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Everything Old is New Again: The Watts Memorial Chapel

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

One of the bittersweet realities for lovers of Romanesque art is that the majority of it exists in a state of decay and dislocation. Eight hundred or so years can diminish almost anything made by human hands, and human hands contribute more to medieval art's destruction than its preservation.

What you can see of Romanesque art is fragmentary, and/or worn to near-oblivion. That can be part of the art's appeal: its tantalizing, fragile connection to the people who made it, or used it. It can be an invitation to nostalgia, because we can pick and choose how to interpret what knowledge of it points to, and fill in the rest from our own imaginations.

The upshot is that none of us will ever see a pristine, intact example of such things in their original context. When one removes things from their context, one loses clues to understanding them.

That said, the fragments allow us to focus on individual elements as works of art-in-themselves, appreciate the skill at a particular level of detail, and ponder one instance of meaning from one piece. It's what we have of the past, and it's pleasurable to experience historic art this way.

England holds forth some unicorns of Victorian architecture: buildings which quote from medieval styles (with admitted romantic embellishments) and assemble medieval elements as they would have related to and harmonized with each other. There are many surviving Romanesque Revival buildings, but few take on the form as a near-replica of the medieval building. Victorian architects also did this with Ancient Greek and Roman architecture, especially in designing institutional buildings (for government, or for education). These pseudo-Classical buildings are usually a bid to claim the modern structure as the product of a similarly august culture--asserting that the British Empire is the heir to the Roman Empire. By contrast, Victorian re-creations of medieval-style buildings seem to secularize the mysticism of faith, not invoking the Empire of the Church (a more direct heir of the Roman Empire), but instead, conjuring a general romantic spirituality.

Without seeing the irony (I think), urban planners could tear down older buildings and replace them with new buildings that use historic styles, but tailored to the symbolic needs of the modern age. Baudrillard described this as "hyper-reality," where something real would be discarded in favor of something "better than real." For my purposes here, that approach to building recreates an admired physical component of the past, but improves upon it by discarding parts that are no longer useful, or are poorly understood, or are unwanted. In the case of Romanesque Revival buildings, the medieval aesthetic is invoked, but the new construction sheds the fact of their antiquity, and divorces the original style from the purposes and symbolism of its creators.

Not that that's always a bad thing. The late nineteenth century in Britain produced artists and architects who wanted to push back against the brutalities of urban industrial life. The Arts & Crafts, Romanesque Revival, and new-Celtic arts movements were often led by progressive artists who wanted to give working-class people access to art-creation, with lives that were more than work. The revivals were chosen with the idea that the medieval building forms (mostly the floral and animal ornaments) emphasized the value of nature, of artisanal work (as opposed to patron-based elite art), and of communal spaces over workspaces. That idea shoves a lot of brutal realities of nineteenth-century agrarian culture firmly under the mat, but that's where the hyper-reality comes in: cherry-pick the style, and re-tool it with more idealism than history.

I love the Romanesque Revival for its aesthetics, and for its flawed idealism. I'm no fan of Bauhaus austerity. I love the Romanesque Revival unicorns which adhere fairly faithfully to medieval church art, in part because I get to see in them a simulacrum of the ruins reborn intact.

So, as a lover of Romanesque art, I made the pilgrimage to the Watts Cemetery Chapel, near Guildford, in Surrey. It's not easy to get to, even by car, and I feared as we drew nearer to it that it wouldn't have much atmosphere, given the roar of the motorway just by it, and the bustling university town that dominates the region.

The noisy modernity changes almost immediately in the final road to the place. The chapel sits near the Watts estate, and next to the artist colony founded by the woman, Mary Fraser-Tytler (married to famed painter, George Fredric Watts), who designed the chapel, inside and out.

Watt Cemetery Chapel, 1898

It emerges, quite unexpectedly on a small hill, a vibrant terracotta orange between the green earth and the blue sky. The form of the building is similar to the Greek Cross style of churches in the Byzantine era, but the Romanesque elements clad it in a much-later and much-different style. You see the tall, narrow windows, with rounded tops and pillar supports, a wide doorway with descending archivolts coming down into engaged pilasters (or jambs), a nod to blind arcades on the sides of the gables, along with thematic and ornamental bas-relief sculptures which fill the spaces between the arms of the cross.

The design is strongly evocative of the Romanesque, but the designs narrate ideas distinctively Victorian, not medieval. Much as pianist John Bayless joyfully played Beatles songs in the style of Bach. Fraser-Tytler's chapel fuses different religious ideas into a spirituality less about Christian orthodoxy and more about egalitarian virtues. She also takes a patriarchal religion, and a building style which decorated churches with a medieval patriarchy-affirming art narratives, and re-imagined it with all the beauty and little of the brutality. (As I said, above, hyper-reality isn't always a bad thing.)

For me, as a lover of medieval art, approaching the chapel thrilled me because it allowed me to re-imagine the Romanesque church as a whole and pristine sight. Sure, there are big differences--the chapel was never painted, as Romanesque churches were, and brick with terracotta fixtures is quite different visually from plastered stone--but to see such a building that is not a ruin, not eroded or defaced, was like having a dream where a long-lost loved one returns to you more vivid and clear than in your waking memories.

The Portal

Fraser-Tytler was well-respected ceramic artist--not an easy accomplishment then or now. She was committed to her adopted community (the village of Compton) as well, and subscribed to the progressive Arts and Crafts movement which wanted to make art (and making art) available to women and the general public. She regularly taught pottery classes in the village, eventually founding an artists guild and gallery which today still thrive. While the designs are hers, she engaged dozens of citizens of the village (including children) to help her realize the chapel. The ironwork for the door was done by the town smith, the wood-carving of the door by a local carpenter, and the interior stucco elements by those who took her pottery classes (including flowers made by children). The cemetery is solely for residents of Compton, and, fittingly, the chapel is an enduring monument by, for, and to the residents.

The building by the community amplifies the proud sense of ownership common to small English villages with medieval churches. During my trip to other small medieval churches, I encountered many women creating and placing floral arrangements in the buildings from their own gardens for "our harvest," and they'd talk about the expensive job of maintaining their church, such as "keeping from losing our gargoyle."

By the time I was visiting the Watts Chapel, I had a stronger appreciation for how English locals could identify with and have a proprietary sense of owning the building collectively, and of the building owning them. The church wasn't just the art and materials; it was sacred space where many of the milestones of their lives occurred (baptism, confirmation, marriage, burial of loved ones, and, ultimately, one's own burial).

Seeing the way parishioners cared for and occupied their medieval churches, I was able to appreciate how Fraser-Tytler designed the cemetery chapel to re-invent that tradition into her modern building. She started by ensuring that the chapel would be co-constructed with the hands of the community, from children to mothers and smiths.

The Archivolts

Let's look at some of the particulars. Throughout the exterior are images of birds, including peacocks, which have been symbols of eternal life since long before Christianity. What is easy to miss are the peacock feathers used as ornament just about everywhere. In the archivolts here, the peacock feathers are abundant, intertwining with foliage and surrounding the angelic faces. The "eyes"of the plumes were in some times and places seen as having an apotropaic function, figuratively warding off the "evil eye." In this case, I feel like the feathers are an affirmation that life, eternal and mortal, is celebrated throughout the chapel.

How ambitious of Fraser-Tytler to select a bird most notable for its vibrant colors and make its symbolism work in monochrome tiles.

Where the eye feathers surround the angelic faces, the placement makes these seem like cherubim--a common element in medieval church art. I love the care Fraser-Tytler took to vary the faces of the angels, which was rather uncommon in medieval church art, where individuality was not as beautiful as the purity of holiness.

The Spandrel

Rather than having an elaborate tympanum, Fraser-Tytler created a molded spandrel which is a series of cut tiles assembled. The angels here are like the medieval ones who signal Judgment Day with horns, but the apocalypticism is down-played. They also have harps, and appear to be singing. There's a crown with two six-pointed stars (probably more Seal of Solomon than Star of David), and clasped hands. The knotwork can be called "Celtic," and takes its style from the Book of Kells, some Norman knotwork still visible in the graveyards of some towns, and pre-Norman jewelry. The triangular tile bordering the archivolts has a very flexible peacock.

The Great Door

This shot is framed intentionally to give you a sense of the mesmerized feeling I got as I reached the steps. All the sinuous interlacing, echoed in the door itself, seems to spiral into a vortex which draws one in. The engraved cross at the center of the door is very subtle, containing the only straight lines in the circular composition. The cross is reinforced in the ironwork of the door, and seems so solid that I had a moment trying to see it as a double door, especially given the single latch.

The Guardian Dragon

This dragon may be one of the most elegant wood-carvings I've ever seen, from any century. He's downcast and bound, in accordance with the centuries of Christian art that place defeated dragons (representing paganism) at the feet of the archangel Michael (and sometimes Mary), he looks more mischievous than menacing. This seems another instance of shifting the narrative of the chapel's art from a frightening threat of Doomsday to a more whimsical and comforting invitation.

The iron work surrounding him is abstract vegetation which suggests owl-like eyes, much like how Muslim medieval carving was studiously not depicting real plants or animals, but only suggesting them, in keeping with a commitment to not creating graven images of God's work.

Tiles from the Jambs of the Door

In the jambs flanking the door, Fraser-Tytler goes full-on art nouveau, with lots of intertwining vines, a contemplative and (I think) feminine face, along with a medallion suggesting trinity with natural forms--nuts and flowers. These are an evolution of the vine-and-medallion carvings seen similarly placed in medieval churches, and are a style that goes back to scrollwork on Roman doorways as well.

These figures suggest angels kneeling in prayer, do not direct the prayer to the Christian god, instead having them contemplate elements of nature.

Capital Depicting Saint Mark's Lion

The capitals on the exterior of the chapel are all engaged in the walls; none are free-standing. They aren't really necessary to supporting the building, so they seem to be included to reinforce the idea of a Romanesque church, without having a purpose beyond ornament. The symbols of the four evangelists are repeated on each side of the building. I believe that their animal themes (for three of them, the fourth is an angel) fit in with displacing a human-faced god with creation. As with all the carvings on the exterior, abstract curves and rhythmic lines make the figures look fanciful more than a direct reference to doctrines.

Capital Depicting Saint John's Eagle

External Tableau

As with the pillars and capitals, the curved panels on the exterior seem to be more about having another canvas for ornament than serving any structural purpose. At the center of the tableau is a cross, supported by angels. This is a subject frequently shown in medieval Last Judgment art, but there is no Christ here, and the cross seems submerged in the rest of the artwork, joining the other long rectangles which act as dividers between the angels.

Closeup with Herons

Fraser-Tytler creates six angels for each of these tableau. They lower their eyes as though in contemplation, Their wings and head-dresses repeat the eye-feathers of peacocks. Four have medallions, and several contain words to express ideas which don't have a visually-simple expression of a concept (as the anchor might serve for suggesting hope, for example). Concepts for contemplation include "service," "courage," and "peace." My favorite decorative features on the exterior are the birds that flank the cross on each side. Above, you see herons, with an undulating form that almost loses them in the surrounding Celtic knot-work. They contort their wings in ways which out-do the angels they stand among.

A Different Tableau, with Peacocks

The peacocks in this tableau are a delightful surprise because their tails are so fanciful, so unlike the peacock tail feathers used all over the angels and the portal. The angels' wings are stiffer and more linear, for contrast.

Another Tableau with Owls

And my favorite of these favorite bird features are these owls, with their hypnotic eyes shaped as spirals. In medieval religious art, owls could signify Judaism in a pejorative way--a creature that lives outside the light of Christianity. However, in keeping with the overall resolve in this program to transform Christian religious symbols in a way that emphasizes God's creation over God himself, these owls eschew traditional meaning and probably represent "wisdom" in a mystical sense.

Angels Who Spell Out Concepts

Here are two examples of the medallions spelling out concepts. On the left, the word "courage" is written twice, on the body of a crouching lion, looking almost like wings. On the right, "patience" is written twice, with a spider on one side, and its web on the other. This is a rather disturbing choice for exemplifying patience, given that the spider's wait is for a victim to entrap and then suck dry. I don't think the lovely spider and web were meant to be contemplated to fully; they stand alongside all the other depictions of nature as idealized and tame.

Seraphim with Labyrinth

Beneath the tableaux are angelic figures which act as brackets to support the artwork above. Some bear hearts and crosses as shields (or again, medallions), but the one that captivated me is the seraphim (six wings) holding an image of the labyrinth. It, too, is a medieval symbol, but here, I think it's being used to suggest pilgrimage--not the physical ones of Christian history, but perhaps an inner one, in keeping with the contemplative, spiritual emphasis of all the other art.

Standing back from all these particulars to think about the building as a whole, I'm amazed at how it can look so medieval, and yet be something so very, very attuned to its desire for modern innovation of religion and spirituality.

Given all the elaborate work on the outside of the building, what treasures could it contain within? How does it carry these themes further? Stay tuned for Part 2! Here's a taste of what's to come:


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