Epsom played a significant part in the life of the eminent Victorian artist George Frederic Watts: his November 1886 marriage to Mary Fraser-Tytler was solemnised in Christ Church Epsom Common. (There was also some continuing connection since, for a while, Mary's step-mother lived in Epsom - and the couple were also acquaintances of Lord Rosebery.)
G F Watts is nowadays much less known than in his Victorian heyday. He was then widely considered to be one of the greatest painters of the era. With proficiency also in sculpture, he became known as "England's Michelangelo". He was elected as an Academician to the Royal Academy in 1867. Having twice declined, for private reasons, a Baronetcy offered under Queen Victoria, he was among the first to be selected by King Edward VII in 1902 for the newly created 24-member Order of Merit - which, in his own words, he accepted on behalf of all English artists. When, in 1905 (shortly after his death), artists' sculptures were being placed the Cromwell Road façade of the Victoria & Albert Museum, one of him was placed just to right of the main entrance set amidst other illustrious names - on his right, Turner and Constable and, on his left, Lord Leighton and Millais.
George Frederic Watts was born in Marylebone, London on 23 February 1817 to the second wife of a poor piano-maker. (He was named George Frederic after Handel, who had been born on 23 February in 1685.) George's health was somewhat delicate and, with his mother dying while he was still young, he was home-schooled by his father. He showed artistic promise very early. From the age of 10, Watts was apprenticed to sculptor William Behnes (later appointed as Queen Victoria's 'Sculptor in Ordinary'). He enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy at the age of 18, first exhibiting there two years later.
He had a particular gift for portraiture, and was soon much in demand for this work. (Many of his pictures are now to be found in the National Portrait Gallery.) The resulting connections - and fees - soon lifted Watts far above his humble origins. A particulary significant portrait was of Hannah de Rothschild, who later married Lord Rosebery. The small portrait (it was only 10"x12") gave Lord Rosebery such pleasure that, after Hannah's early death in 1890, he told Watts that he carried it wherever he moved as he could not bear to be parted from it.
While Watts was skilled at portraiture, it gave him little pleasure. An intensely serious and principled man, his passion was as a symbolist. He is famously reported to have said,
"I paint ideas, not things. My intention is less to paint works that are pleasing to the eye than to suggest great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart and will arouse all that is noblest and best in man."
He was perhaps even more prolific in producing such pictures than his portraits.
Watts gravitated to the circle of artists and others centered on Henry Prinsep's Little Holland House in Kensington, for some years renting an apartment there. Through a mutual friend, he was introduced to the young actress Ellen Terry. Watts, 30 years her senior, was captivated by her looks and, seeing her as a potential muse, first thought of adopting her. Instead, they got married in February 1864, a few days before her 17th birthday. (Ellen's theatrical parents felt this was an advantageous match.) The picture below, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery shows Ellen choosing between flashy but relatively scentless camellias and, in her other hand, humbler but sweet-smelling violets. Being painted in the year in which Terry gave up the stage to marry Watts, the symbolic choice between worldly vanities and higher virtues had a personal significance for both artist and the sitter.
Their relationship was short-lived. Ellen was less than faithful, and left after 10 months. In 1868, she began a long-term relationship with the architect-designer and essayist Edward William Godwin, bearing him two children. Watts finally divorced her in 1877.
As his wealth increased, Watts had built and moved into New Little Holland House near his old lodgings. Like his friend Henry Prinsep, he also bought a retreat on the Isle of Wight. There, he had close links with the "Freshwater community", of which the early photographer Julia Cameron was a leading member. She was also a member of Henry Prinsep's London set, and it seems clear that, either in London or the Isle of Wight, Julia was instrumental in George's meeting her close friend, the Scottish artist Mary Seton Fraser-Tytler.
G F Watts' 1887 portrait of his new wife (they married the previous year), the former Mary Seton Fraser-Tytler Image Source Wikimedia.org
When George (aged 69) and Mary (aged 36) married in Christ Church on Saturday 20 November 1886, George was listed as living at his London address in Melbury Road, Kensington. However, Mary gave her address as Mounthill, Epsom. This now-lost substantial property (which stood in what are now Mounthill Gardens, opposite the Epsom Playhouse) was the home of the widowed Jane Phillips where it is understood Mary's recently widowed step-mother, Harriet Jane Tytler (nee Prettyman) was living. There may also have been a connection through Jane's daughter, Mariquita, an artist who was only five years younger than Mary - and who had married Herbert Moberley at Christ Church a couple of years earlier.
The wedding party apparently walked to Christ Church from Mounthill. At the wedding, the witnesses were Mary's two step-brothers, Edward and William Fraser-Tytler and her step-mother. After the ceremony the couple caught a train to London where they had lunch with some friends.
There is no known photograph of George and Mary's wedding, but they did make the rather touching cast pictured below, on the base of which is written in pencil "The Hands of Mr and Mrs Watts. Saturday November 20 1886 / GFW MSW". (Mary later referred to the cast as "dear blessed symbol of our double yet one life.")
In the early 1890s, the couple set up what has become called an "artists' village" around their newly-built Arts & Crafts country retreat, Limnerslease, on the outskirts of Compton. Part of this was a pottery set up to help locals learn financially-rewarding skills. (In 1903, a year before Watts' death, Mary added a spacious Gallery for his retained works.)
George and Mary Watts at Limnerslease, Compton Image by courtesy of The Watts Gallery
George and Mary's acquaintanceship with Lord Rosebery (whom Watts had painted on several occasions) reached its peak in the 1890s, after Lady Rosebery's early death. There was regular correspondence, including Lord Rosebery's letter to Watts on his 84th birthday in 1901 wishing him a "long lease."
Their relationship survived a difficult time in 1985 (during Lord Rosebery's time as Prime Minister from March 1894 to June 1895). The couple were heading a £5,000 fund-raising appeal funds for the Home Arts and Industries Association - part of the Arts and Crafts movement that was dear to their hearts. On 30 May 1895 and with the aim of soliciting a donation, Mary sent a caricature of her husband as "An Epsom Beggar" to Lord Rosebery at The Durdans, his Epsom home.
Lord Rosebery replied: "I have received your gruesome portrait of my dear Mr Watts, and promise that you shall share in the spirits, but I can assure you that when the necessary presents are given there is little spoil to share!" Watts replied, "What I should like better than 'spoil' would be your attention to the matter."
Watts died in 1904. Mary remained at Compton, working until her death in 1938. The remains of both are interred in the grounds of the local Watts Chapel, a noted Arts & Crafts masterpiece designed and (assisted by her local band of potters) decorated by Mary. The still-active Gallery and much else remains at Compton, just down the A3 from Guildford.