The Early Years of Watts & Co

While Watts & Co would become renowned for its clerical dress and ecclesiastical items, interior design commissions for stately homes predominated the practice in the firm’s earliest years. The earliest inventory of Watts’ stock, dating from 1878, includes seven distinct wallpaper designs by Bodley, Garner, and Scott Jr, whose Gothic revival aesthetic bled into their intricate wallpaper patterns – which in turn inspired many of the textiles sold by Watts.


The majority of Watts’ wallpaper and textile designs were inspired by late medieval and early Renaissance textile patterns. Bodley kept a record book in which he reproduced patterns as seen in 15th and 16th century paintings which depicted textiles such as silk wall hangings and regal garments. In the mid-1860s, Bodley corresponded with George Wardle, the manager of Watts’ first rival company Morris & Co., who sent copies of his own watercolour drawings of decorative paintings in medieval parish churches. Bodley made great use of these drawings for his textiles; it was fitting that he went on to use these textile patterns for wall decorations in churches. The process of intertwining medieval church interiors and textile patterns with lavish home interiors was a crucial element of the ‘Queen Anne’ style which Scott Jr and Bodley championed from the 1870s onwards.


Watts produced relatively little furniture before moving to its Baker Street premise in 1879. The four known furniture designs from Watts’ first five years are attributed to Scott Jr. The most elaborate furniture commission, which perfectly captures Scott Jr’s reputable ‘Queen Anne’ style, is a walnut sideboard which combines seventeenth-century details like the balusters with eighteenth-century paradigms such as the pediment. Scott Jr’s characteristic pastiche technique recalls his domestic architectural style, such as his country house commission, Garboldisham Manor in Norfolk (c. 1868-74). Now mostly demolished, the Manor building incorporated an individualistic mixture of neoclassical pediments and typically neo-Gothic brickwork.


George Gilbert Scott Jnr, detail of drawing for a sideboard for Watts and Company, c. 1874


Watts’ role in architectural commissions


The early clientele of the firm was largely made up of wealthy landowners and socialites for whom old-fashioned, ornate furniture and houses were of great interest; they trusted Watts’ founding architects to exercise their aesthetic expertise to craft the finest fittings. Several of Scott Jr’s architectural commissions employed Watts for their interior fittings. The vicarage for St Mark’s Church at New Milverton, Leamington Spa, which incorporated an amalgam of 17th and 17th century features, included stained glass and interior furnishings by Watts; the firm charged £779 for this work. Other decorative work by Watts including gilding and painting at Raithby Hall, Lincolnshire. The luxurious President’s Lodgings at Magdalen College, Oxford was commissioned to Bodley and Garner in 1886; Watts provided the interiors and received a payment of £444.


Watts’ earliest recorded wallpaper designs included the self-titled ‘Bodley’ design, ‘Jasmine’, ‘Bird’, ‘Genoese’, ‘Damask’, and ‘Sunflower’, and ‘Pear’. ‘Pear’ was not the only design used for Bodley and Garner’s restoration of Ham House in the 1890s: ‘Genoese’ was used in the Duchess’ private closet and ‘Ravenna’ in the Volery Room. These original designs paint a picture of the crucial role which Watts played in the founding architects’ separate architectural practices.


Bodley and Garner’s ‘Pear’ wallpaper design


As Michael Hall notes, from 1890 onwards until Bodley and Garner’s partnership ended with Garner’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1897, both architects designed houses in a more restrained Tudor manner compared to their earlier high medieval style. Alongside this stylistic shift, it appears that Watts’ involvement in these later commissions lessened. An exception to this trend was Bodley’s alteration to Powis Castle for the 4th Earl of Powis in 1901: at an estimated cost of £30,000, Bodley installed Elizabethan panelling and detailed ‘Queen Anne’ upholstery and plasterwork. In the drawing room, the seat furniture was made of gilded 18th century mahogany, upholstered with a Watts textile which was also used for the room’s curtains: it stands as the only use of the pattern, a green silk decorated with a version of ‘Pear’. The formative years of Watts & Co were significantly bound up in the architectural commissions of the founding architects: designs for textiles, wallpaper, and, eventually, clerical dress, primarily derived from medieval paintings and reflected the aesthetic interests of the founding architects.


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