Volunteer Voice: the Watts Studios

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Posted 9th April 2019

Volunteer Voice:
the Watts Studios

Carolyn Mayne

'Watts must have come from a very rich family'[1] says a visitor to the Studios, when I comment on the number of paintings he gave away to the Tate, the NPG and other collections. 'Surely Mary was a gold-digger',[2] says another, 'Why else marry such an old man?'[3] 'Did Mary Watts design the decoration for the Wigmore Hall Cupola?'[4] 'Do you think Watts ever smiled?'[5]

Since the Studios opened, I have spent almost all my shifts there. I enjoy the opportunity to talk to our visitors, which is wonderfully easy here. There are tales to be told: the eleventh-hour rescue of the Aldershot Frieze, the story of Rebecca's brooch, the acquisition of Mary Watts's Heartsease painting….

I am constantly learning from our visitors, about other painters, other places. A couple of volunteers from Firle Place were inspired by the two Watts portraits in their collection to travel to Compton and find out about Watts: this led to my reciprocal visit. And a guide from Restoration House in Rochester has persuaded me to visit there too.

People want to know about G F and Mary's personal life together, and all about Lilian, their adopted daughter. How grateful I am to have read Mary Watts's Diary, with all the information it gives us! And when visitors leave, saying 'You've really brought them alive for us', I feel I have done my bit.

I delight in the walk up to Limnerslease, and down again at the end of my shift. Daffodils, primroses, bluebells, lilies of the valley, rhododendrons, foxgloves mark a never-ending succession of the seasons.

My responses:

[1] He didn't. Watts was born in Marylebone, the eldest son of a poor pianoforte maker and tuner.
[2] No: Mary admired and adored Watts from the time they first met.
[3] Watts recognised his need for companionship and nursing, and finally decided Mary and he should marry. They shared the 'Art for All' ethos and their interest in philanthropic projects. Their marriage was happy, mutually supportive and long-lived.
[4] No, but there are similarities - perhaps its designer Gerald Moira had visited the Compton Chapel?
[5] Of course he did, and he enjoyed singing too.