Posted 5th February 2020
G F Watts extended his London studio-home, Little Holland House, in 1881 to include a picture gallery. This new space was designed by George Aitchison to display Watts' works to the public from two till six every weekend. Aitchison was a desirable choice for the gallery, as the architect of the nearby Leighton House – a magnificent thirty-year long project for artist Frederic Leighton.
As time passed and the site surrounding Limnerslease, the Surrey-based winter home of the Wattses, expanded to encompass a kiln, chapel, barn studio and pottery, it became apparent that G F Watts lacked a space to display his works in Compton. Instead of commissioning a fashionable architect like Aitchison, however, Watts selected the local and relatively inexperienced Christopher Hatton Turnor to design the now Watts Gallery.
Turnor was living down the road with his parents in the first house he had designed, which was built in 1901. He later recalled:
'During those years at Compton, it was my privilege to see a good deal of G F Watts ['Signor'] one of the greatest men I ever met, not only as a painter but as a thinker far in advance of his times on many subjects... Dear old Signor asked me to build the picture gallery at Compton, & to keep it a simple & rural type of building'.
Turnor's words highlight the simplicity and functionality of the Arts and Crafts design that was adopted, as opposed to the grand neoclassical style normally associated with a Victorian art gallery. Significantly, Turnor's appointment also embodies G F and Mary Wattses' belief in Art for All, which continues to define the ethos of the Gallery over one-hundred years later; Watts Gallery was built not by the experienced or fashionable choice, but by a local architect towards the beginning of his career.