The Tree of Life, interior of the Watts Cemetery Chapel by Mary S. Watts

Mary S. Watts

The Tree of Life, interior of the Watts Cemetery Chapel, 1898, Coloured plaster, Watts Cemetery Chapel, Compton, Surrey, UK, AC Manley / Alamy Stock Photo

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I was Beside Him like a Master Worker

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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).

 

References

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)