By the time GF Watts commissioned a gallery to house his studio collection he was the grand old man of British art, celebrated at home and abroad.
The building, intended to provide 'art for all', was finished shortly before his death, and quickly became a much-loved local attraction. One hundred years later it was crumbling into decrepitude, but it has been sensitively restored and adapted. It was nominated for the Art Fund Prize 2012. The museum reopened Watts's Great Studio in winter 2015 following a major re-presentation project.
In 2017, the gallery ran a successful Art Happens crowdfunding campaign to secure the final funds needed to site a new cast of GF Watt's Physical Energy sculpture in a prominent location near the gallery.
The gallery walls glow with deep crimson, rich greens and subtle blue-greys. They are hung with a large selection of Watts's prolific output – portraits, landscapes, sculptures, narrative paintings and allegorical works. Marking the beginning of his 70-year artistic career is a charmingly vulnerable early self portrait at the age of 17, while his maturity is represented by ambitious Symbolist works such as Time, Death and Judgement and The Sower of the Systems. Watts was trying to capture eternal spiritual truths in these allegories, but there are also subject paintings and portraits more firmly rooted in the Victorian world.
An unusual trilogy of canvases from 1849–50 depicts the sufferings of the poor: Under a Dry Arch, The Irish Famine and Found Drowned, show destitution, starvation and suicide. These themes were unusual for Watts, and he did not exhibit the pictures until long after he finished them, but they have a Dickensian power and directness.
The gallery has a temporary exhibition space, and an airy glass-fronted Sculpture Gallery, which is dominated by two enormous plaster models of Tennyson and Physical Energy, as well as death masks and smaller sculpted figures that Watts used for his paintings.
A short walk away is the Arts and Crafts mortuary chapel designed by Watts's wife Mary, the exterior a riot of terracotta decoration and the interior encrusted with colourful stucco angels.