The Watts Gallery: A fitting makeover for a Victorian hero

TheWatts Gallery was neglected and shabby. Now a £11.5m refit has restored its former glory, says Virginia Ironside

When I was young the paintings of the Victorian artist, GF Watts were much loved in our house. Highly moral, narrative and grandiose pictures, they featured spiritual struggles and emotional torment that pulled at the heart-strings. One of his most famous works, Hope, shows a blindfolded maiden sitting on top of a golden globe, vainly plucking at the only single unbroken string of a lyre. So when, five years ago, I discovered that there was a Watts Gallery, I hotfooted down to Compton, near Guildford to have a look. Although for most of his life, Watts had lived in Kensington – he'd created his own gallery next to Leighton House – he moved to Compton at the end of his life and built a gallery to feature his work.

I found all his greatest pictures there – but everything was filthy and covered with smears and dust. The pictures could hardly be seen under the layers of grime that had accumulated. There were bits of wire hanging out of the walls, damp patches in the ceilings and all the paint on the wood was chipped. There were virtually no captions to the pictures, and all round were broken tables, bits of chairs and wheezing humidifiers. In the café, the salt and pepper pots were so filthy you needed tongs to pick them up.

I immediately fired off a letter to the director and offered to come down myself with a scrubbing brush to help tidy the place up. I would write captions and glue them to the walls. I'd wash and dust, and pin away the strands of flex. I would try to make the place look less unloved. I would play Kim and Aggie to How Clean is Your Art Gallery?

I was astonished when, rather than receive a stuffy letter back, I got an email from the new curator, Mark Bills, who appeared to be just as distressed about the place as I was. He asked me down and told me of the plans to put in for a vast lottery bid and get the gallery back on its feet again.

In view of the gallery's history, it all sounded more fantasy than a reality. When Watts died in 1904 it was run by his widow, Mary. Until her death in 1938 everything went on much as before. But then in came the modernisers. They hated the Victorian look. They lowered the picture rail, painted all the walls a dismal beige, and put in dividing walls. In the Eighties, Richard Jeffries painted the walls green, and, in an effort to recreate the Victorian look, decorated the place theatrically, with tables, potted plants, and furniture.

Then the Watts Gallery secured £4.7m in Lottery money and, having come second in television's Restoration (to an old toolshed in the Midlands – but it doubled the footfall), it is now, five years and £11.5m later, restored to its former glory.

The picture rail – bright green ceramic, has been uncovered and restored to its original height. The cleaned pictures will be hung one on top of another, as the Victorians liked it, and against beautifully rewoven crimson wall hangings and green paintwork. The mosaics on the outside of the buildings, previously covered, have been restored, the basement damproofed and the whole thing housing over 350 paintings, 700 drawings and 5,000 photos, many of Watts himself looking like a kind of secular God with his huge long white beard and his Titian-like hat. The potters' house now is home to a vast reference library (with a carpet designed by Mary Watts). The shed where the sculptures lived has been completely restored.

Watts was a philanthropist – he set up Postman's Park in the City, in which ordinary people who died performing acts of bravery are honoured with beautiful tiled plaques. He was a prime mover in getting the Whitechapel Art Gallery for working people off the ground, and founded Roedean School. He owned an estate in Compton, six houses and a farm. Now the gallery has its eyes on buying back Watts' house next door.

By end of his life, Watts had become one of the most famous artists in the world. With the enthusiasm of those now running the Watts Gallery, his place may rightly be restored to that of a giant among British Victorian artists.

The Watts Gallery, Compton, near Guildford, Surrey re-opens on 18 June (

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