Watts Gallery turns 120

Open the door to the future

Join us in celebrating Watts Gallery’s 120th birthday and donate to safeguard its future for the next 120 years.

Watts Gallery opened its doors to the public in the Surrey Hills village of Compton on 1 April 1904. It was the embodiment of the Art for All vision of a remarkable partnership – the artists and social pioneers, George Frederic and Mary Watts.

Located in the heart of an extraordinary Arts and Crafts complex, Watts Gallery is a place that inspires, engages and transforms lives through art and creativity. Each year 40,000 people come here to explore our rich artistic heritage, internationally significant collection, historic and contemporary exhibitions, and 18 acres of gardens and woodland in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Many are able to take advantage of our lively and imaginative programme of artist-led activities, workshops, and courses.

Despite its wealthy image, Surrey is a county of stark inequalities between rich and poor. We also work with local councils and other charities to support our community where up to 30% of children are living in poverty*. We also work with HMP Send and other local organisations to support women in the criminal justice system.

Our founders

George Frederic Watts OM RA (1817-1904) was one the foremost artists of the nineteenth century. The first living artist to have a solo exhibition at New York’s famous Metropolitan Museum of Art, over 1.2m people came to pay homage to this world-famous sculptor and painter. Appreciated by famous names as diverse as E M Forster and Barack Obama, 120 years after his death, his works can be seen in all the major art galleries in Europe and there is a room dedicated to his work National Portrait Gallery.

Mary Watts (1849-1938) was one of the very first women to train at the Slade School of Art and an exceptional and influential artist in her own right. Described as a ‘collaborator of genius’ and best known for her innovative pottery designs which sold through Liberty, she led the local villagers in the creation of the astonishing Watts Chapel and founded the Compton Potters’ Arts Guild.

George and Mary’s arrival in Compton transformed the lives of the people living in Compton, and the village gained recognition as a leading creative community.

G F and Mary Watts sitting together in the reading nook at Limnerslease. Mary is reading aloud

Watts Gallery

Watts Gallery perfectly encapsulates George and Mary’s vision. They saw art as a solution to address many of society’s ills – unemployment, homelessness, the fight for women’s rights and cruelty to animals.

The Gallery had a dual purpose – to house George’s paintings and to provide a home for apprentice potters. George’s paintings captured an extraordinary age of extremes and confronted uncomfortable truths that polite Victorian society did not discuss. He aimed to bring art to all rather than just the rich, and to help with the big questions of being alive in difficult times.

‘He had the highest aspirations for art and for his own contribution to it. He believed absolutely in the power of art to transform life and Art for All.’

- Antony Gormley OBE RA

Watts Gallery provided accommodation for young apprentice potters living in the poorest areas of the country. They worked for Mary’s Compton Potters’ Arts Guild which was also a vital source of work for the local community in the face of high unemployment.

After George and Mary died, and as the twentieth century progressed, Modernism sought to distance itself from ‘Victoriana’. Watts Gallery fell into an awful state of disrepair and our founders’ legacy was at risk of being lost.

But the twenty-first century saw a great revival. Through a herculean effort and extraordinarily generous support, we saved Watts Gallery with a commitment to safeguard its future for the next hundred years.

Led by an exciting new vision, we will become a vibrant, creative hub for Surrey. This will include a greater focus on:

  • George and Mary - as artists, people and as a partnership – and our collection of their paintings, sculpture, drawings, ceramics and photographs.
  • Creativity with an increase in areas for making and play across our site.
  • Community, encouraging more local people, and in particular more families and those living an areas of significant social deprivation, to visit Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village.
  • Wellbeing by connecting the natural world – we are in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – with art and creativity.

Please help us to celebrate Watts Gallery’s 120th birthday by making a donation to secure its future as one of the most dynamic, creative galleries in Britain - a place that inspires, engages and transforms lives through art and creativity for everyone.

* Report: Current Position of Funding for the Arts and Culture in Surrey report, December 2023, Community Foundation for Surrey and Surrey Cultural Partnership