A Brief History of Watts and Co. of London

[Watts and Co. of London is a firm which is particularly well known for its gothic revival work. It is a firm that has operated for more than a century and is tied to some of the greats of the gothic revival movement. Accordingly, our readers -- particularly those with medieval inclinations -- may find this brief history provided by Watts to be of interest.]

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Watts and Co was established by three of the nineteenth century’s most important architects. George Frederick Bodley, Thomas Garner and George Gilbert Scott junior had all trained in George Gilbert Scott’s office, though Bodley was eldest of the three.

Bodley had known Scott junior from as early as his own apprenticeship with Scott in the 1840s. Bodley’s architectural partnership with Garner was cemented in 1868, and in addition to their design ventures at Watts, they worked on over 100 commissions over three decades. Bodley led the way for a second generation of Gothic Revival architects keen to experiment with late Gothic forms and develop a refined and eloquent Gothic stylistic vocabulary.

His finest work includes the St Swithun’s Quadrangle at Magdalen College, Oxford, Holy Angels, Hoar Cross, and – with his pupil Henry Vaughan – Washington National Cathedral. Bodley won the RIBA gold medal for architecture in 1899 and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Oxford University in 1907. His only book, humbly titled Poems, was published in 1900.

Less is known about Thomas Garner, though it is certain that his enthusiasm for Gothic and his keen eye for fine draughtsmanship made him an invaluable partner for Bodley. The only known photograph of Garner was taken in front of his and Bodley’s first major London secular commission, the London School Board offices on the Victoria Embankment.

It was in fact this building, and not the firm’s better-known ecclesiastical work, that may have planted the seed of Watts and Company’s foundation in the architects’ minds, as they wished to combine an erudite and fashionable Queen Anne architectural invention with their own interior details, exerting complete control over fabrics, furnishings and fittings. Garner, like Bodley and Scott junior, was drawn to late Gothic, Tudor and Elizabethan design. Prior to his death in 1906, he gathered copious images and information on sixteenth-century grand houses, which was published posthumously with additions by Arthur Stratton in 1911.

George Gilbert Scott junior is often referred to as ‘Middle Scott’ to distinguish him from his father Scott senior and his son Giles Gilbert Scott (of red phone box, Liverpool Anglican Cathedral and Southbank Power Station fame). Though much of Scott junior’s architectural work is now sadly destroyed or forgotten, the Eton and Cambridge-educated designer had an ingenious facility for elasticity and grace in both his Watts and Co and his architectural commissions. On the subject of style, Scott junior was clear: ‘I yield to no one in my love of medieval art, but I recognise the merits of the really good work of all schools.’

Bound together with the rich histories of the Gothic Revival and the Aesthetic Movement, Watts rapidly established itself as providers of fabrics and furnishings of the finest quality and best possible taste. As medievalism and ‘art for art’s sake’ were simultaneously all the rage in London, Watts and Co met the challenge of creating beautiful designs for prestigious clientele with aplomb, much as it does today. But what of Watts’ name? Unlike the ethos of Morris and Co, with whom Watts were in friendly competition, the founders of Watts were wary of being identified with ‘trade’ as it compromised their position as gentlemen-artist-architects (as Bodley put it). There are two possible origins of ‘Watts and Co’. One is that the founders lighted on the witticism ‘Watts in a name?’. The perhaps more likely possibility is that Bodley, Garner and Scott junior formed their partnership under the name of Watts as a tongue-in-cheek gesture, referencing the name of a clergyman acquaintance in Hampstead who owned property where the founders lived, side by side as neighbours in fashionable Church Row.

Inspired by Gothic forms, Renaissance art, and the sturdy transitional quality of Elizabethan and Tudor architecture, the patterns for fabrics and textiles at Watts, as well as their metalwork, bespoke embroidery, and furnishings of all kinds, instantly found a market through the founders’ architectural commissions. Up to the present day, the names for its fabrics are derived from their inspiration, such as ‘Gothic’, ‘Holbein’ and ‘Crivelli’. From its beginnings, Watts and Co designs were also sold commercially and as such were used extensively by leading architects and designers of the day.

In its early premises at 30 Baker Street, Watts and Co offered their dazzling products for display in the shop frontage, and featured work rooms for their team of seamstresses and embroiderers. In this period, the Watts partnership included J. L. Davenport, who took care of the everyday running of the company and lived above the shop. With his violin and eccentric dress, it has been suggested that he gave Arthur Conan Doyle ample inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes. At 30 Baker Street, Watts even had its own embroidery school, where experts could pass on the intricacies of their craft. Watts became widely known for its outstanding embroidery, which was a key component of the Gothic Revival’s interest in medieval textiles. Indeed, the ‘Opus Anglicanum’ style of fine needlework in the Middle Ages was the best in the world and desired by monarchs and clerics throughout Europe; Watts and Co was and is at the forefront of keeping that unique and extraordinary tradition alive...

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