29 Mar 2016

Artist Lady Manvers, my dad, and Coquette.

Those familiar with my Dukeries blog, or the piece I wrote for Nottingham University Art History Department, (see this link), will be aware of my respect and admiration for artist Lady Manvers. I accept my opinions are in part due to sentiment, having spent my early life on Thoresby Estate, but I do like to think my 30+ years teaching Art, whilst developing my own painting skills, give my opinion about the best of her canvases some credence.

I refer in particular to those which depict the interiors and grounds of Thoresby Hall. Her outdoor studies are excellent in their own right, mostly water colour sketches documenting the seasons as they pass through the estate, its employees, and, perhaps most importantly from a historic perspective, the military presence of the war years. But it is the interior canvases for which she has been able to leave her easel undisturbed at various locations within the hall, returning to them at will over a period of days, which exhibit her true skills and understanding of the colourful palette she acquired in France. That said, I should set my story here within a little biographical context.

In 1947 my father, William Craig, had recovered from the head wound received in the Battle of Arnhem, and the tuberculosis he subsequently contracted in P.o.W. Camp Stalag 9c. Having then begun his married life in nearby Edwinstowe, his skills as a carpenter and joiner soon found him gainfully employed by Thoresby Estate. A sequence of dwellings therein coincided with five additions to his family: My elder sister at Cockglode; myself at Rose Cottage; my younger brother at Radleys Lane; and my two younger sisters at Three Gables. This latter house being a result of his promotion to Foreman at the Woodyard.

The Woodyard was essentially the place which processed the timber from the forestry department, turning out everything from telegraph poles and fence posts, to items needed by the pre-PVC building trade. Thoresby workers were also responsible for the maintenance of the estate, and in this respect my father was frequently involved in repairs to Thoresby Hall and its contents. For example, he hung the original blue wallpaper in the Blue Drawing Room, and items of antique furniture would often find themselves transported to our kitchen whilst dad tended to their upholstery. Such work of course had to meet Lady Manvers’ standards and, although a lady of sweet disposition, she could be rather fastidious in her demands. For example, all the firewood for her bedroom, sitting room, and dining room, had to be billet wood, 9” (23cm) long and 3” (8cm) diameter, and totally free from knots. Nothing short of these specifications would do. Happily, dad’s skills and general work ethic soon won the Ladyship’s approval. During their encounters she would always enquire about his family’s welfare, and in 1962 she would even ask him to pose for one of her water colours, (shown on this link).

Sometime in the late 1950s dad came home from Thoresby Hall with a broken figurine in his pocket. Smashed might be a more appropriate description. (I count ten pieces). Quite possibly it was a favourite ornament with Lady Manvers and so, rather than relegate it straight to the bin, dad was asked if it could be fixed. Not surprisingly the outcome was rather unsatisfactory. One elbow was missing, and lines of Evostik adhesive were unavoidably visible. As a consequence, the “Coquette” figurine remained on our family sideboard, often commented on through the decades, though its origins all but forgotten. Until now.

In March 2016, Thoresby Courtyard Gallery exhibited a selection of Lady Manvers’ still-life paintings, the majority of which had quite possibly not been seen anywhere since Thoresby Hall closed to the public in 1979 (this link). So you can imagine my surprise and delight upon seeing the painting above. It is probably an unfinished piece, or perhaps abandoned; the leaves are somewhat heavy handed and the background left rather unresolved. But there in the corner sits “Coquette”. The very same one.

Last thoughts on Lady Manvers.

In 1963 the estate’s management of the time decided our family of seven should move out of Three Gables and back to a smaller house on Perlethorpe Village Green. One afternoon before that move took place, and the news of which had only just reached Lady Manvers, her chauffeur driven limousine pulled up outside. She expressed much concern at what had happened, and even offered us the flats in Thoresby Courtyard as accommodation. It was a sincere gesture, and typical of her character. But it was time to move on.

I was born into Thoresby Estate, and left there aged thirteen. Everyone I’ve spoken to who once lived there says the same thing: When they left, they left a little piece of them behind. It’s true. Just like Coquette’s little elbow, as she now resides on my shelf.

Top painting copyright Thoresby Estate. Text copyright Ian G Craig.