When the Watts Gallery re-opened in 1906 after it had been closed for extensive additions to allow more space for showing the work of G. F. Watts, the press was ecstatic with praise. It saw within this modest rural gallery, the work of a giant, presented in the manner that he would have wished. The Studio magazine wrote: ‘Besides the charm of its environment, the gallery is well lighted, the pictures are well arranged, and the collection contained within its walls is thoroughly representative of the late painter’s life-work … A more serious atmosphere than is generally found in a picture-gallery’. The opening of 1906, when Watts’s reputation was at its greatest, has been both our inspiration and the bar that we set ourselves. We looked to its colour schemes, lighting and sensitive hanging in order that we might create again that extraordinary atmosphere described over and again in journals in 1906.
By 2008, unlike the national institutions, who share the munificent gifts of the artist, the Watts Gallery had paintings in desperate need of conservation, a building that had more in common with a colander that an art gallery, and a hang which responded to the difficulties of a decaying building and its inadequate lighting. The paintings of Watts were not shown at their best and their context spoke of a time when the artist was seen as largely problematic; critical acclaim had given way to critical hostility and eventually critical indifference.
In the summer of 2011 after a two-and-a-half-year restoration project, the gallery reopened. The joy of re-hanging the Watts Gallery was that the lighting had been so sensitively approached with the main purpose, as it aimed originally, to show the paintings at their best. The wall surfaces and colours too, make such an enormous difference. G.F. Watts very clearly understood that the rich crimson he chose for his room at the Tate and Watts Gallery would make his paintings sing. They do. The positioning of the pictures was driven by the overall aesthetic effect, that special atmosphere, tied with the need to excite new visitors with Watts’s vision. Holding works that span over 70 years, varied styles and subject matter could be far better approached as a whole than the piecemeal way in which we were forced to adopt before closure. Like the redecoration, the hanging looked to the past in how it evolved. The original green-glazed hanging rail with its picture hooks and chain was revitalised and re-used and in the Graham Robertson Gallery, a rich Wattsian and quintessentially Victorian hang, pictures are displayed cheek by jowl. Each space has a slightly different feel from the other, a theme and style of hang
In addition to diverse works by G. F. Watts, Watts Gallery also owns a number of works by other Victorian and early Edwardian artists, including Val Prinsep, Arthur Hughes, Charles Shannon, Lord Leighton, John Singer Sargent and Graham Robertson. These works come primarily from two major bequests made after Mary Seton Watts’s death in 1938. The Graham Robertson Bequest (1951) consists of a collection of Victorian and Edwardian portraiture. The Cecil French Bequest (1954) comprises primarily imaginative works from the Aesthetic Movement and Pre-Raphaelite traditions. The nature of the two bequests reflects the main tendencies within Watts’s oeuvre – subject pictures and portraits. Watts Gallery’s success will be determined by the visitors. Will we be as popular and significant as we were in 1906? I offer two press responses divided by over a hundred years and hope that they look to a successful future:
‘The walls of one part of it are coloured red and of the other green, with an effect of quiet richness which enhances the rich colour of the pictures.’ The Tribune (1906)
‘The original galleries, which first opened to the public in 1904, have been returned to their former glory, their walls ruby red and emerald green, their tiled dado rails, previously hidden beneath
Mark Bills, Curator at Watts Gallery