Over half-term we visited the Watts Gallery and Artists’ Village outside Guildford in Surrey. I met Hilary Calvert who has written a book on the pottery at Compton at a Northern Ceramic Society conference last year . This was an art pottery set up in the 1890s initially in order to make architectural terracotta.
George Frederick Watts was one of the most prominent artists of the later 19th century and with his wife Mary built their country house in Compton as an escape from London and Holland Park – as you do. Limnerslease, as the house was called, had a huge attached studio block for them both fitted out with all equipment necessary for producing paintings, sculpture and for Mary, her speciality gesso relief panels and modelling in clay. Mary was Watts’ second wife and much younger that him. She had trained at the Slade and was clearly ambitious and like Watts passionately interested in symbolism, religion and morality. Engaging enthusiastically with the local community in Compton, Mary set up arts and crafts classes and was interested in developing them into a more formal production of ceramics. In 1895, Compton Parish Council bought a piece of land nearby as an extension graveyard. Mary Watts conceived the idea that she could fund and build a chapel for it and co-opt the locals to embellish it with terracotta and gesso reliefs. And she did.
The scale and ambition of the chapel is breathtaking. You have to remember that it was built by the local builder and all the decorative work was carried out by Mary and a team of about 70 locals.
Alongside this a business emerged designing and making funerary monuments and garden terracotta under the name the Potter’s Arts Guild. A range of painted ceramics figures and decorative pieces were added later.
In order to produce the architectural work a wood-fired kiln was designed and built in the grounds of the house. According to an article on the pottery in Country Homes magazine in 1911, Mary was advised by the Watts’ friend William de Morgan as to what design to go for. This is where it gets really interesting for me. This first kiln survives as a garden feature (and shed) in a similar way to the eighteenth-century kiln at the Pottery in the Park in Dunster in Somerset. It is well looked after but not accessible to the public.
Once the pottery became a business it moved into specially built accommodation on the other side of the road and a larger, conventional, bottle kiln was constructed. The earlier kiln though is very interesting. I have only seen it via Hilary’s and the BBC’s photographs and have to go by them. It is a fairly conventional drum shape with a domed top and a central vent. Below it has two parallel fireboxes running underneath the ware-chamber. The chamber door is above the fireboxes with a narrow platform for access built over the fire mouths.
Given that it seems reasonably likely that de Morgan was the advisor on the choice and design of kiln, a first reaction is to imagine some kind of link to the technology that he used for his own ceramics. As far as I am aware there is no information about his kilns or precise firing methods other than an understanding that he was using low temperature reducing conditions to produce his lustre effects. He might well have used a kiln derived from Italian or Iberian tin-glaze traditions for instance and the projecting firebox and steps up to the door are similar to kilns of that type. Even two fireboxes might just be a possibility but it doesn’t ring true. The 1911 article is the main source for the story that de Morgan was the key source for the kiln design. Given that Mary Watts keep a very detailed diary it may be that there is also evidence of her approaching one or more of the local potteries for advice. There are several candidates and the Wrecclesham Pottery at Farnham, was perhaps the most useful potential contact. The earliest of the Wrecclesham kilns was built in 1873 and by 1889/90 the pottery was working with the Farnham Art School and making for Heals and Liberty’s.
Although there are precedents, the Compton kiln is an unusual arrangement for a pottery kiln; a circular ware-chamber drum above two parallel rectangular fireboxes. Then again it is important to take into account that it was built to fire large scale architectural ceramics for the Watts Chapel not to make pottery – that came later. In some ways it resembles is a rectangular medieval floor or roof-tile kiln. Archaeological discoveries of medieval tile kilns had been recorded from the 1830s onwards and the basic structure of two or three parallel fireboxes under a perforated floor was well known enough to be illustrated in Llewellynn Jewitt’s book The Ceramic Art of Great Britain in 1878.
Before pushing that idea too far, it is interesting to note that the only other unconventional 19th century/early 20th century kilns with pairs of parallel fireboxes are those at the Wrecclesham Pottery down the road. A cylindrical ware-chamber accessed from a high doorway sits above two opposed pairs of parallel rectangular fireboxes. The ware-chamber form is not unfamiliar in the south of England – Lake’s kiln at Truro is an example – but the parallel fireboxes are curious. I am not clear whether all three kilns at Wrecclesham were of this design – the date of construction of the surviving one predates the third which was built in 1914 according to Peter Brears. Did the Compton kiln come first and what, if any, connections are there?
Bearing in mind the Arts and Crafts Movement sensibilities and the deeply religious and symbolist thinking of the Watts, it seems possible that de Morgan suggested that a link to medieval architectural ceramic technology would be appropriate. The architectural references of the Watts Chapel are many but there are plenty of Italian models for large scale terracotta work. Wood-firing was certainly chosen because it would provide a subtle variation in colour. The result was kiln whose design was rooted in an interpretation of medieval archaeology in the light of an understanding of how kilns work rather than a more traditional kiln built with the help of one of the local potteries. At the same time there is a curious overlap with what is going on at Wrecclesham that must in some way be relevant.
By around 1913 Mary Watts had turned the pottery into a business and new workshops, clay-processing facilities and a kiln shed with a more conventional bottle kiln had been built for what became known as the Potters’ Arts Guild. Their production focussed on funerary monuments, garden wares and small figurative sculptures. The garden wares were sold through Liberty’s and are sometimes confused with another range designed by Archibald Knox. There is a Pathé newsreel film that shows the pottery and the interior of the kiln in 1933 (see below). That kiln survived in use into the 1950s before being demolished after the pottery closed. The kiln shed is now part of the Watts Gallery café/restaurant.
The Watts Gallery and Artists’ Village is in Down Lane, Compton, Guildford, Surrey. GU3 1DQ. For visitor information see their website www.wattsgallery.org.uk/en-gb/. The kiln is not accessible to the public.
Bills, Mark, (ed), 2011. An Artists’ Village. G. F. Watts and Mary Watts at Compton. London: Phillip Wilson Publishers
Brears, P.D.C. 1971. The Farnham Potteries. Chichester: Phillimore
Calvert, Hilary, 2006. Compton Pottery. Compton, Surrey: Watts Gallery
The Potter’s Art. Filmed at the Compton Pottery Guildford. British Pathé, 1933. www.britishpathe.com/video/potters-art (21/02/16)