Art to wow the world

IAN COLLINS Welcome to the wild and wacky world of late, great Victorian artists – which Ian Collins finds in London and deepest Surrey.


One of the curses of British art is its way of being perceived as adrift in a provincial backwater - as slight and sluggish as the stream in which Ophelia drowns in the iconic painting by John Everett Millais.

But visit London this autumn - and then take a 33-minute train journey from Waterloo to Guildford followed by a three-mile bus or taxi ride - and you'll see how and why our wildest and wackiest late Victorian artists wowed the world.

Where even recently we saw little more than the quirky mixed with English whimsy to make a very sweet pudding, now we may survey a fabulous feast. No matter that the chief cooks can still come across like crazed characters from a comic novel…

Crowds are already flocking to the Millais exhibition at Tate Britain (that outpost which itself suggests Britons aren't great enough for Tate Modern and fit only for the margins of the National Gallery).

It is certainly a crowd-pleaser, but such a grand review of the career of the greatest painter of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is also an eye-opener.

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Did this maker of ravishingly radical images really degenerate into the commercially-seduced creator of kitsch soap ads and chocolate box portraits as legend suggests? He did not.

He remained a rigorous innovator up to his death in 1896 - still the driven man who, back in the 1850s had given the model for Ophelia a perilous chill in a studio bath during protracted and agonised sittings.

A series of celebrity portraits - and a re-creation of the opulent Palace Gate studio where Millais presided for his last two decades - shows how the artist himself became a star in British society.

To follow this phenomenon further, head to 12 Holland Park Road and the Moorish palace that was home and studio to his close contemporary Frederic, Lord Leighton. Marvel at the tiled and marbled and fountain-tinkling splendour of the Arab Hall.

These were not starving artists in garrets, but major movers and shakers - the fortunate and the feted. Each was a blend of Damien Hirst and Charles Saatchi - with added bits of Elton John and David Beckham. Celebrities didn't come more celebrated.

With Millais too there was sensational scandal - from snatching the wife of his erstwhile friend (and henceforward foe) John Ruskin.

And goodness only knows what the bachelor Lord Leighton got up to in his private guise as West London's Sheikh of Araby. His friend William Powell Frith - he of those teeming pictures of Victorian beaches, race courses and railway stations - had, concurrently, one large family installed in bourgeois respectability and another, with his former ward, a couple of miles away.

And to think that Frith's deceived wife banned Dickens from their house because she thought his personal life too scandalous...

However. I have just paid a day trip to a world of love and devotion and creative harmony - albeit one where walls are crumbling, the roof is leaking and gardens are riotously overgrown.

Just off the beaten track in suburban Surrey - where I glimpsed swathes of spectacular rolling scenery through a break in the trees and hedges - there is the wonderland created by painter G.F. Watts. Known in his heyday as “England's Michelangelo” he was later knocked, mocked or else forgotten.

George Frederic Watts (born on Handel's birthday) lived from 1817 until 1904 and his industry and innovation won him both the Order of Merit and endless orders for paintings and sculptures alike.

With his motto The Utmost for the Highest, he believed that art should be accessible to all and not just rich collectors - so he gave freely to public galleries and helped found the Tate.

It is his blissful portrait of actress Ellen Terry in the National Portrait Gallery. It's his blistering horseman called Physical Energy in Hyde Park (the one Oscar Wilde dubbed “A eunuch astride a gelding”).

The Tate also has the most famous version of the Watts painting Hope, in which a blindfolded damsel sits dejectedly on a lost planet, hugging a lyre on which every string is broken bar one.

This image continues to resonate. Nelson Mandela had a postcard of it in his Robben Island cell; Egyptian troops were issued with copies before the 1967 Arab attempt to wipe Israel from the map.

I begin my Surrey pilgrimage in Compton village churchyard, whose chapel - still used for funeral services - was designed by Watts' second and much younger wife, Mary, a considerable artist and potter in her own right. They are buried nearby.

This astonishing red-brick-and-terracotta cruciform building enclosing a circle is adorned in celtic and art nouveau decoration, with an altar painting completed by GFW months before his death.

Had this chapel been designed and decorated by Margaret and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, as it well might, it would draw hordes of visitors from all over the world. As it is, on a sunny September morning, we have it all to ourselves.

Then a 300-metre walk down lane and track leads to the purpose-built studio the couple opened in the then grounds of their country house on April 1, 1904. It's full of electrifying Wattage. He even devised the touching slogan high on one wall: “Greed Must Be Annihilated.”

Rodin stayed here, and one of those late works by a master of symbolism looks amazingly like blue period Picasso.

Now, almost hidden in greenery, past a fantastically rustic tea-room, the place feels like our very own secret, even though a recent TV programme doubled visitor numbers to 25,000 a year.

If you like things crumbly and wobbly then visit before next August when, if all goes to plan, the gallery will close for a dramatic £10m revival. Although much of that sum has been pledged by the heritage lottery fund, a Hope Appeal must find £2m in matching funds by March. Otherwise a majestic Burne-Jones painting may be sold to meet the shortfall.

While I love the magical place just as it is - and hate the proposal to levy entrance charges - the century-old building is undeniably in structural distress. Many pictures need urgent and costly conservation.

Plus, a sizeable endowment fund is needed if Compton is to expand a function as a centre for Victorian art, craft and culture.

For the rest of this year, there's a fab show called Victorian Artists in Photographs in which an elderly Watts tries to look like Titian but comes over all papal nunzio, or sits dwarfed by the painted giants in his studio. The best idea is to go soonish - and then again later. t

t Millais is at Tate Britain until January 13. Open 10am to 5.40pm daily. Admission £11, concessions £9 and £10. Book on or 020 887 8888. Tube: Pimlico.

t Leighton House (020 7602 3316) is open daily except Tuesdays, 11am to 5.30pm. Tube: Kensington High Street.

t Watts Gallery, Down Lane, Compton, Guildford, Surrey (01483 810235; Open April 1 to September 30, Friday to Wednesday, 2pm to 6pm and also 11am to 1pm Wednesday and Saturday; October 1 to March 31, Fri to Wednesday, 2pm to 4pm, also 11am to 1pm Wednesday and Saturday.