News Story

Curatorial Advisor Hilary Underwood reflects on the Gallery's 120th anniversary, detailing its humble beginnings and rich history, her own 35-year tenure, and how it has evolved into what it is today.

Photograph of the exterior of Watt Gallery in Compton. Taken in the early 1900s
Exterior of Watts Gallery - Artists' Village with summer flowers in the foreground

In 2024, Watts Gallery celebrates its first 120 years. I have been a member of the curatorial team for over thirty-five years so have worked for the gallery for over a quarter of its history. I came in the summer of 1988, as assistant to the curator, Richard Jefferies. The Gallery then had a staff of one-and-a-half, and I was the half. I did postgraduate work on Watts at the Courtauld Institute, so I could assist Richard with research queries, but I was mainly responsible for the open Gallery and its visitors (there weren’t any volunteers then). ‘But surely you have somebody to do the cleaning,’ asked a curator friend. ‘I do the cleaning,’ I replied. Admission was free, and the Gallery’s income was low, so I have the highest possible admiration for Richard Jefferies and Wilfrid Blunt, the curator before him. Their dedication and Richard’s practical maintenance abilities kept the Gallery going through its most difficult years when Victorian art and Watts were out of fashion.

Richard had come to assist Wilfrid Blunt in 1968 but had known the Gallery since childhood. His uncle was custodian in Mary Watts’s time and his aunt and uncle continued to live here. He was born when his mother was visiting in the 1940s. He had also been a friend of Watts’s ward Lilian Chapman, so he knew people who knew the Gallery in its earliest days. On quiet afternoons, with few visitors, he shared his memories, and I explored the archives.

Painting by George Frederic Watts of Lilian in a white flowy dress and bonnett.

George Frederic Watts, Lilian, 1904

Archive photograph of G F Watts surrounded by the local community in Compton laying the foundation stone to Watts Gallery

George and Mary Watts with Christopher Hatton Turnor laying the foundation stone of Watts Gallery on Watts’s 86th birthday, 1903

Archive photograph of the inside of Watts Gallery in 1906

Isabel Goldsmith Patino Gallery (formerly the Green Gallery), 1906

Watts laid the Gallery’s foundation ‘stone’ (actually Compton Pottery) on the corner of the Curator’s House on his 86th birthday in 1903. Photos of the event show him well bundled up - it was 23rd February. Construction probably began in summer 1902. The first phase of Christopher Turnor’s building was made of concrete, poured in layers between shuttering, which sets poorly in wet, frosty winter weather. Sadly, Mary Watts made only two diary entries between mid-April and early November in 1902 and her 1903 diary has not survived, so building progress is undocumented. It was opened to the public on Good Friday 1904. At first it also housed Mary’s apprentice potters. Early postcards title it ‘The Hostel, Compton.’ Watts died in the summer of 1904. The Gallery collection then featured in a travelling memorial exhibition and Mary Watts extended the Gallery with the large room (now the Isabel Goldsmith Patino Gallery) and the Sculpture Gallery, reopening in 1906. The first curator, Charles H. Thompson, an artist, was appointed in 1907, but he was living in Cornwall by 1916. After an interregnum, Rowland Alston, also an artist, was appointed curator in April 1931. He had been badly injured in the First World War and then a prisoner of war. Mary Watts always favoured employing injured ex-servicemen.

Archive photograph of Mary Watts talking to soldiers outside the Watts Gallery

Mary meeting soldiers outside the Gallery entrance, unknown date

Postcard of the outside of Watts Gallery, captioned "The Hostel"

Postcard titled “The Hostel”, unknown date

King Charles and Queen Consort Camilla at the re-opening ceremony of Watts Gallery

Re-opening the Gallery by the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, 2011

Richard Jeffries retired in 2006 after the Gallery’s centenary exhibition in 2004. Thus, the Gallery had only four curators in the first century of its existence. He was succeeded by Mark Bills under the directorship of Perdita Hunt. They oversaw fundraising and the restoration of the Gallery between 2004 and 2010. The re-opening was marked by a visit by the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall (the present King and Queen) and a pottery plaque mirroring Watts’s original foundation stone.