« 13 Bankers | Main | The Diseases Of The Stone »

Donkin's World: Ruffled Feathers

...Even today Watts has his admirers. I was surprised to discover that Barack Obama had declared Hope, a painting by Watts, his favourite work of art...

Author and journalist Richard Donkin has reservations about the newly refurbished Watts Gallery.

Watts Gallery in Compton, near Guildford was restored a little while back for something around 10m, mostly supplied from the UK national lottery fund. There seems general agreement that the gallery was a treasure worth saving and, to be sure, the restoration has been faithful to the original designs. http://www.wattsgallery.org.uk/

And yet..... I remember visiting before the restoration began. Buckets were spread around under the leaking ceiling and every chair was decorated with a sprig of holly to deter anyone from sitting on it, in case it broke. There was a charm to the place, but it was clear that something needed to be done.

The workshop of Victorian artist George Frederic Watts was dusty and eccentric with plaster casts of arms, legs and torsos hanging from the walls. Today it's much tidier and the gallery looks pristine with its restored wooden tiled floor and rich emerald and red wallpapers. But so it should. The place is only the size of a very large house and when you see all those quality builds on Grand Designs for a fraction of this project's costs it does make you wonder where all the money was spent.

Pre-restoration, entry was free with voluntary donations. Today it costs 6.50 with an extra 1 "gift aid" donation, so that's 7.50 each unless you have the brass neck to decline the voluntary bit. I was keen to take photographs as I had in the past and made the mistake of asking first; no photography allowed, said the lady at the door.

I hate these policies. I can understand that galleries may not want flash photographs; I can even go along with the idea a clicking camera might disturb people in the main gallery. But down in the once dusty workshop I could see no harm. It didn't bother the trustees pre-2008, so why now? "You can take a picture from outside looking in to the workshop," said the lady. Well that's big of you, I thought.

With one or two exceptions, I'm not a big fan of Watt's paintings. It strikes me he spent most of his time sucking up to Victorian sentimentality and, indeed, he was a highly successful artist in his own lifetime. Watts was a hot number on both sides of the Atlantic.

Even today Watts has his admirers. I was surprised to discover that Barack Obama had declared Hope, a painting by Watts, his favourite work of art. And, even though I'm not too keen on his work, I will admit there is much to admire about Watts, the man. A small exhibition in the gallery explained how Watts was at the forefront of a national campaign in the UK to outlaw the 19th century plumage trade that was destroying populations of exotic birds to supply a big demand for fancy feathers in women's hats.

Campaigning against this destructive trade appears to have been every bit as organised as that in the 1980s and 90s against the fur trade. Yes, there's much to admire about Watts; his wife, Mary, too since she was an equally gifted artist whose energy was largely responsible for mobilising the skills of Compton's villagers in reviving neglected pottery-making skills. It was the villagers who built and decorated the nearby chapel to Mary Watt's designs.

To my knowledge Watts never declared himself a socialist, but he was a champion of the working class, commemorating in Postman's Park, London, the sort of tragedies, such as a tradesman dying in a boiler accident, that might otherwise have earned a paragraph in a local newspaper. I wonder what he would have thought to the plaque inside the gallery that divides those who have given generous donations in to "Gold Patrons" and plain bog standard patrons who obviously didn't give as much as the golds.

I detest this trend within the charity sector. I doubt if it is welcomed by many donors either. Yes, it's fine to record donations, where people have not requested anonymity. But creating a hierarchy based on the size of donation is simply crass. I can't believe that either George or Mary Watts would have put their names to that.


To purchase a copies of Richard's celebrated books please click on


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.