- The Diaries of Mary Seton Watts (1849–1938) in the Archives at Watts Gallery, Surrey
Mary Seton Watts (née Fraser-Tytler, 1849–1938) was a pioneering professional woman artist, ceramicist, and designer, married to the famous Victorian painter and sculptor George Frederic Watts (1817–1904). While her life and work have long been overshadowed by the dominant critical focus on her husband, she designed rugs and pots for Liberty of London and became a famous name in the Arts and Crafts movement.1 She was also a writer and prolific diarist, although her diaries have never before been studied.2 Mary’s eight extant annual diaries were written between 1887 and 1908, covering her marital years and a few years after her husband’s death.3 This time period was the pinnacle of George’s reputation as Britain’s premier portrait-painter and “England’s Michelangelo.”4 The Wattses became celebrities during their lifetimes and were highly respected in intellectual, aristocratic, artistic, and literary circles. They were much admired by their famous forward-thinking contemporaries and became close friends with figures such as the writer and women’s suffrage supporter George Meredith (1828–1909) and the British feminist Josephine Butler (1828–1906); Mary’s diaries document their fascinating interactions and discussions. Her diaries also offer unprecedented insight into the Wattses’ personal and professional relationship as well as their progressive sociopolitical positions and feminist affiliations and are thus of great cultural importance.
I worked on the almost entirely unexplored Mary Watts archive for three years (2011–2014) as a condition of my doctoral studentship, awarded by the School of English at the University of Surrey and Watts Gallery (Compton, Surrey) in their first collaboration. Mary’s diaries have been in the collection of Watts Gallery for over a hundred years and reside in the John George Archive Room, where I transcribed five of them using a diary stand and magnifying equipment.5 The archive at Watts Gallery encompasses letters, photographs (including the Rob Dickins Collection of over 4,000 photographs and manuscript letters relating to leading Victorian cultural figures), diaries, historical and oral history records, drawings, and sketchbooks created by or related to the Wattses. Mary’s miniscule diary writing—which adds an air of intimacy to the small pages—was often difficult to decipher, especially at first, but I became accustomed to her [End Page 521] handwriting and lexis. The difficulty of transcribing her diaries was exacerbated by the fact that many pages have been stuck together or cut out in an apparent act of (self-)censorship or as part of a posthumous editing process that shrouds the diaries in a sense of mystery and secrecy. Yet it is clear that Mary’s diaries provided her with private imaginative and intellectual spaces as well as spaces of artistic inception, where she developed ideas for her designs in word and image; the result is a rich palimpsest of prose, verse, and drawing. Streams of consciousness, fragmentation, broken syntax, unruly punctuation, ellipses, and open endings pervade—and are characteristic of—Mary’s diary writing.
Since my dissertation—titled “Women in Nineteenth-Century Creative Partnerships: The ‘Significant Other’”—was to some extent a feminist project of recovery focusing on historically neglected female figures, I searched Mary’s diaries for evidence of the Wattses’ creative partnership and Mary’s empowered role within it, as well as for any evidence of her support of early feminism. Evidence of the former was more easily found. Mary’s account of her professional artistic career punctuates her ostensibly conventional wifely narrative, and her diary writing reveals her role as a respected artistic equal and intellectual companion to George, challenging traditional views of the Wattses as representatives of patriarchal power relations. The latter required much more time-consuming interrogation of her diaries, but I found that Mary engages with women-centered and gender-related issues in various—if not immediately obvious or conspicuous—ways (for example, in her ideas for her designs, her philanthropic projects, and her discussions with visitors). Mary’s strongest expressions of feminist feeling appear in her diaries of 1893 and 1896 and most explicitly in 1893 during a discussion with...