Signor makes a home on the Isle of Wight 1871-1875

G.F. Watts painting Ariadne, 1888-89 Watts Gallery

Lady Holland received an offer of forty thousand pounds for the property where Little Holland House was built upon.  The property company proposed building a new road that would cut through the house. When Watts heard this news, he quickly realized his future was threatened; for this was his home. Later on, he was given a six month notice to quit, ‘The uncertainty of the tenure will fidget me out of the power of working.’  He decided to write to Rickards asking him to fund a new house, in exchange for his pictures, so that he could complete his projects. However,  Rickards was unable to financially support Watts’ proposal. Then Watts received a letter from his good friend and Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones affectionately called ‘Ned’ by friends, ‘I am doing a thing I never did before in my life, answering a letter straight away-accept the proof of my affection . . . I miss you very much for it has always been a real comfort to “run over” to Little Holland House & grumble myself out to you . . . I am really at present at the very lowest ebb of hope. Morris I see daily but that nightly soul is dormant at present . . . is there to be no more Little Holland House? It feels so sad as if one had come to another turn in life.’   The solution came in the form of one of ‘Signor’s’ (Watts’ nickname) closest confidantes, ‘Come to Freshwater and live near me at Farringford!’ Tennyson said.  Watts, without hesitation, went to fellow friend and architect, Philip Webb. He wasted no time, and bought a plot of land to the west of Farringford. Watts’s home would become one that he could share with the Prinseps; he would be able to return their hospitality. Thoby Prinsep was now eighty years old and nearly blind. His wife Sara’s health was deteriorating. Watts hoped that the mild climate and sea breezes of the Isle of Wight would improve both their health. On 27 February, 1872 Webb accepted the brief for a three-story studio house. Tennyson told Watts, ‘Your house here promises to be a very handsome one.’ 

 The Briary photographed and used in a 19th century article

Two years later, in January 1874, Watts’ home on the Isle of Wight, “The Briary,” was named after the roses in the hedgegrows by the foot of High Down and looked across the garden towards the sea. The three-storied red brick house had white painted dormers, and two cypress trees that flanked the entrance to the drive. Philip Webb recalled, ‘Light shone through the south-facing dining and drawing rooms; especially in the ground floor suite of Thoby Prinsep, where windows faced south and became the gathering place of friends and family.’ There was a covered brick verandah for Thoby to sit under which enabled him to enjoy the air in all types of weather. Watts had a thirty-foot studio, with a huge, north window, stretching the length of the butler’s quarters, the housekeeper’s and the kitchen. He curtained off the southern section below the gallery to create a private sitting room. Outside, the lawns were laid out with terraces of arching elm trees overhead. Blustering winds blew the sea air into the garden making nightingales sing.  Watts painted, ‘A Study from My Window’ so he could ‘examine & dwell upon beauties which are ever new.’ 
 Freshwater, near Farringford by G.F. Watts, 1874-5, Watts Gallery

The Prinseps now treated The Briary as their home while Signor went back to Little Holland House in Kensington to resume his relentless portrait schedule finishing two full-length portraits. The process of commuting back and forth between Kensington and the Isle of Wight began to take its toll on Watts’ health. He was alone at Little Holland House sick with influenza and longing for the sea air when he found out that The Prinseps had moved into The Briary before the plaster dried and a man named Tyerman was still working on the roof.  Watts told Rickards, ‘I have been losing a good deal of time & some temper in consequence.’  Thoby Prinsep on the other hand was heard to say, ‘London workman are bad enough but in the country it is almost impossible to get any thing done at all & quite impossible to get anything well done.’  The following day, he wrote to Lady Holland telling her he would give up Little Holland House at the end of the year for no other person would wish to take it on. The Prinseps were clearly better off in the country and by Easter Watts was back at Freshwater, conversing with Alice Liddell about painting a portrait of her father, Reverend Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, commissioned by the college to commemorate his twenty years in office. 

Just as there was a gate on the path connecting Mrs. Cameron’s home Dimbola to Tennyson’s home Farringford, so was a side gate between Watts’ home The Briary in the garden that opened into a lane leading over fields to Tennyson’s home Farringford, half a mile away. As one could imagine, there were numerous comings and goings between the two houses: ‘Life seemed to hum like some big wheel round the Cameron household.’ No islander or tourist was saife from her. No Fisherman, no people gazing at the sea or down the lanes. One would suddenly hear a loud voice, ‘I am Mrs. Cameron, perhaps you have heard of me, you would oblige me very much if you would let me photograph you.’ She was of a determined spirit and was known in reputation to disarm all she came in contact with by considerable charm.  These people she asked would find themselves modeling in her photographic studio and it was Watts himself who would receive her visitors! Watts loved to tell one story in particular when Julia Margaret Cameron arranged to drive Tennyson, Thoby and himself to admire the view from a new house in Freshwater, only to discover that the house was inhabited by a German tenant, a count, who objected to this invasion in his home. Julia told him, ‘the greatest living poet, our greatest Indian legislator and the greatest living painter.’  The count replied, ‘I subscribe not to that opinion. In Germany have we very good painters.’ 

Watts continued to work from sunrise until seven in the evening, rarely leaving the studio. He encouraged visitors to call for lunch, or after six. There were still problems at The Briary and Watts would write to Webb to complain with criticisms of the local workmen that were brought in. Webb understood Watts’ perspective and was equally angry over their London builder, Tyerman who was unprofessional, discourteous, and still owed thirty or forty pounds. Webb employed an independent architect named Vinall to examine Tyerman’s work and oversee further repairs. Webb wrote, ‘I must beg you to release me from any further interferance in a matter which has been so far from satisfactory to me. I have been made a fool of by a pack of fussy old women who want to direct his house as they did his married arrangements.’  This all made Watts come to realize how very much he preferred and needed a London base for his studio instead of the commute to the Isle of Wight. Yes, the idea of living there was momentarily a romantic one but a whim nonetheless. He also could not expect his patrons to cross the Solent to his studio. Val Prinsep acquired a 245 foot extension to his garden, and arranged to sublet to him for sixty pounds rent. When it came time to build a new studio he chose the architect, Frederick Pepys Cockerell who had designed Reginald Cholmondeley’s Kensington home in Palace Gate.  According to his letter of 23 December to the Academy, construction of the new house had begun. Cockerell’s plans were completed in November but would not receive official approval until 9 January 1875. He could not sign the agreement until 15 July and the Memorandum of Agreement between Val Prinsep and the Earl of Ilchester, relating its construction on the 207 foot by 135 foot plot is dated 15 February.  When Watts found out that old friend, Rickards was preserving his letters it unnerved him. He implored his patron to keep only those relating to business, ‘Being a lover of the beautiful its want of music is distasteful to me. I confess I should like to have a fine name & a great ancestry, it would have been delightful to me to feel as though a long line of worthies were looking down upon me & urging me to sustain their dignity. This I feel very strongly all the time feeling still more strongly that to do good work in the world is a better thing than an accidental place in society.’ 

SOURCE:  G. F. Watts: Reminiscences  By Mrs. Russell Barrington, New York, The Macmillan Company, London,George Allen, 1905


Kimberly Eve said…
Thanks so much Evie! X
Ogham Moon said…
Lovely post. I live near Watts' home, Limnerslease, in Compton just outside of Guildford. My teenage years were spent wandering around the gallery there which used to have buckets dotted all around collecting rainwater from the holes in the roof. It was a wonderfully atmospheric place, though it's now been restored. I confess I was too much in love with how it was to pay a return visit now. The nearby chapel which Watt's gifted to the residents of Compton is well worth repeat visits though. Lovely place.
Anonymous said…
Interesting read, Rickards was my great great grandfather, nice to learn something new about him, I didn't know about the letters :-)
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Ogham Moon,
Watts Chapel looks beautiful from photos I've seen of it. Lucky you to live near Limnerlease! Thank you so much for reading my article and commenting.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Anonymous,
Email me at I would be happy to send you the sources with the letters between Rickards and Watts. Thank you so much for commenting and stopping by.
Hels said…
I love the Isle of Wight, so I think it was a good decision to build there.

But this story tells us something else that I find fascinating. People shared access to their homes far more than we moderns might have expected. Friends and relaives were invited to share someone's hospitality more often and for longer than I had realised. Did the guests help out with money for the extra food, laundry, maids hired etc etc?
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Hels,
Initially, it was a good decision but too much commuting ;) I love your observation about sharing access to your home. Things are much different now that's for sure! Well, great question about the guests helping out etc., I know Dimbola, Farringford had full maid and cook staffs primarily made up relatives. In Watts's case, with The Briary, I did not come across any mention of maid staff or cooking just the usual late night parties and studio chat sessions Oh My! I could suggest, if you're interested in contacting Watts Gallery and having a look around their archives online. You might just find something!
Thanks for stopping by!