Who was Mary Watts?
Mary Watts (1849-1938) was a famous name in the field of Arts and Crafts and a celebrated designer for Liberty’s. She was among the first female students to study at the Slade School of Art in London, and she married ‘England’s Michelangelo’ George Frederic Watts in 1886. This was not a traditional marriage but a creative partnership of like-minded artists, symbolists and philanthropists. Mary was a leading member of the Home Arts and Industries Association, which revived handicrafts in an industrial age and involved women at all levels. She believed strongly in ‘art for all’ and the moral potential of art. She set up a clay-modelling class for shoeblacks in the East End and taught Surrey villagers to make terracotta bricks and tiles for her Cemetery Chapel, which is seen as her masterpiece; she later founded her own pottery business. She collaborated creatively with her husband on various artworks and projects during his lifetime. After his death in 1904, she became more politically active in the women’s suffrage movement, which was gaining momentum. This campaign was the calling of her later life, and Mary became a central figure in the local feminist community.
As an artist, how did her work influence the suffrage movement?
Mary Watts’s artwork includes painting, pottery, textiles and illustration. Her artistic output was less directly related to her political activism than other suffrage artists. However, her support for female empowerment and emancipation is registered in her creation of powerful mother figures, models of strong female saints (including Joan of Arc, the patron saint of the suffragettes), and banners featuring angels rising above the words ‘justice’, ‘liberty’ and ‘unity’. She used her role as the wife of a world-famous artist, as well as her own status as a successful professional craftswoman, to propel herself into high-profile and presidential roles in the local women’s suffrage community and women’s art organisations. She became Honorary President of the Women’s Guild of Arts, comprised of many suffrage artists, and Vice President of the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union, standing against restrictive feminine fashions (e.g. the corset). Art and activism met on the site of her Surrey studio-home and Watts Gallery, which became suffragist meeting grounds. The strong female figures, banners and symbols of freedom that appear in Watts’s art and craftwork engage with early feminist iconography, and show her lifelong preoccupation with the place of women.
What was her local and wider role in the women’s suffrage movement?
Mary Watts was a pioneering Surrey suffragist and a figurehead of non-militant feminism in her community. She believed in evolution rather than revolution, and was liberal and progressive rather than radical and avant-garde. She was made President of the Godalming Branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1909 after writing a letter expressing her support for the movement. She not only attended high-profile suffrage meetings but also held them at her Surrey studio-home, where she gave an impassioned newspaper-worthy speech on votes for women. She was cited in the national press as a prominent participant in suffrage marches and demonstrations, including the ‘Great Suffragist Pilgrimage’ of 1913, which travelled through Guildford and Godalming and culminated in London. In the same year she offered G. F. Watts’s allegorical painting Faith (1896) to be reproduced on the cover of the main suffragist journal The Common Cause. Although it is not widely known, leading suffragettes – including the first hunger-striker Marion Wallace Dunlop – lived in the Surrey Hills (particularly Peaslake), where they sourced flints for their infamous window-smashing campaign. Mary played a central role in local suffragist networks but was also part of a much wider women’s movement – in petition and procession.
What sort of social circles Watts move in?
During her marriage to G. F. Watts, Mary developed close friendships with leading artists, writers and thinkers of her day. She was photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron and became good friends with writer George Meredith, feminist Josephine Butler, craftswoman Gertrude Jekyll, and Pre-Raphaelite painter Evelyn De Morgan. Mary’s newly-published diaries (which I co-transcribed over a century after they were written) record her interactions with Victorian celebrities who came to sit for their portraits to be painted for G. F. Watts’s ‘Hall of Fame’ collection. In later life, she made more connections with women’s rights campaigners. Notably, her diary of 1891 records her attendance at an inspiring lecture by high-profile British philanthropist and feminist Lady Isabel Henry Somerset (niece of Julia Margaret Cameron and cousin of Virginia Woolf’s mother). Mary commended Isabel’s ‘great work’ and ‘strong nature’, while Isabel sought Mary’s advice on clay for her Duxhurst pottery in Surrey, where she established a rehabilitation centre for female alcoholics. In 1913, Isabel was voted by readers of the London Evening News as the woman they would most like as the first female British prime minister. This shows the kind of prestigious and progressive social circles Mary moved in.
Why is it important that we remember/research individuals such as Watts, especially today, on the centenary of the women winning the right to vote?
The 80th anniversary of Mary Watts’s death in 2018 marks 100 years since the Representation of the People Act in 1918, which enabled all men and some women over the age of 30 to vote for the first time. It is also 90 years since the Equal Franchise Act in 1928, which finally gave women the right to vote at age 21 on the same terms as men. This highlights Mary’s largely unrecognised role in the women’s suffrage movement and her contribution to a period of great socio-political transformation. Mary worked in partnerships as well as wider artistic and suffragist networks in order to support gender equality and female liberation in the nineteenth century. Although the Victorian era is often associated with conventionalism and prudishness, it is important to remember that this period gave birth to feminism in the form of the women’s suffrage movement. Researching the lives and works of historically neglected figures like Mary helps us to better understand the roots and founders of feminism. It enables us to reflect on the relationship between the Victorian period and the ongoing fight for gender equality and women’s rights today – in the wake of Trump’s inauguration, the #MeToo campaign, and the BBC pay gap controversy.