Creating the Watts Chapel Model

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Posted 21st January 2016

by Henry Milner

The commission for the Watts Chapel model was a very exciting journey for me. From the outset I felt that I needed to understand some of the physical processes Mary Watts undertook in her work, and her vision for the Compton mortuary chapel. I therefore chose to build elements of the scaled reconstruction in her favoured medium - terracotta. I balanced this rich red material with a main structure of walnut timber to give the model a homogenous and honest feel.

Working with terracotta was a learning curve. It is a material I had not used before. I learned its constraints through my mistakes: pieces exploded in the kiln, so I found out how to press the clay to avoid trapping air. The clay shrank by huge amounts as it dried, so I leaned the percentage by which it was necessary to increase the moulds from which the terracotta sections were made. But at least I was witnessing first-hand what Mary Watts would have become adept in doing, so it felt fitting, and ultimately I was rewarded by the detail and finish of the fired terracotta pieces.

Scaling the rich reliefs on the outside of the Chapel allowed me to dwell on their content. As it happened, my mum had studied the symbolism of the Chapel as a last place on this earth for those to be buried in the graveyard. So she was helpful in getting me closer to what Mary Watts must have been thinking in her approach. I feel honoured to have been able to understand a little more about the design of this wonderful building and what Mary Watts and her team must have gone through to create it.

I hope the model will encourage people to visit the Chapel and introduce some of the spirit of Mary Watts into what they see.