The Public Worship Regulation Act
1874 was a year of aesthetic transition in England. The Public Worship Regulation Act was passed in order to curtail elements of High Anglican ritualism, including the use of vestments, incense, and a liturgical emphasis on the sacraments; simultaneously, in art and architecture, the genesis of the Aesthetic movement began to challenge the prior dominance of Gothic revivalism. In the summer of that year, three prominent architects founded what would become a leading English ecclesiastical and domestic fittings business, Watts & Company.
George Frederick Bodley, George Gilbert Scott Jr., and Thomas Garner had all been students of Sir George Gilbert Scott and each championed Gothic Revivalism in their architectural work, though their repertoire was by no means limited to the neo-Gothic. In 1872, the collaborative relationship between the three architects was cemented when Bodley and Garner won the London School Board architectural commission, for which Scott Jr. designed furniture in the Queen Anne style: some of the earliest items sold by Watts & Co. included furniture in those designs. The London School Board project was very likely the springboard of Watts & Co. and highlights the foundational cornerstone of the company: the coalescence of the founders’ architectural interests with interior design and domestic beauty.
Messrs Watts and Co
Watts & Co. was primarily an artistic endeavour. Whilst Bodley was listed as Chairman of the Board of Directors, all three founders were named the firm’s ‘art directors and architects’: their joint title indicated the priority of artistic creation over mere trade and profit. An early advertisement emphasised the importance of the architects’ aesthetic visions to the working of the company:
Messrs Watts and Co are establishing ... A WAREHOUSE FOR ECCLESIASTICAL AND DOMESTIC FURNITURE of artistic character. Embroidery and Textile Fabrics, such as Damask, Silks, Velvets, Woollen and other Hangings, will be included in the List of Goods, which will also comprise Wall Papers and Stained Glass, together with all the usual articles of Household Furniture. It is hoped that such an Establishment will meet a growing want. Special pains will be taken to secure correctness and beauty of colour. All the articles will be from the Designs, and executed under the superintendence of the following Architects: Messrs G. F. Bodley, G. Gilbert Scott, T. Garner.
The advert also draws attention to Bodley’s renowned fastidiousness as a colourist. His tertiary colour system for the objects and vestments sold by Watts was ingrained in his artistic interests, deriving from pre-Raphaelitism. The company was singular in this regard: its domestic objects harmoniously reflected the artistic sensibilities of its founders, with special emphasis on late Tudor, Elizabethan, and neo-Gothic designs. Scott Jr. nodded to the range of styles which the company embraced in a crucial period of aesthetic transition: ‘I yield to no one in my love of medieval art, but I recognise the merits of the really good work of all schools.
What's in a name?
The company’s singularity extended to its name. Popular legend contends that the three architects wanted to resist being associated with trade, unlike their rival firm Morris & Co. which was named after one of its founders, William Morris; as such, to reaffirm their status as artists and architects over salesmen, they played on the quip ‘What’s in a name?’. Another possibility is that Bodley and Garner named the company after a clergyman named Watts who owned property in Church Row, where they both lived. Ayla Lepine has posited that the company was named after a lawyer, Theodore Watts, who was employed by members of William Morris’ circle – including Ford Madox Brown and Dante Gabriel Rosetti – to negotiate with Morris after he sought to claim sole ownership of Morris & Co. in 1874, a bid which fractured the company. This would have certainly been a bold competitive move on the part of the founding architects who sought to carve out a jointly artistic and commercially prosperous space in the world of fabric and furnishing.
Whilst Watts is now best known for its ecclesiastical commissions, its early clientele was predominated by members of Victorian high society like Lady Dorchester and Countess Spencer. Many of the architectural clients of Bodley, Garner, and Scott Jr. were also shared by the company. However, whilst it catered to a popular demand for fine domestic fittings and vestments for prestigious clients, Watts toed the line of rebellion. The religious materials it sold included many of the prohibited items of clerical dress listed under the Public Worship Regulation Act, which stipulated that clergymen could be prosecuted for using certain materials and objects in worship which drew on pre-Reformation liturgies. The ornate High Anglican architectural style was championed by Bodley from the 1850s and Garner from the late 1860s, and Scott Jr. also promoted ritualism in his Gothic architectural motifs; it followed naturally that some of the materials sold by Watts were among those outlawed by the Act. These included the use of a chasuble, alb, tunicle, stole, dalmatics, and maniples; metalwork like thuribles for incense and monstrances for Eucharistic adoration were also produced and sold by Watts in the wake of the controversial Act.
In terms of textiles, Watts was a site of labour-intensive innovation. After the company moved from Scott’s architectural practice at 7 Duke Street to its first show-room at 30 Baker Street in 1879, an embroidery school was set up and quickly became renowned for its fine needlework and close working relationship with convent workhouses. Early records of textile items sold by Watts show a unique and accommodating fusion of Gothic revivalist and Aesthetic styles: one such example is a chasuble designed for Richard Meux Benson in 1882, probably by Bodley himself. Benson was a High Church priest and founder of the Society of St John the Evangelist, a monastic order which harked back to pre-Reformation Ignatian monasticism; his striking chasuble depicts the crucified Christ above a bed of sunflowers, which were an emblem of Aesthetic sentimentalism, on the back. The confluence of High Church ritual and Aesthetic symbols in this chasuble surmises the range of styles, both religious and secular, which Watts fluidly merged together.
From its earliest years, Watts also fused together the media of embroidery and wallpaper design: many of the unique vestment designs developed at Watts went on to be used as wallpaper and painted wall patterns, and vice versa. One early Watts textile called ‘Pear’, based on an early 18th century wallpaper in Oxford, was used for the interior of Ham House during Bodley and Garner’s restoration in the 1890s; it also decorated the ceremonial copes warn by the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral during Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897. Watts has provided textiles for coronations ever since.
The architectural foundations of Watts & Co. have never faded from sight. A family business, Watts continues to honour its relationship to the Gilbert Scott architectural dynasty. Its founders’ dynamic artistic vision, which drew from a plethora of historic styles ranging from medieval ‘Opus Anglicanum’ needlework to late Gothic motifs, remains at the forefront of Watts & Co.
 Quoted in Michael Hall, ‘Furniture of Artistic Character: Watts and Company as House Furnishers, 1874-1907’ in Furniture History Vol. 32 (1996), pp. 179-204
 Ayla Lepine, ‘On the Founding of Watts & Co., 1874’
 Michael Hall, p. 197.