Author Archives: londonslant

London Slant: a king-size bed and Lady Gaga at the Louvre. Ça c’est Paris!

I was walking along the St Pancras platform to board my train to Paris when urgent steps came rushing up behind. I turned to face a Eurostar official brandishing a clipboard. My heart sank.

But then, unbelievably, came the question every budget traveller longs to hear: “Would you like to upgrade—free—to First Class?”

As I settled into my extra-wide seat it was clear I was on course for a great weekend. It also turned out to be as unexpected as it began.

It’s usually deemed that for quirky originality London trumps Paris every time. But on this trip our Gallic friends had put on an exhibition with more than a nod to us eccentric Brits. Our current fondness for “cabinets of curiosities” has certainly travelled south.

Robert Wilson's bed at the Louvre, Paris

Robert Wilson’s bed in Living Rooms at the Louvre

The Louvre, touchstone of French culture, can be an exhausting place: galleries and sculpture courts packed with instantly-recognisable treasures from the Mona Lisa to Michelangelo’s Slaves. So when I stumbled upon a king-size bed in one of its rooms I wasn’t just taken aback—I’d have loved to collapse onto it and curl up. Two silver boots lay discarded at its side.

Robert Wilson, Louvre, Paris

Ordered chaos in Robert Wilson’s Living Rooms at the Louvre

All around was an array of quirky objects: masks, gourds, plastic toys, strange pieces of furniture. But if you’re thinking Tracey Emin mark II, think again. All were exquisitely arranged, ordered and pristine.

Robert Wilson's Living Rooms at the Louvre, Paris

A corner of Robert Wilson’s Living Rooms at the Louvre

It turned out to be US theatre designer Robert Wilson’s recreation of his Long Island home and studio, a mass of items that inspire him—in bizarre juxtapositions. I could see how his creativity would be unleashed by lying in the timber bath with a view of the Louvre’s glass pyramid—and then stimulated by the melange of paraphernalia hanging above. I loved moving among white shelves displaying a stuffed rabbit next to a pre-Columbian pot, an elegant Asian buddha next to a contemporary American art photograph. And most of all I was intrigued by the many chairs in styles from Shaker to 1950s’ kitchen, several suspended on the walls upside down.

I moved on to a room of Wilson’s video portraits of Lady Gaga depicted as well-known works of art. There was Gaga as the head of John the Baptist and again as Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière. The near-static scenes had sudden flickers of movement: eyelids fluttering or a bird flitting behind.  I guess the original works that inspired the videos have celebrity status in their own right, and were therefore ripe for reinterpretation by today’s cult star.

Lady Gaga as the head of John the Baptist.

Recognise this person? It’s Lady Gaga as the head of John the Baptist. Of course!

Lady Gaga at Caroline Riviere

Lady Gaga as Mademoiselle Caroline Riviere by Robert Wilson

I continued my Louvre journey past its most famous female image. My best view of her was on a video being filmed on an  iPhone held above the scrum. I wondered whether she might wink, or least break into a grin.

Mona Lisa at Louvre

View of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, best seen by iPhone

Living Rooms and Lady Gaga by Robert Wilson is at the Louvre, until 17 February

London Slant: Lunch in the most amusing room in Europe

Have you savoured our city’s culinary speciality—London Particular Soup? I confess that until recently I hadn’t, but that’s now been rectified thanks to an unlikely intermediary, the glamorous new staircase at Tate Britain.

Tate Britain new staircase

View from the Tate Members’ Room: staircase leading to the Rex Whistler Restaurant.

Much has been written about this grand spiral of steps inserted at Tate Britain’s original entrance more than a century after the gallery opened. All agree it’s a sensation—daring, dazzling yet looking as though it’s been there forever.

Tate Staircase

Swirling steps designed by architects Caruso St John.

But what’s its purpose? Such a flight of fancy is surely only there to lead into an equally impressive space. And so it was that I swept down the scalloped marble steps and into the newly refurbished Rex Whistler Restaurant.

Rex Whistler Restaurant at Tate Britain

The Rex Whistler Restaurant at Tate Britain.

Suddenly I was plunged into the rural idyll depicted on the mural by artist Rex Whistler that covers all the walls. Castles, caves and craggy mountains alternate with formal gardens and river valleys. As my eyes grew accustomed to the scene I noted the hunters that inspired its title: The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats (or, as we might say now, out foraging for food). The gusto with which this royal party are tracking down their dinner helped inspire the description that greeted the restaurant’s opening in 1927 as “the most amusing room in Europe”.

Today, it’s not just the painting that’s packed with entertainment value: the London-inspired menu and English wine list are an adventure, too. Of course, we had to try the London Particular Soup, named after the pea souper fogs that were a regular feature of the city when Whistler took up his brush. But there was also an artichoke, walnut and caper salad. Who knew that Camberwell was once famous for its artichokes (just like Epping for its butter)?

But what to choose for the main course? Should it be traditional sirloin of Scottish beef or Dingley Dell pork? (The puffy, golden Yorkshire puds easily swung that one.)  Or how about the tangy beetroot and pearl barley vegetarian option? This took some lengthy, but delicious chewing that left me with no room for Sussex Pond pudding—suet pastry with lemon sauce inside.

Well, perhaps I should admit that earlier on another staircase had led me astray. This more modest set of steps takes Tate members spiralling up into the heavenly heights of the rotunda. There, in front of a mirrored counter designed to evoke Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, is an incredible display of pastries and cakes. I’m afraid I had already exhausted my day’s dessert quota in these ethereal surroundings, with great views down to the hall below.

So how does the new rehang of Tate Britain match up to its eateries? I’m happy to report that it more than rises to the occasion. Now that “themes” have been replaced by “chronology”, it is back to an exciting journey through the story of art in Britain, from Queen Elizabeth I in her finery to an empty room with Martin’s Creed’s Work No. 227—the lights going on and off.

The Rex Whistler Restaurant at Tate Britain. Lunch from £21 for two courses and £27 for three.

London Slant: Eat, Pray, Buy—with the farmers at Guy’s Hospital

Tuesday mornings see a farmers’ market set up shop at Guy’s Hospital near London Bridge. So come one sunny lunchtime I decided to check it out. Business was booming at stalls selling sizzling sausages (hand reared pork, no doubt) and cupcakes (the herdsman must have been at the Aga all day). The few displays of fresh vegetables were largely ignored.

London Bridge Farmers' Market

Shoppers ignore the food display and cluster round the sausage grill at London Bridge Farmers’ Market.

Not wishing to go against the flow, I made for the paella stand. The produce of the paddy fields surrounding London was bubbling up a treat. I bought a boxful and found a peaceful seat among trees whose fragile leaves fluttered against a brilliant sky. Georgian buildings including the aptly-named Shepherd’s House formed an elegant backdrop. It may have been more al fresco food court than fresh produce for sale, but I began to warm to this pretty hideaway in the shadow of the Shard.

Guy's Hospital Chapel

Glowing upper galleries of the 18th century Guy’s Hospital chapel.

Lunch over, I walked on to the 18th century Guy’s Hospital Chapel, and pushed open the door. Dark recesses with mosaic panels of angels led towards the altar, where a row of windows—some with fabulous stained glass—flooded the upper storey with light.

Guy's hospital

Marble memorial to the colourful Thomas Guy, founder of Guy’s Hospital in 1724, shown helping a sick, poor man.

I turned round and there behind me was a sculpture of the hospital’s founder, Thomas Guy. It’s a striking monument, showing him helping up a sick man from a gutter. I later discovered how appropriate this characterful memorial is: Guy made money selling illegal bibles, rode the crest of the Georgian stock market, yet was so concerned about the poor he set up this hospital for “incurables”.

Continuing my ramble I discovered how the story of Guy’s, not to mention British medicine, unfurls through the buildings on this site. As well as a looming tower block there’s a woven metallic structure known as the “wasps’ nest” that houses the pharmacy. A specialist cancer centre is being built nearby. All around are plaques and artworks that shed light on the hospital’s history, from statues of worthies to imaginative representations of medical triumphs.

Bronze statue of poet John Keats, who trained as a surgeon at Guy's. His two companions told me that the alcove was originally part of the previous London Bridge.

Bronze statue of poet John Keats, who trained as a surgeon at Guy’s. His two companions told me that the alcove was originally part of the previous London Bridge.

Guy's Hospital

The “wasps’ nest” building at the main entrance to Guy’s Hospital.

As I headed back through the market at last I spotted what had brought me here: a stall selling vegetables that looked as though they’d been picked that morning. I bought a bag of leafy kale that turned out to be absolutely delicious. So I’ll definitely return for lunch and a bunch—with a dash of history—when the sun comes out another day.

London Bridge Farmers’ Market  is at Memorial Arch Square, Guy’s Hospital, less than 5 minutes on foot from London Bridge tube station. Tuesdays, 9am—2pm

London Slant: Why has the V&A’s resident architect disappeared?

The maid was standing in the bedroom when I asked her whether I could take photographs. “No, I’m sorry,” she replied, politely “this is a private home”.

Tomorrow at V&A

Cracked dining table and a sculpture of Norman Swann cowering in the hearth.

I doubt whether gallery assistants at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum usually give this response, but then a frilly white apron over a black dress is hardly their regular uniform. It’s all part of Tomorrow, the brilliantly conceived installation that Scandinavian artists Elmgreen & Dragset have created in the recesses of the museum’s upper floors.

Just finding my way to Tomorrow was all part of the fun. I meandered through rooms I haven’t visited for years, beside a golden sarcophagus, among gothic Victoriana and  past radiant stained glass. Once suitably steeped in nostalgia I arrived at the imaginary residence of architect Norman Swann.

A butler nodded as I entered the suite of formal, high-ceilinged rooms. But Swann himself was nowhere to be seen. Around the swiftly vacated premises were hints that this éminence grise had fallen on hard times and, unable to pay his bills, disappeared. A film script available at the entrance gave a different twist to the tale.

But as I wandered around I began to wonder whether something worse had befallen the man—and half expected to find his turned-up toes peeking out from beneath the bed. Was that why a crystal vulture loomed over it from above?

Bedroom Elmgreen & Dragset

A vulture is poised over the rumpled bed

The black dining table had a sinister crack running through its centre. Through a locked door came the sound of running water: was it Swann in the shower or a tap left running by someone inside unable to turn it off?

All these dramatic touches were skilfully juxtaposed with the plaintive minutiae of a grand life lost,  of the old order ousted by the new. On the piano was a collection of monochrome photographs, including shots of Swann with worthies such as Margaret Thatcher. Library shelves featured august leather-bound tomes alongside Proust’s In Remembrance of Things Past and The Benn Diaries.

More poignantly, in the corner of the pristine, hi-spec kitchen, was a pile of discarded pizza boxes. Concealed behind an elegant screen stood an invalid’s walking frame. There were crumpled unpaid bills, guns, half-stuffed packing boxes, an old cardigan slung on a chair. All had been meticulously compiled from the collections of the V&A and E&D to create this unnerving scene.

By now, I’d built up so many different scenarios I could have written a film script of my own. But the time had come to step out back into the galleries. I said goodbye and thanked the maid. It was a pleasure,” she replied. “Thank you for visiting.”

V&A Elmgreen & Dragset

The steel-cold kitchen, with Domino’s pizza boxes dumped in the corner

The artists in Norman Swann's lounge.

Visitors are welcome to sit in Norman Swann’s lounge, just like its two artists, above.

Tomorrow by Elmgreen & Dragset, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Free, until 2 January, 2014.

Photographs courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

London Slant: Art lovers! Dare you visit the dairy with bottle?

I must confess that I had never read Aldous Huxley’s Island. But after an encounter with some giant purple mushrooms at the Dairy Art Centre, I now feel as though I have.

London Slant: The Dairy Art Centre

Surreal sculptures at the Dairy Art Centre.

To explain. Huxley’s 1962 novel concerns a utopia where exotic religions and psychedelia rule. It’s the inspiration behind a similarly named exhibition at the recently opened Dairy Art Centre in Bloomsbury, a gallery of contemporary art.

Tucked away in a tiny backstreet a few steps from the Brunswick Centre bustle, the building is a squat brick structure that once was a milk depository. A suitably white interior shelters behind a chic glass facade fronted by a small sculpture garden.

But if the walls are plain, the exhibition adds pops of colour and excitement, with 70 works by 40 artists including Jake and Dinos Chapman, Peter Doig and Cindy Sherman. This non-selling show spans an eclectic range from sound to mixed media, courtesy of collectors Frank Cohen and Nicolai Frahm.

Immediately inside is Ai Weiwei’s Map of China, hewn from a Qing Dynasty block of wood. I loved its combination of brutish force and the way its folds and rings suggest a rich past and diversity. Another favourite was Takashi Murakami’s Army of Mushrooms (yes, it was those fun fungi again).

Some works, such as Fang Lijun’s 2007-2008, obviously channel the kaleidoscopic, tropical Island theme. Likewise, Tomas Saraceno’s delightful Flying Garden, made of transparent pillows, was suggestive of a hippy drippy world. Then there was Douglas White’s Crow’s Stove, rearing up like a malevolent palm tree about to transform into a fearful bird.

The relevance of others, such as Adriana Lara’s ink print of a Dunhill cigarette packet, Smoking Kills, was harder to fathom. But that, and works like John Armleder’s handless clocks, were no less intriguing and worthy of their place.

I’ll let my photographs tell the rest of this very visual story, but just add that the gallery offers free guided tours at 3pm on weekends. I can think of no better antidote to the winter chill than casting your mind adrift and becoming marooned on this island of brilliance and wit.

London slant, The Dairy

Works including Cyprien Gaillard’s Untitled (Rim Structure), Sterling Ruby’s RED.R.I.P. and, popping up behind, more of those magic ‘shrooms.

London slant The Dairy Art Centre

Gorgeous creatures float and fly across Fang Lijun’s vast canvas.

London Slant, The Dairy Art Centre

Douglas White’s Crow’s Stone: suggestive of the horrors that might lurk on an island paradise.

London Slant, Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei’s Coca-Cola vase: a Neolithic pot painted by the artist.

London slant, Tomas Saraceno

Flying Garden/Air-Port-City/12SW by Thomas Saraceno: two shiny confections of 12 pillows suspended in space.

The Dairy Art Centre, 7a Wakefield Street, Bloomsbury, WC1N 1PG 020 7713 8900, free, until 1 December.

London Slant: Where to read the runes in Regent’s Park

It’s amazing what you can stumble upon in London during a Sunday stroll. As I walked along the east flank of Regent’s Park, a church with two rocket-shaped towers in a rose garden caught my eye.

My gaze wandered from the church to three ivy-covered gothic arches to its right. Lit by shimmering shafts of sunlight, they hinted at some ghostly mystery.  What did they lead to? I was intrigued—and set off to explore.

London Slant Jelling Stone

My first glimpse of the Jelling Stone

I was totally unprepared for what I found: a giant rock covered in Nordic runes. Whatever was it? Fortunately a plaque was on hand to reveal all. But before I started reading I stepped round to its other side and was even more surprised.  There stood a figure of a Christ, arms outstretched and swathed in swirling golden bands. To his left was a lion in a scrolling serpent’s grip.

Jellilng Stone

The other side of the Jelling Stone

I discovered that the church, St Katharine’s, serves London’s Danish community and the stone is a cast of a giant runic monument at the town of Jelling in Denmark. The original Jelling Stone was erected by King Harald Bluetooth, grandfather of Canute, in around 965. Such is its significance that the Christ figure appears on Danish passports.

The replica was made in Denmark and brought to London for an exhibition on Danish art and culture at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1948. But at 11 tons it was too unwieldy to transport back. So it remained in London and was erected at St Katharine’s in 1955.

Jelling Stone St Katharines' church

St Katharine’s, the Danish Church, on the east side of Regent’s Park.

After viewing the stone I wandered around the gardens, looking at the 200-year-old Gothic revival houses in the precinct around the church.  Despite having visited Regent’s Park umpteen times, I had never come across this place before, or heard of this stone.

That evening I hunkered down to read a magazine, and what should I see but an advertisement for one of these houses up for sale. Not surprisingly, price is upon application for this former grace-and-favour residence of senior clerics and members of the royal household. Let’s hope that the new owner makes the most of living within a stone’s throw of the Jelling Stone. As the gloriously named antiquary Ole Worm wrote in his Monumenta Danica in 1643, people from other nations should take an interest in Denmark’s runic stones.

London Slant: What are these extraordinary treasures dug up near Euston Road?

Just opposite a Curry’s store near Euston Road I stepped into wasteland reminiscent of a bomb site—and down into a mysterious, haunting world.

Londn Slant Daniel Silver Dig

Curious “excavated” heads arrayed at the entrance to Dig.

Picking my way across rubble through rampant buddleia I entered the concrete remains of a building lit by a watery sun. Spread out on trestle tables in front of me were strange objects: limbless torsos, severed heads, splintered bones and broken arms. Some resembled Assyrian warriors in the nearby British Museum, with bushy beards and pointed helmets. Others were more like sphinxes or Francis Bacon dissolving men. As I moved through the pieces, they increased in size and stood erect; what began as pathetic fragments stealthily acquired a menacing air.

Daniel Silver Dig, London Slant

Gods, ghouls or something altogether different? What are these mysterious figures near Euston Road?

Metal steps led down to a dank undercroft, where heads on plinths loomed out of puddles of mud. Two god-like statues rose from still waters, one in flowing robes and with hands clasped as if in prayer. If this was the ancient temple in Mesopotamia it calls to mind it would be on every tourist beat. But why should it be any less evocative that most of these objects were made this year and set up in a derelict London basement area open to the rain?

This was one of many things that came to mind as I made my way through artist Daniel Silver’s Dig. Despite all appearances this is no Middle East excavation site, or even remains of Roman Londonium—but his latest site-specific installation.

Silver explains that his work was inspired by the collection of antiquities amassed by Sigmund Freud and now displayed at the museum in his Hampstead house. Many of the bearded faces seem to represent the Viennese psychoanalyst, and add another layer of meaning to Dig.

Daniel Silver Dig

Freud would surely have been intrigued by this priapic figure.

The installation was commissioned by Artangel, those well-named people who have brought us many celestial works over the years. Perhaps you saw Roger Hiorns’ Seizure, a mass of sparkling copper sulphate crystals that turned an abandoned south London council house into an Aladdin’s Cave. Dig is equally other-worldly, leading you from a dull, abandoned, urban void into a magic kingdom of the mind.

Daniel Silver Dig

Watch out for the mud or you may make a Freudian slip.

Dig by Daniel Silver, Grafton Way, on an old Odeon Cinema site opposite University College Hospital. Free. Until 3 November.

London Slant: The art of the dinner deal

Summer is traditionally open season for London restaurant deals. It’s the time of year (along with January) for swanky dinners without fear of fainting at the bill. So, come August, I was off, grabbing all those special offers while the sun shone.

We all know there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Nor will you get a value menu at a decent (let alone great) restaurant at 8pm on a Saturday night. But 6.30 pm on a Monday is fine by me. And I’ll happily have my post-prandial espresso in the lounge if the table needs turning for those with pockets deeper than mine.

London Slant -Savoy Grill

The famous hotel sign just above the entrance to the Savoy Grill.

So, first up was the Savoy Grill. Well, wouldn’t it have been churlish to ignore Gordon Ramsay’s £26 three-course dinner with champagne?  I knew it was going to be fun the minute I stepped inside and into what seemed like a glamorous 1920s film set. The bubbly sparkled, and dull-sounding dishes (root vegetable salad followed by ravioli) sprung to life in my mouth with unusual herbs and spices, delicious dressings and flavoursome sauces. A millefeuille with crunchy-crisp wafers layered with luscious fruits and cream brought the evening to a decadent end.

I loved the retro decor of the Savoy Grill, but was less enthused by the recent makeover of the rest of the hotel. Where they got some of the artwork from (a Far East factory?) I dread to think. Much more to my my visual taste was my next port of call: Tramshed in Shoreditch. I do like to see a pickled cockerel and cow above my table (thank you, Damien Hirst) when I’m dining out on chicken salad and steak frites. And especially when a cocktail and Ronnie’s amazing apple pie are thrown in for £16.

London Slant Tramshed

Damien Hirst’s pickled cockerel and cow dominate the carnivorous carnival at Tramshed, Shoreditch.

Scanning the menu I spotted all sorts of nifty prix fixe treats year-round. So I plan to return for more simultaneous eating and art appreciation. I’m fired up to try Indian Rock chicken curry, for instance, and more of Ronnie’s puds. Then there’s the Chapman Brothers’ wallpaper and the Cock n’ Bull Gallery in the basement downstairs . Even the staff’s T-shirts are a collection of works of art.

But now here comes the good news. We’re well into September, but the deals haven’t stopped. If anything, they’re popping into my inbox even faster than before. I’ve had a free bottle of Prosecco to celebrate my birthday at Pizza Express  (I recommend the crispy-thin Da Morire Romano pizza – truly to-die-for – in their Coptic Street branch, a former dairy with patterned tiles).

Maybe some geek inside my laptop has marked me out as a sucker who can’t resist a tempting offer. Whatever, next week I’m off to the Cinnamon Club (a 3-course Indian menu, with cocktail, for £24). It’s adjacent to the Palace of Westminster and is known as a haunt of Lords and MPs. Could the parliamentary recess possibly have any bearing on my deal?

I found my deals via Time Out, Top Table and direct from Pizza Express.

London Slant: On track for Holland and the Teylers Museum

You might be surprised to hear that on a recent visit to Amsterdam I stayed at a hotel built on struts over the Central Station tracks. Now, I know I should really be telling you about some little gem of a place I unearthed on a hidden canal. But for a time-pressed train fan from London, it was spot on. Just a 17-minute shuttle from the airport and I was checking in.

Teylers Museum, Harlem

The Oval Room at the Teylers Museum, Haarlem, Holland.

I awoke (yes, I slept soundly) to fantastic views of the harbour. Boats cruised back and forth, before a backdrop of the new Eye Film Museum. Best of all, I watched trains zooming off all over Europe below my feet.

Amsterdam Eye Film Museum

The new Eye Film Museum, Amsterdam, viewed from my hotel window.

One morning I leapt on one and sped back in time to the town of Haarlem. I wandered through narrow, cobbled lanes with gabled houses covered in flowers. Almost all had seats outside, where I could picture neighbours gathering of an evening to chat. The bells of St Bavo’s church chimed out the hour and I half expected to glimpse guildsmen from the paintings in the Frans Hals Museum strutting along in their ruffs and buckled shoes.

Teylers Museum, Harlem

Entrance to the Teylers Museum, Haarlem

My goal was the Holland’s oldest museum, the Teylers, where you feel the spirit of the Enlightenment the second you push open its giant door. Many of its displays remain untouched since it opened in 1784, in original wooden cases lit by daylight only and with captions in spidery handwriting. As I stepped from its fossil gallery, with its huge mammoth skulls, through to rooms with globes and armillary spheres, I was swept up in the 18th-century quest for knowledge and discovery.

Now, I know nothing about paleobiology, electromagnetism or mineralogy. But I quickly got into the spirit and felt like an early explorer poking around and coming up with ‘finds’. The curious jumble led from bones that showed the evolution of horses’ jaws to a piece of rock from the peak of Mont Blanc. Faded cases with obscure objects yielded fascinating stories when I found out what they were.

All this was in a wonderful architectural ensemble, purpose-designed to showcase the treasures at their best. It was made possible by the bequest of one Pieter Teyler van der Hulst, a merchant and financier whose portrait, complete with curly wig and quill pen, hangs on one of the walls. In addition to science and nature, Teyler was fond of art. He also financed a collection of paintings and an exceptional portfolio of drawings that includes works by Rembrandt and Italian masters. These are displayed in more modern, 19th-century style.

Teylers Museum, Harlem

The world’s first battery, the Voltaic Pile (1800).

Teylers' Museum

Giant ammonite, one of the Teylers’ fantastic fossils.

Teylers museum

Room of scientific instruments.

Bridge outside Teylers Musuem

View from the cafe outside the Teylers Museum.

I had planned to spend an hour or so at the Teylers but ended up staying half a day. Afterwards, I ordered a strong coffee at a cafe just outside the museum and watched boats cruising beneath a pretty bridge. It took me a second cup to come back to the 21st century again.

I stayed at the Ibis Amsterdam Centre Hotel. Trains run every 10 minutes or so between Amsterdam and Haarlem, with a journey time of around 15 minutes. The Teylers has a programme of regular exhibitions. Next up from 28 September to 19 January are Rembrandt drawings and etchings. An excellent audio guide in English relates the stories behind the objects in a really engaging way.

London Slant: Reviving an artists’ village

Things are stirring in a sleepy artists’ village a short drive out of London. Compton, just outside Guildford, was a thriving hub of creativity when Victorian painter and sculptor G.F. Watts lived there. But since his work fell from fashion many of the places associated with him suffered too. Now, they’re being brought back to life and visitors can once again revel in their very English mix of tradition and eccentricity.

London Slant Watts Chapel

Angelic figures cover the shadowy interior of the Watts Chapel.

London Slant Watts Memorial chapel

The Watts Chapel, decorated in patterned tiles.

If you know one thing about Compton it’s likely to be the Arts and Crafts Watts Chapel that the artist’s wife, Mary, designed in memory of her husband. This Byzantine-style masterpiece is dazzlingly decorated inside and out. Celtic patterns and mystic faces jostle on its terracotta exterior. Inside, angels and cherubs with golden halos gaze down in the dark.

Nearby is the Watts Gallery, where works by the painter and his contemporaries are displayed on scarlet walls and sculptures threaten to burst out of tiny rooms. But the main reason for my recent trip to Compton was for a tour of Limnerslease, Watts’ studio and home.

Years ago this house, also in the Arts and Crafts style, was sold and subdivided into flats. But it recently came onto the market for sale. The Watts Gallery Trust is raising funds to purchase it, restore it and turn it into a centre for the arts and education. Once the £4.7 million has come in, It will play a major role in reviving Compton itself as a hub of contemporary creative work.

Visitors can book tours to view rooms with original features such as fireplaces and ceilings that Mary decorated with religious symbols and Hindu gods. Much has been lost but there are many original photographs taken in situ of Watts in his smoking cap and his ceramicist wife in her smock, surrounded by their work. Our guide, Jane Turner, conjured up wonderful images of Watts and his world. I really warmed to him when she told us that, at a time when women went around in corsets, he was a member of the Anti Tight Lacing Society.

Compton’s second lure was the Watts Gallery’s temporary exhibition of works by Frank Holl. Around 30 paintings shed light on the Victorians. Social realist works of women suffering in poverty hang alongside acclaimed portraits of eminent men such as Prime MInister William Gladstone. It’s a snapshot of a polarised world and a reminder of what has (and how much hasn’t) changed between then and now.

London slant Watts Gallery

Inside the Watts Gallery at Compton: the artist’s model for Physical Energy, his sculpture in Hyde Park.

London Slant Watts Gallery

A fraction of the Tea Shop’s quirky teapot collection.

The gallery dates from 1904 and has recently emerged from a major restoration. It sits in a garden with an old-fashioned Tea Shop stacked with humorous teapots.  My cuppa came in a cheeky pig. The other great village watering hole is the 16th century Withies Inn, where you can shelter from the sun beneath a pergola and tuck into a trout or rack of lamb.

Frank Holl: Emerging from the Shadows. At the Watts Gallery until 3 November. Want to do more? The Pilgrim’s Way passes just outside the Tea Shop window, and a short walk brings you to Loseley House, with its noted gardens.