• March of the Women

Mary Watts (1849-1938)

Self-Portrait, Mary Seton Fraser Tytler, 1882.
(Courtesy of Watts Gallery Trust, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village)

Mary Seton Fraser Tytler was born to parents Charles Edward Fraser Tytler and Etheldred St. Barbe, on the 25 November 1849, in India, where Charles worked for the Indian Civil Service. They returned to Scotland, however Etheldred died in January 1851. Charles and his other children were recorded on the 1851 census living with his parents.

By 1861 Mary was living with an aunt and uncle but the family were reunited by 1871 with the addition of Charles’ second wife, Harriet Jane Pretyman, whom he married in July 1852. By 1881 Mary and her brother moved to England where they are recorded in the census as boarding in Hampshire. Around this time Mary started studying art, first at Dresden, then moving on to South Kensington School of Art and finally Slade School of Art. Becoming known as a portrait painter and potter, she became associated with an artist community at Freshwater, on the Isle of Wight. Whilst here she met her future husband, the eminent artist George Frederic Watts; despite their age difference of 33 years, they married on 20 November 1886 in Epsom, Surrey.

From their home ‘Limnerslease’, at Compton, near Guildford, Surrey, both Mary and George developed their art. Mary focused on her pottery and with the help of 78 local people built the Watts Chapel. While George worked on his painting, including painting Mary in 1887 and Mary helped Lady Henry Somerset set up a therapeutic pottery studio at her home for Inebriate Women at Duxhurst (Atherton, 2017, p.89). During this time Mary kept a diary recording her and George’s life (whom she refers to as ‘Signor’), within these pages she records their progressive views on women and their role within society: “I see he [George] thinks women given the franchise would entirely alter their habit of thought in two or 3 generations” (Rose, 2018, p.44).

The Journal of the Healthy & Artistic Dress Union
(Courtesy of Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village ref COMWG.2014.23)

In 1889 Mary was asked by Sir Frederic Leighton, artist and President of the Royal Academy, for “support for his sister’s appeal against the extension of suffrage to women in The Nineteenth Century magazine” and to join the anti-suffrage movement (Rose, 2018, pp. 43-44). Mary declined and at a similar time became vice president of the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union. In spring 1894 George wrote an article for their journal entitled ‘Women’s Dress’. The couple “influenced each other’s interest in and support of women’s suffrage” (Rose, 2018, p.44).

When George died in July 1904, although heartbroken, Mary “embraced independence … dedicating herself more seriously to the fight for women’s suffrage” (Rose, 2018, p. 53). In 1909, she wrote a letter to The Times, expressing how if the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) formed a group in Godalming she would be glad to become a member (The Times, 11 February 1909). Mary became President of the group in November 1909 (Rose, 2018, p.46).

Women’s suffrage had influenced Mary’s work for some time. In 1906-1907 she was commissioned to “design decorative embroidered silk banners as State gifts to Canada” (Rose, 2018, p.55). In the past Mary had made a ceramic statue of Joan of Arc, the patron saint adopted by the suffrage groups, while George had using the icon in his paintings (Rose, 2018).

George Frederic Watts, self portrait oil on panel, c.1860
(Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)

Mary was joined in the Godalming NUWSS by Sir William Chance, and Gertrude Jekyll, the renowned local landscape gardener, who made several banners, including for both the Godalming and Guildford NUWSS groups. In 1913 the NUWSS arranged a ‘Great Pilgrimage’, a march to London where suffragists began at opposite ends of the country and met in Hyde Park on a designated day. Mary took part in part of the procession to Godalming, along with other members of the Godalming NUWSS, carrying the banner.

In 1913, George’s painting Faith (1896) received a new lease of life when it was used on the cover of the Suffragist newspaper Common Cause (Rose, 2018, p.49).

Despite Mary’s obvious support of the suffrage campaign and the likelihood that George would have also been a supporter, his work was not immune from the attention of the radical suffragettes. On the 4 April 1913, following Emmeline Pankhurst’s sentence for the bombing of David Lloyd George’s summer house in Walton on the Hill, suffragettes Annie Briggs, Lilian Forrester and Evelyn Manesta, entered the Manchester Art Gallery and damaged 13 paintings including three works by George, Prayer (1867), Paola and Francesca (1870) and The Hon. John Lothrop Motley (1861). At the trial Annie was acquitted but Lilian was given three months, and Evelyn one month imprisonment.

Mary continued to support women’s suffrage, Watts’ art gallery (next to her home) and worked on her chapel. She died in Compton on the 6 September 1938 and in buried in the chapel.

Contributed by Holly Parsons, The March of the Women Project Officer. With kind thanks to Dr Lucy Ella Rose for her permission to include Chapter One of her book Suffragists Artists in Partnership. Edinburgh University Press (2018), see below.

Exploring Surrey’s Past, Guest blog: Dr Lucy Ella Rose, Lecturer in Victorian Literature at University of Surrey
Rose, Lucy Ella. Suffragists Artists in Partnership. Edinburgh University Press (2018). Chapter 1-  Mary and George Watts, can be viewed as a pdf ( PDF ) here.
Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery Outrage
Wikipedia, Mary Fraser Tyler
Watts Gallery, Mary Watts and Compton
National Portrait Gallery, George Fredric Watts a Victoria Michelangelo
‘Dr. A. R. Wallace and Woman Suffrage’, The Times, 11 February 1909
Ancestry for census records

2 thoughts on “Mary Watts (1849-1938)”

  1. Dr Louise Boreham says:

    Mary’s mother’s name was Etheldred St Barbe, i.e. ‘d’ instead of ‘o’.

    1. ESP Admin says:

      Dear Dr Boreham

      Many thanks for your comment. I have corrected the spelling in the text. It would appear that Mary’s mother’s name on Mary’s baptism entry has, at some point, been mis-transcribed and appears on Ancestry as Ethelored, which is where I suspect the author of this page took their information from.

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