Lucy Ella Rose is an Associate Teaching Fellow at the University of Surrey, where she completed her PhD in English Literature in 2015. Her interdisciplinary PhD thesis, titled ‘Women in Nineteenth-Century Creative Partnerships: the “Significant Other”’, examines the role of women in artistic and literary professions and partnerships, and the rise of feminism through artistic and literary discourses. It focuses on the lives and works of Christina Rossetti, Mary Watts and Evelyn De Morgan. Rose has worked on the Mary Watts archive at Watts Gallery (Compton, Surrey) for the past four years, and helped transcribe Mary Watts’s diaries for publication (forthcoming 2016). She is currently working on a monograph on Mary and George Frederic Watts.
This post accompanies Lucy Ella Rose’s Journal of Victorian Culture article, ‘A Feminist Network in an Artists’ Home: Mary and George Watts, George Meredith, and Josephine Butler’, which can be read here.
Militant suffragettes were thrust back into the spotlight in 2015 as Meryl Streep starred as Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette. It is almost 100 years since many women first won the right to vote in Britain, and the approach of this anniversary has renewed public and scholarly interest in the suffrage movement. Yet the lives, works and networks of nineteenth-century suffragists – liberal and progressive rather than radical and avant-garde – are comparatively neglected. My JVC article focuses on apparently incongruent Victorian celebrities whose shared socio-political views and suffragist positions led them to form close relationships: artists Mary Watts (1849-1938) and George Frederic Watts (1817-1904); writer George Meredith (1828-1909); and social reformer Josephine Butler (1828-1906).
While a discussion of these figures together may seem odd, links between them become strikingly apparent on a reading of Mary Watts’s unpublished diaries at Watts Gallery (in Compton, near Guildford, Surrey). I have worked on the Mary Watts archive and transcribed her diaries for the past four years – originally as part of my PhD studentship, awarded by Watts Gallery and the University of Surrey in their first collaboration. This sparked my ever-deepening interest in this under-researched pioneering professional Victorian woman artist, philanthropist and suffragist. Her diaries provide a unique insight into the Wattses’ conjugal creative partnership, their support of women’s liberation, and their friendships with leading figures in artistic, literary and intellectual circles. They reveal the Wattses’ Surrey studio-home – a stone’s throw from Watts Gallery and Mary’s arts and crafts masterpiece, the Watts Cemetery Chapel – to have been a creative hub and site for the generation and exchange of progressive ideas. In light of them, the Wattses can be reclaimed for the first time as early feminist artists who together built a countryside feminist community within a unique Victorian artists’ village.
There seems to be a perennial and increasing human interest in real lives over fictional works. Life writing is flourishing as never before in our digital age and social media era, with its generation of Tweeters, Facebookers and bloggers. Victorian life writing – including diary writing, which has seemed not to qualify as literature in the past – has become a central focus of feminist scholarship and projects of recovery. Mary Watts’s diaries offer insight into the personal stories, social relationships and political standpoints of individuals that are nowhere else recorded (or at least not in the same way), and they paint a picture of her in words and anecdotes that is as solid and vivid as any oil portrait of hers or her husband’s. There is a particular excitement and intimacy involved in reading someone’s diaries, typically containing private thought, feelings and even secrets. To open a diary is to enter the writer’s inner world, making the reader feel personally connected to the writer – regardless of time and space. During my countless hours of deciphering Mary’s miniscule handwriting and crossed-out sentences, touching the very pages that she has touched, I realised that her diaries not only record connections and interactions between figures of her day, but also facilitate new connections and dialogues with readers of today and of future generations.
As a painter, ceramicist, designer, illustrator and writer, Mary Watts is a fascinating figure. Although she has long been overshadowed by her more famous husband, dubbed ‘England’s Michelangelo’, interest in her life and work is on the rise. This has been demonstrated by the display of her sculpture at the Tate Britain’s ‘Sculpture Victorious’ exhibition (2015); the appearance of the Watts Cemetery Chapel on the BBC documentary ‘Sex and Sensibility: the Allure of Art Nouveau’ (2015); and ‘The Making of Mary Seton Watts’ exhibition at Watts Gallery (2013). Plans to open the Wattses’ studio-house to the public, and to publish a selection from her diaries, in the near future will undoubtedly fuel this interest. Long eclipsed by her husband, this is, I hope, finally Mary Watts’s time to shine.
‘The hope of the future lies greatly in the fact that woman is now beginning to take her place’, wrote Mary Watts in her diary of 1893 after a discussion with George Meredith. An increasing preoccupation with woman’s place – and specifically, the evolving role and shifting socio-political position of women – is visible in much art and literature of the later nineteenth century. Woman’s place remains a primary focus of more recent feminist theory and debates, and perhaps pervades our discourse now more than ever with the proliferation of social media and websites like the Everyday Sexism Project. Many Victorianists, feminists and researchers will know the deep satisfaction of tracing modern feminism back to its roots in mid-Victorian feminism in the treasure troves of archive rooms. But this is much more than a self-indulgent, niche academic exercise. It is essential to a perception and understanding of a bigger picture: how ideologies were challenged, how attitudes evolved, how feminisms developed, and how feminists – male and female – exchanged ideas and worked together in the nineteenth century in order to achieve the gender equality that we continue to strive for today.