Object of the Month: Aldershot Mortuary Chapel Panels

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Posted 19th March 2019

Object of the Month: Aldershot Mortuary Chapel Panels
Discovering the Aldershot Mortuary Chapel
Lynn Lear

While deciding on what dissertation to write in my final year studying Furniture and Product Design at Kingston University, I immediately thought back to a usually dull Sunday when my mother dragged me out for yet another walk, this time to Compton just outside of Guildford (I was about 16 and had been promised tea and cake, so how could I refuse?).

I remember walking up the steep bumpy path to the warmth of the red brick Watts Mortuary Chapel (this is the original name of the building and for some reason it really didn't inspire any expectation of what I'd find there but being a bit of a Goth and a morbid teenager it held a fascination). I opened the chapel doors and was completely engulfed in the symbolism, pattern and vision of Mary Watts and her exceptional and inspiring designs.

The wonderful Richard Jeffries, Custodian then Curator of Watts Gallery until 2006 (who I found sitting on the wall outside Watts Gallery smoking his pipe and sporting some very Victorian whiskers) welcomed me into the damp and musty, leaking gallery and into the back rooms where the most fascinating treasures were stored. Among these items were Mary Watts's Diaries and the book she had used to sketch the designs and ideas for the Compton Chapel.

Among the papers was a reference to another chapel, a military one in Aldershot built on the grounds of Cambridge Military Hospital. A few phone calls later, I tracked down a very hospitable RSM who invited me in to see Mary Watts's hidden work; this time the building was just a military mortuary chapel that looked like a brick built shed, very unremarkable, but that's the military being practical. Mary Watts knew Lord Palmerston who had built the hospital under the influence of Florence Nightingale. Known well to the Wattses, he had asked her to decorate the interior and being in her seventies at the time she hoped the work would be undertaken by her Potter's Guild. Unfortunately most of them were called up for military service, so she took it on as a labour of love assisted by Miss Bell.

The inside of the Aldershot Mortuary Chapel must have been a comfort to the families who visited compared to the stark military coldness of the exterior. The altar is a symbol of the first sacrament with the dove representing the presence of the Holy Ghost, the peacock (Japanese and Aesthetic movement-influenced), the hope of immortality, the vine, the Christian Tree of Life and the pomegranate, the heart casting out its seed for the renewal of life eternal. The central symbol of the altar is the circle of the Universe bearing the Cross of Faith. Above this is the shining cross known to ancient tradition as the 'Blossoming Cross' with Christ in Glory behind with his blessing hands upraised; worship and praise surround him with stars and worlds under His feet. Not long after my visit Watts Gallery was given very short notice that the Aldershot Military Chapel was about to be pulled down.

I am very grateful that the interior panels were saved and now available to see in the Mary Watts Gallery at the Watts Studios.

See the Aldershot panels on your next visit. Book tickets below.

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