Cut from the prized Purbeck stone that surrounds it, Dunshay Manor in Dorset has always cast a spell. A close neighbour to the towering ruins of Corfe Castle, it was once home to a popular society portraitist and a dancer, then to a renowned aircraft designer and finally to a pioneering female sculptor.
But in recent years it has languished in the middle of a courtroom tug-of-love between a former wife of film director Ken Russell and the heritage trust to which the property was bequeathed. Now, after a lengthy legal battle and extensive building work, Dunshay is finally reopening its doors. Carefully restored, it stands again as a monument to the arts and craft’s movement’s idealised vision of rural simplicity and to the bohemian lifestyle of the artists who have lived there.
This weekend the Landmark Trust, the building preservation charity given the manor in 2006 in the will of the sculptor Mary Spencer Watson, is staging the first of a series of open days that mark the end of a difficult chapter in the building’s long story. The actress Hetty Baynes, the third of the late Russell’s four wives, was born in the house, and brought up there by her mother, Margot, and her mother’s secret lesbian lover, Spencer Watson, whose parents had bought the property in 1923. Baynes had claimed that she was due part of the value of the historic home.
For Anna Keay, architectural historian and director of the trust, the eventual restoration of the home is a proper tribute to Spencer Watson’s feeling for the stone she sculpted there in her dairy studio, stone also used to build Salisbury Cathedral. “At the age of 13, Mary went to the quarry near the house to watch the men working and they gave her a hammer and chisel to let her try to work the stone,” said Keay, unveiling the Manor’s renovations on Friday.
The trust’s historian Caroline Stanford points out that while modest by nature, Spencer Watson was “up there in the forefront of working sculptors” and was regularly commissioned for public works despite her gender, which made her unusual at the time. One of her commissions was for the four supporting angels still on show in Guildford Cathedral.
“The legal dispute was very sad and people around here feel it was the last thing Mary would have wanted,” said Stanford. “She loved Margot, Hetty’s mother, very much, I believe.”
Spencer Watson had little formal education, but went on to study sculpture at the Slade and Central schools of art in London and then, like her father, was accepted by the Royal Academy.
“Her father, George, had been a society portraitist and Royal Academician, while her mother, Hilda, was a dancer who staged performances in part of the living room. She and her daughter also ran a season of performances in a theatre they set up in the barn,” said Stanford.
During the Spencer Watson era the psychoanalyst Karl Jung is also believed to have visited to take tea. “The house and the stone were the creative inspiration for Mary’s life, but after her mother died in 1953 she was living here alone in her late 30s. So, short of money, she let out the main house to Leslie Baynes, a brilliant aeronautical engineer, who moved in with his wife, Margot, and four children,” said Stanford.
A fifth child, Hetty, was born in 1956, and by the time she was nine her father had moved out. Margot and Mary’s unacknowledged relationship continued for 50 years.
In 2008 Baynes lost her legal challenge to Spencer Watson’s will when the high court overruled her claim that she was due financial provision as a “dependant”.
Baynes, who married Russell in 1992, had argued that the sculptor treated her as a daughter throughout her life and was supporting her financially at the time of her death, aged 92. She received a £2,500 gift, but the rest of the estate was left to Baynes’s mother Margot for life and to the other four children.
The manor was originally a tenanted farm and part of the Rempston Estate, the local Purbeck seat, at the end of the 18th century. In 1902 Captain Guy Marston, a friend of the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley, moved in and built a north wing in the arts and crafts style.
“Dunshay is certainly one of those places that you could look at purely as an architectural entity,” said Keay. “But that would be to miss the point. What is important is the sense of continuity of lives lived in this landscape, over a thousand years.”
The manor, which is furnished and can be hired by groups, is booked well into next year, such is public curiosity. Keay recently showed the renovations to Spencer Watson’s former cleaner. “She said Mary would have liked everything about it, except the spending of money,” said Keay.