Monday, November 25, 2019

Happy with Signor

‘We have been two months a half married & never been away from each other for half an hour. I used to think I could not be happy unless I was much alone every day. Here I am never happy unless with Signor.’ This is Mary Watts, newly married to the English painter George Frederic Watts, who she called Signor, writing in a diary that he suggested she keep. There was a wide age range between them - Watts was fast approaching 70 - but their marriage was happy, and Mary herself went on to become an artist of some renown. Her diaries, not published until recently, provide much information into life with Watt’s but also invaluable insights into her own achievements.

Mary Seton Fraser Tytler was born in Bombay, India, on 25 November 1849, the daughter of East India Company employees. Her mother died soon after, and so she was sent to Scotland and raised by grandparents. Early in 1870, she began to study art in Dresden but later the same year enrolled at the South Kensington School of Art. It was also the year she first met the painter G. F. Watts, who became her unofficial tutor. During 1872 and 1873, she studied sculpture at the Slade School of Art, though she became known as a portrait painter, associated with Julia Margaret Cameron and the Freshwater community. She worked some of the time for the Home Arts and Industries Association, an organisation which aimed to revive traditional rural crafts, and she ran classes in clay modelling.

In 1886, Mary and Watts married despite a 33 year difference in their ages (he was 69). The couple adopted an orphan, Lilian, who would eventually inherit their estate. Mary continued to play a leading role in the Home Arts and Industries Association and from the 1890s taught pottery to large numbers of local people in the village of Compton where the couple had built a country residence called Limnerslease. She went on to establish the commercially successful Potters’ Arts Guild and designed an award-winning range of garden pottery. She designed, built, and maintained the Watts Mortuary Chapel in Compton; and had built and maintained the Watts Gallery for the preservation of her husband’s work. She was a pioneer of the Celtic revival, in carpets, book-bindings, metalwork, and textiles for Liberty & Co. being based on her earlier designs at the Watts Chapel. Later in life, she wrote The Word in the Pattern and completed a three-volume biography of her husband, Annals of an Artist’s Life. She died in 1938. Further information is available from the Watts Gallery, Wikipedia, National Portrait Gallery, Mapping Sculpture, Artistic Miscellany, and David Hill’s paper on Mary Watts and the Chapel.

On marrying Watts, Mary became an avid diarist and filled many volumes - each known affectionately as ‘Fatima’ - with musings on art and society as well as with the details of her day-to-day life with a celebrated artist. However, it took until 2016 for these diaries to be made public, partly because her handwriting was so difficult to read. Edited by Desna Greenhow and published by Lund Humphries in association with the Watts Gallery, The Diary of Mary Watts 1887-1904: Victorian progressive and artistic visionary also includes detailed annotations, an introductory essay and short intros for each year of diary entries. According to the publisher, the ‘book chronicles life in the artistic, literary and political circles of the time, while also providing invaluable insights into Mary’s own achievements - most notably her management of the building and decorating of her unique Watts Cemetery Chapel.’

In her introduction, Greenhow notes: ‘Watts suggested, in the first few weeks of their marriage, that [Mary] should write a diary, chronicling their daily life together. It turned out to be a cementing element in their relationship, and a fascinating document in its own right. Most importantly, Mary wrote it for herself, not anticipating sharing it with the world or with anyone else. This is clear by the tiny, difficult handwriting, and its voluminous nature. It has not been completely transcribed until now, more than a hundred years after it was written.‘Signor’, as Watts was nicknamed, never tried to read it, and so it remained a narrative by Mary with herself, about their relationship and on the joint lives they led.’ A review of the book can be read in Life Writing. Here are several extracts.

26 January 1887
‘When I looked for my dear one’s hands this morning, I found them both crossed upon his breast. I said ‘Don’t do that, Signor’ & he, ‘I often lie so’. ‘Oh, don’t’ I said ‘it is too much like “Well done, thou good & faithful servant.” ’ When I next touched his cheek it was wet with quiet tears.

My dear one has painted & sketched some figures, such nice, great lines he sees in all these people. I feel as if I was blind in comparison to him. I am trying to read in the new book he has opened to me.’

4 February 1887
‘We have been two months a half married & never been away from each other for half an hour. I used to think I could not be happy unless I was much alone every day. Here I am never happy unless with Signor.

‘Are you really not longing to be alone?’ he asked me, ‘not finding drawbacks? Ah, just as you expected, & yet you expected a very great deal. You make your own happiness out of what I have to give you, which is nothing.’ ’

7 February 1887
‘Drew some hasty lines of drapery. Signor begs me to do it as often as possible.

‘The eye gets as it were in tune with the law of form & line, & by constant study, even hasty notes, the mind acquires that knowledge of the natural law, which is necessary for the ideal.’ ’

26 April 1887
‘He began, because his hand was wearied by idleness, a sketch in oil, of me. Painted straight off, in four colours, on single prime canvas with white, light red, burnt & raw umber, a lovely flesh colour. It was all drawn in burnt umber, which is a very good useful colour but must be used carefully, transparently, over light ground or else it darkens & becomes very heavy. Talking of painting with varnish, Signor says that it must be used with the white ground & again with the colour.’

26 October 1887
‘We went to pay a visit to Burne Jones, he & she, & we sat together in their little drawing room & did not go to the studio. They have Michelangelo’s Night & Morning, which Signor does not care for. Mr Burne Jones stood up for them. Signor thinks M.A. the greatest of all artists, but his sculpture by no means on a level with the painting. He thinks he was prevented by the obstinacy of his material from dashing in his thoughts (his wax sketches as fine as can be). From there we went to Holman Hunt & saw his very impressive picture of the Flight into Egypt, with all its strange ugliness of surface, flesh made of a hard stable material reflecting every sort of colour, wh. makes a most unlovely impression. The dignity & moral influence of his work always surprises me.’

26 April 1891
‘Sir Frederic, our first & faithful visitor. He & Signor had much to say about mediums. Macbeth & Fildes have been using Petroleum, Fildes the common kitchen stuff & Macbeth the rectified, prepared by a man in Great Queen Street, where their colours are ground with it. Signor has long used Rock oil, prepared by Bell in Oxford Street, & a small quantity of Linseed oil, to prevent its too rapid evaporation. Millais they think uses Spike oil, & Sir F., rectified spirits of turpentine. Sir Fred, is sorry & angry with Mr Richmond for having abstained two years from going near the Academy, at this time of friendly meeting. It is a pity that men who think that they regard art from a more serious point of view than seventy members, should not feel bound to go & mix their light with the lamp, & try to support Sir Frederic, who said today, wearily, that it was no sinecure.’

20 November 1891
‘Our 6th wedding day, & we began to keep it at one a.m. when Signor spoke to me, & I told him it was the morning of the 20th. Half waking, we blessed each other, but later, after I had been up some time at my writing table, he came out with my cup of hot drinking water, & stood smiling at me with a sort of supreme & sudden consciousness of my happiness with him, & said ‘Well, are you pretty happy?’ I had to tell him that he was too stuck up & full of pride, & that I was on the contrary a very miserable woman! On the breakfast table were two books & a dear letter from Choons with hers & Edward’s blessing.

He & Mrs Guild worked silently side by side from luncheon time till half past four, forgetting each other, till she, poor thing, over-tired, was overcome by an access of fear, & mistrust of Agnew’s promises, & Signor was disturbed, & not able to comfort her.’

2 November 1891
‘Ethel & I left the workers in the studio alone all morning, & when luncheon time came we found they had been on each others’ nerves. Mrs Guild could not come to luncheon, being in tears, Signor not being able to refrain from urging her not to lose her clear edges, & she in her highly nervous state having wept at his saying it makes the difference between refinement or vulgarity in work’.

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