G.F. and Mary Watts
by Lucy Ella Rose

Photograph of Limnerslease

Artists Mary Seton Watts (née Fraser Tytler) (1849-1938) and George Frederic Watts (1817- 1904) lived their later married years together at 'Limnerslease'. This was their studio-home at Compton in the Surrey Hills, originally intended as a winter residence, designed by Sir Ernest George and built under Mary's supervision in 1890–1. Mary transformed the interior into a work of art with her imaginative symbolic decoration. Her ceiling panels of stylised white gesso symbols are inspired by ancient cultures, including Buddhist, Jewish and Egyptian panels. Mary decorated the reading 'niche' where the couple read widely, including works by John Ruskin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Morris, Jane Austen and Sarah Grand.

The Wattses worked together, sometimes in the same studio or alongside each other in adjacent studios, in this house and its grounds. They named it 'Limnerslease' –'limner' being Latin for 'artist' and 'leasen' being the Old English word meaning 'to glean' – in the hope that golden years of creativity would be gleaned from this studio-home. Mary dug the seams of clay in its grounds for her terracotta modelling, which became her forte and took her career in a new direction. Her symbolic terracotta decoration can be seen in her Celtic fireplace surround designs at Limnerslease and in her pots designed for Liberty's. Mary held terracotta modelling classes for villagers (as part of the Home Arts and Industries Association scheme) to help her build the Watts Mortuary Chapel close to Limnerslease.

This Arts and Crafts masterpiece – a unique fusion of Art Nouveau, Celtic, Christian, Romanesque, Byzantine and Egyptian influence – was completed in 1904. Mary also established her commercial Compton Pottery at Limnerslease, which produced (among other things) book-ends, pendants and pots. G. F. Watts invited several high-profile figures of the time to sit for portraits at Limnerslease, including writer George Meredith and philanthropist Josephine Butler. They were included in G. F. Watts's portrait collection of his famous contemporaries, 'The Hall of Fame', which he bequeathed to the nation.

Mary created and managed what is now Watts Gallery, where she organised exhibitions of his work – from social-realist to symbolist paintings. In later life, Mary become a figurehead of nonmilitant feminism in her community as President of the Godalming branch of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. She convened at least two suffrage meetings in Compton, and held a large suffrage meeting and supper at Limnerslease; she also joined the Great Suffragist Pilgrimage through Surrey in 1913. Mary died at Limnerslease, and her diaries – as well as her biography of G. F. Watts – meticulously record the Wattses' life there.

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