On a little knoll, hidden away in the rolling woodland of the Surrey Hills, stands a chapel like no other in the world. It arrests by the bright ochre red of its bricks and tiles, which seem to cast a Tuscan light on the graveyard that surrounds it. Yet it also confuses the eye as it does not conform to any familiar ecclesiastical architectural template. Around its midriff runs a richly decorated frieze, a syncretic riot of motifs from Christian Celtic, Romanesque, Gothic, and Byzantine sources as well as Scandinavian, Egyptian, and Indian iconography. Inside, the structure is bejeweled from floor to ceiling with vines, birds, flowers, angels stars, suns, moons, and images of human and divine spiritual life. Four seraphs, (one of which is shown here) tower in the tree of creation, hands raised to bless God’s work in the manner of both the Eastern and Western churches (Bills 2010: 60).
This is the vision of the artist, designer, and potter, Mary Watts: a vision that quite literally incarnates her Christian faith. After moving to Compton with her husband, the symbolist artist, G. F. Watts, she discovered a seam of gault clay in the area. This enabled her to realize her dream of constructing a chapel of ease for the local villagers, to help them in their grief; and in so doing, she wished to train those very villagers to adorn their own building and make it a hymn to God’s creation. The local blacksmith and wheelwright, the women and children, learned how to impress patterns, to mould and paint gesso, to forge and carve the symbols of eternity (Watts 2012). Rarely has John Ruskin’s communitarian project of combining labour with joy been so perfectly achieved (Ruskin 1892: 17–18).
On the outside, the frieze that runs like a hoop holding the elements together visually and theologically is the ‘Path of the Just’, upheld by corbels representing the Way, the Truth, and the Life. ‘The Spirit of Truth’ panel lies on the southwest side, the direction of the fructifying zephyr. Angelic profiles pore over the symbols of wisdom: the owl of Athene, the key of knowledge, the maze of pilgrimage, the sun of enlightenment and the cross of salvation. This is the way the chapel urges us to go: ‘I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice’ (v.20).
Bills, Mark. 2010. Watts Chapel: A Guide to the Symbols of Mary Watts’s Arts and Crafts Masterpiece (London: Philip Wilson)
Ruskin, John. 1892. ‘The Nature of Gothic’, in The Stones of Venice (London: G. Allen)
Watts, Mary Seton. 2012. The Word in the Pattern (1905): Facsimile with Accompanying Essays on Mary Watts’s Cemetery Chapel, Drawn from the Watts Gallery Symposium 2010 (Lymington: Society of Art and Crafts Movement in Surrey)
8Does not wisdom call,
Does not understanding raise her voice?
2On the heights beside the way,
in the paths she takes her stand;
3beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud:
4“To you, O men, I call,
and my cry is to the sons of men.
5O simple ones, learn prudence;
O foolish men, pay attention.
6Hear, for I will speak noble things,
and from my lips will come what is right;
7for my mouth will utter truth;
wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
8All the words of my mouth are righteous;
there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.
9They are all straight to him who understands
and right to those who find knowledge.
10Take my instruction instead of silver,
and knowledge rather than choice gold;
11for wisdom is better than jewels,
and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.
12I, wisdom, dwell in prudence,
and I find knowledge and discretion.
13The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil.
Pride and arrogance and the way of evil
and perverted speech I hate.
14I have counsel and sound wisdom,
I have insight, I have strength.
15By me kings reign,
and rulers decree what is just;
16by me princes rule,
and nobles govern the earth.
17I love those who love me,
and those who seek me diligently find me.
18Riches and honor are with me,
enduring wealth and prosperity.
19My fruit is better than gold, even fine gold,
and my yield than choice silver.
20I walk in the way of righteousness,
in the paths of justice,
21endowing with wealth those who love me,
and filling their treasuries.
22The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of old.
23Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
25Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth;
26before he had made the earth with its fields,
or the first of the dust of the world.
27When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30then I was beside him, like a master workman;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the sons of men.
32And now, my sons, listen to me:
happy are those who keep my ways.
33Hear instruction and be wise,
and do not neglect it.
34Happy is the man who listens to me,
watching daily at my gates,
waiting beside my doors.
35For he who finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the Lord;
36but he who misses me injures himself;
all who hate me love death.”