It is probably undisputed that George Fredrick Watts OM RA (1817 – 1904) was the most influential Victorian artist of, not only the Surrey Hills, but the entire UK. Often referred to as England’s “Michelangelo”, he was the celebrity painter of his day, even painting royalty.
His legacy for the Surrey Hills is the home and studio he created with his wife Mary Watts (1849-1938), towards the end of his life. Today it is the highly regarded and award winning Watts Gallery at Compton. However, for me, it is the work of his wife, artist Mary, who has had an iconic influence on the Surrey Hills. She created Watts Cemetery Chapel, an unusual terracotta structure, with the help of local residents whom she was training up in craft skills to break the cycle of labouring and domestic service whilst keeping them employed. She also founded the Compton Potters’ Arts Guild that went on to sell at Liberties in London and which continued right up until 1956.
Both Mary and GF Watts were influential members of the Arts and Crafts Movement which was created as a reaction to the industrial revolution and the age of the machine. They championed the traditional crafts and, along with architects like Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll, helped make the Surrey Hills an iconic area for the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Another, less well known gallery, is the Sidney Sime Gallery in Worplesdon – just outside Guildford (and the venue for a recent SHS visit). This was the home of Sidney Sime (1865 – 1941), an artist best known for his fantastic and satirical artwork, especially his illustrations for Irish author Lord Dunsany.
No list of famous Surrey artists would be complete without mentioning Helen Allingham (1848 – 1926), who lived in Haslemere. Her watercolours of idyllic rural life scenes of the Surrey Hills can be found in galleries around the world (A cottage with Sunflowers at Peaslake shown above).
She studied at the Royal Academy School (which later became the Royal College of Art). Although women could not gain the same recognition as men at the time, Helen Allingham was one woman who made a real impact in the age of the Victorians, with artists like Van Gogh being influenced by her. The Helen Allingham Society was formed in 2000 to celebrate her beautiful art and unique talent.
Although living before the Victorian era, artist John Hassell took a huge interest in Surrey landscapes and architecture. His son, Edward (d.1852) also became a popular early Victorian artist and was particularly fascinated by the interiors of churches. His work has been a useful reference when looking to restore many Surrey church buildings. Over 500 of John and Edward’s works appear amongst 2,000 prints, watercolours and drawings by Surrey artists collected by Robert Barclay and used to illustrate his copy of “Mannings and Bray’s History and Antiquities of Surrey”.
Originally from Scotland, Arthur Melville (1855 – 1904) lived in Redlands, Witley for most of his adult life. He is mainly known for his orientalist subjects. One painting is in the V&A Museum in London and many are in Scottish galleries and museums (image of A Cabbage Garden shown left).
He was not particularly popular in his own lifetime but it is said that he influenced the “Glasgow Boys”. Today he is a highly collectable artist. His ashes are interred at Brookwood cemetery in Woking.
Another notable Surrey landscape artist was Edward Henry Holder (1847 – 1922) who lived at Reigate and Redhill during his working life. His painting “October in Surrey: Children Nutting” is in the V&A Museum in London. Originally from Scarborough in Yorkshire, he travelled extensively in Europe and as far away as South Africa.
Finally, no list of Victorian artists would be complete without William Henry Allen (1863 – 1943). He was long – time inspirational head of Farnham School of Art and mentor to other creative people, including the architect Harold Falkner.
Allen was known mainly for his watercolours of vanishing English countryside, portraiture and the wonderful use of colour. The Allen Gallery may be over the border in Alton, where his mother and brother lived, but he lived and worked in Farnham. Farnham’s creative links remain with the School of Art becoming, in modern times, the extremely successful University of Creative Arts.