If your list of chapels to visit next summer includes the Chagall chapel near Tonbridge you might want to add the Watts Mortuary Chapel near Guildford. Very different in style but no less extraordinary.
The chapel is the brainchild, and indeed the work, of Mary Seton Watts (1849-1938), painter, sculptor, potter and wife, in his latter years, of George Frederick Watts the much revered Victorian painter of portraits and mystical symbolist images.
In the 1890s the Watts had bought some land outside Guildford on which they built a house and a gallery to showcase George Frederick’s work – the first purpose built gallery in the UK to be devoted to one single artist. (You can visit the house and gallery, now the Watts Gallery Artists’ Village while visiting the chapel – and get a nice lunch in the caff while you are at it!)
Meanwhile, the local village, Compton had recently created a new cemetery and Mary offered to design and build a new mortuary chapel. Her idea, inline with the aims of the Home Arts and Industries Association of which she was an enthusiastic member, was to involve local craftsmen and villagers in the construction and decoration of the chapel. As part of the Arts and Crafts movement the association’s mission was ‘to revive traditional rural crafts which were threatened by the mechanisation of production and to encourage handicrafts among the lower classes thus achieving social improvement through creative enlightenment’.
The design of the chapel, which was entirely Mary’s, was circular Roman/Italianate; the decoration a fusion of Celtic and Art Nouveau. Terra cotta tiles decorate the exterior, while every centimetre of the interior is covered in gilded and painted gesso panels. And every one of those panels was created by 74 of the local villagers in the classes run by Mary and Watts’ assistant Louis Deuchars.
It is really impossible to convey the richness and complexity of the interior via an iPhone – but just to give you a feel for it.
The vaulted ceiling is ‘supported’ by thick, wide ribs, each of which is decorated by huge rosettes surrounded by Celtic swirls – in between which angels and saints, enveloped in more complex Celtic patterns, look down on and bless the deceased who would have been lying in the chapel awaiting burial.
The altar, for which G. F. Watts finished a version of The All-Pervading just before he died in 1904, is surounded by a burnish copper gesso frieze which also runs right round the chapel at waist height.
Although it is so heavily decorated – and does not have that much daylight penetrating through the windows – the chapel does not feel oppressive. Maybe because of the vibrant blues which are the base colours for the pillars over which silver tendrils, flowers and bunches of grapes run riot.
Given the high standard of the decoration it seems extraordinary that it was almost entirely crafted by villagers who had probably never heard of the Arts and Crafts movment or Art Nouveau and had certainly never created anything until they started in Mary’s classes.
The chapel sits on top of a small hill surrounded by graves, yews and a cloister and is open Monday to Friday 8am – 5pm; Saturday to Sunday and bank holidays 10am – 5.30pm. And if you are anywhere near Guildford with half an hour to spare, it is well worth a visit.