Uncovering the secret life of artist Mary Watts

GF Watts' portrait of Mary Watts, painted on their honeymoon in 1887
Artist Mary Watts' life and work was overshadowed by those of her husband, the great Victorian artist George Frederick (GF) Watts. A new project is turning the spotlight back on her...

Until recently, Mary Watts was known to few. If anyone remembered her name, it might have been as the second wife of GF Watts and the keeper of his flame.

Thirty-two years younger than her famous husband (his first short-lived marriage was to the teenage Ellen Terry when he was 46), Mary managed Watts' affairs, sold his paintings, cared for him in ill health and oversaw the building of and management of the Watts Gallery. Following her husband’s death, she wrote a three-volume biography detailing his life and work.

Mary Fraser Tytler was born in 1849 and moved to London from her family home, Aldourie in Scotland, to pursue training as an artist. She was one of the first women to attend the Slade School of Art and dreamed of becoming a portrait artist. 

In the 1870s while studying at the Slade, Mary was introduced to GF Watts, an acquaintance of her sister. Mary first looked to Watts as a teacher, and it wasn’t until 1886 that the couple married.

It proved a turning point for Mary. Having married the leading portrait artist of the day her own work as a portrait artist ceased. Her role has come to be remembered as a businesswoman and preserver of her husband’s legacy, but not her own. 

Finding Mary

In 2011, the story began to change. Following a major HLF-supported restoration of Watts Gallery, the Wattses' nearby home, Limnerslease, came up for sale. 

Plans were made to transform the east end of Limnerslease, where the Wattses' studios had been, into a new museum, Watts Studios. As we began to research Limnerslease, the more Mary Watts’ name was heard above her husband’s. Through the support of the local community and a £2.4million HLF grant, the studio of GF Watts was reinstated and we created the first permanent gallery dedicated to Mary's work. 

Much more attention than ever before was given to what objects remained of Mary’s. After her marriage, she kept a sketchbook which today reveals the source of inspiration for what became a major change in her working practice. While travelling in Egypt, Constantinople and Athens, she kept a record of the art and architecture that she encountered. On returning to London she spent hours at the British Museum, looking at the Assyrian reliefs and the collection of Celtic objects that were familiar to her Scottish upbringing.  

“The dedicated Mary Watts Gallery at Watts Studios now allows us to begin to realise that there was so much more to Mary Watts than merely being the keeper of her husband’s legacy.”

When Limnerslease was built in 1891 Mary found a source of inspiration and a canvas for her designs in the very fabric of the building. Taking the architect Ernest George’s plans, she created a beautiful ceiling scheme of gesso panels. This new media allowed her to freely express her desires that the house would provide many happy years for her and her husband.

Art for all

Key to Mary's life was the belief in 'Art for All' that she shared with her husband. She had previously held clay modelling lessons in London for the working classes. Not long after moving to Limnerslease she set up a terracotta evening class, which was held in her drawing room. A seam of clay was found close to the house, and a kiln was built, following the advice of her friend, the ceramist William De Morgan. 

Knowing that the local church needed to acquire more land for burials, the Wattses offered to pay for the building of a mortuary chapel. In 1895 Mary began giving further popular classes, giving the villagers of Compton the opportunity to make decorative terracotta tile that would adorn the exterior of Watts Chapel. 

The exterior of the Chapel was completed in 1898. Mary then created decorative gesso interior assisted by a number of local women. Today her rich designs incorporating the motifs of many different religions and cultures remain unaltered. 

The dedicated Mary Watts Gallery at Watts Studios now allows us to begin to realise that there was so much more to Mary Watts than merely being the keeper of her husband’s legacy. We can now see a marriage of equals emerging, each artist using Limnerslease as a source of inspiration and a place of vast creative output. The diverse collection of works by Mary show her range, from pieces of Compton Pottery that she designed, to a carpet sold at Liberty & Co, the translation of three paintings by her husband into three dimensions and cast in bronze, to the rich gesso interior of the Cambridge Military Hospital Chapel in Aldershot. Mary’s work was much sought after and admired at the time of its creation and still leaves people in a state of awe today. 

Without the support of HLF Mary’s work would still be in storage, in desperate need of conservation. Her story would remain untold and only a few people would have known the extraordinary range and ability of the wife of GF Watts.

Thankfully her work and life has been opened up for everyone to see.

Where to find out more

Read more about the work of Mary Watts on the Watts Gallery website.

[Editor's note: Written in collaboration with Kerri Offord, Heritage Collections Officer at Watts Gallery Artists Village.]

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