast walls of the Chapel together with the relief of feathers around the middle arch framing the Chapel's door. Inside the chapel, each of the symbols of the Truths surrounding the seraphs, are encircled in gold, and given that it was adopted as the Christian emblem of Hope and Resurrection, I chose the symbol of a peacock.

So this peacock is shimmying his way towards a full display, as if newly awoken. He stands on a mound of earth, referencing the small hill on which Mary Watts's chapel is built. He is similarly encircled in gold, in a gilded version of the Compton Pottery motto: Their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel, acknowledging the location of the window in what was formerly the Pottery's showroom. The gilding sits on a ground of terracotta, reflecting the red clay seam discovered in the grounds of Limnerslease House, from which Compton Pottery pieces were made. His feathers are on the move as the peacock begins to strut and display, the colours are celestial shades of turquoise and azure, with eyes of emerald.

I am heartened that the Watts volunteers voted to fund this window for Perdita; happily she had previously approved it an earlier design stage. I am also delighted to have donated my part in the making of it — not least in thanks to Mary Watts for showing me that life is indeed full of possibilities. One last consideration was a title for the work; we decided on Revivit.

For further information visit Rebecca's website www.rebeccaseedhouse.com. Particular thanks also to John Mannell, Prentice Glass, for installation.