tue 20/10/2020

Unto the Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin, Watts Gallery–Artists' Village, review - a breath of fresh air | reviews, news & interviews

Unto the Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin, Watts Gallery–Artists' Village, review - a breath of fresh air

Unto the Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin, Watts Gallery–Artists' Village, review - a breath of fresh air

The former home of Victorian artists GF and Mary Watts is a restorative treat, even online

The interior of the chapel designed and realised by Mary Watts

Museums and galleries have found innovative and varied ways to keep their collections within reach, and to bring us the many temporary exhibitions forced to close by the virus. But even the most dedicated gallery-goer may by now be tiring of online talks and tours, which so often make unreasonable demands on both guide and viewer and increasingly feel like a very poor substitute for the real thing.

Museums and galleries have found innovative and varied ways to keep their collections within reach, and to bring us the many temporary exhibitions forced to close by the virus. But even the most dedicated gallery-goer may by now be tiring of online talks and tours, which so often make unreasonable demands on both guide and viewer and increasingly feel like a very poor substitute for the real thing.

For a breath of fresh air, try the Watts Gallery - Artists’ Village in the Surrey village of Compton, whose immersive online offering is as close to a day in the country as we might reasonably expect at the moment. Using the art app Smartify, curators at the former home of “England’s Michelangelo” - the painter of portraits and allegories GF Watts (1817-1904) - and his wife the artist Mary Watts (1849-1938), introduce highlights from the permanent collection and narrate a tour of its current temporary exhibition celebrating the Victorian art critic, painter and social reformer, John Ruskin.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Lake Geneva and Mount Blanc, 1802 to 1805, Watercolour, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon CollectionCurated by three PhD students from the Yale Center for British Art, Unto the Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin explores Ruskin’s legacy through a variety of objects including paintings, prints and books, that connect his activities as an artist and critic to his thoughts on the economy, education and the environment. Tara Contractor, Victoria Hepburn and Judith Stapleton each speak with an engaging mixture of enthusiasm and expertise, and 12 concise talks, each one perfect for dipping into, take us through the exhibition in just 25 minutes (Pictured above: JMW Turner, Lake Geneva and Mount Blanc, 1802-5).

Limnerslease, the Wattses’ Arts and Crafts house at Compton, began life as a country retreat from smoggy London winters, but would eventually become the artists’ home. Here they found an ideal environment in which to work, and inspired by the ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris, they became prominent local figures, engaging apprentices and teaching pottery, with the Compton Pottery providing local employment well into the 1950s.

Villagers made the terracotta tiles that decorate the Watts Chapel (main picture), a wonderful Arts and Crafts building conceived and designed by Mary Watts in the 1890s, that, for now, can be explored via a beautifully designed 3D virtual tour available on the website. The tour includes short but informative curator talks on selected objects, and visits other highlights of the Artists’ Village, including the GF Watts Studio, though you’ll have to wait until the end of lockdown to see the Watts Gallery, opened in 1904 to display the work of GF Watts, and testament to the artist’s huge success within his lifetime. For now, the Watts at Home Smartify audio tour makes an excellent substitute with curators giving brief talks on favourite paintings and sculptures that vividly evoke the artists’ Surrey utopia.

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