Dunshay: a private view

Dunshay Manor2
Dunshay Manor today


Far enough off the beaten track to be considered one of Purbeck’s relatively few truly private places, not many people stumble on Dunshay Manor – you need a reason to be there.

And there’s no better reason than being able to call it home, as writer, traveller and art historian Ilay Cooper has done since 1988, making him uniquely qualified to chronicle the ups and downs of Dunshay and the people who have passed through it over the last thousand years or so. ‘I live in a caravan with no running water, none of the walls are lagged, I collect rainwater and bathe in the open air. Others might want something different, but to me it’s perfect.’

For all the lack of mod cons, there’s no disputing the view out of his main window. Looking down the valley towards Corfe Castle, it is largely unchanged since man first clapped eyes on it. ‘It’s heaven-given,’ he says. ‘You can’t see a single house. They’re there of course, but the Lord has chosen to conceal them as if for my comfort.’

Since the 1970s, Ilay has travelled widely in India and South Asia, working through the Purbeck summers to fund extended winters of travel and research. He has written extensively on Indian arts and crafts as well as architecture, but resisted writing about Purbeck until 2004 when magazine publisher James Pembroke persuaded him to write Purbeck Revealed. ‘Purbeck is the place I come from – I was conceived in the Ship in Swanage High Street – and when James first asked me if I wanted to write a book on it I said “no”. Then he came back and put a cheque for £1000 on the table and asked again and I said “yes”. I needed the money.’

In the book, natural and social history and geological information are delivered with a native’s insight as Ilay recounts his Purbeck childhood, its explorations and adventures, many of them in the company of lifelong friend Trev Haysom. ‘We had the childhood we did because our parents were too busy to mollycoddle us,’ he says.

‘But it’s too easy to fall into the trap of saying things were better in those days because I’m not sure it’s true. What I do know is that today’s children lack the confidence to do the things we did because the fears of their parents make them overly aware of their own mortality.’

The book was launched with an event on the lawn at Dunshay, where Ilay had by then been living for sixteen years after its owner, the sculptor, Mary Spencer Watson, offered him the caravan that had stood on the site since the 1930s to live in for as long as he wanted it. ‘I’d never stay longer than a week with Trev because there’s no sense in turning friends into enemies unnecessarily, so when I came back to Purbeck in 1988 I had nowhere to go, which was when Mary said I could live in the caravan.’

2 photo John Balfour.
Ilay and Mary at Dunshap. Photo: John Balfour

Ilay’s latest book, Purbeck Arcadia (Dovecote Press, £15), chronicles the comings and goings with a seasoned eye and a steely regard for Dunshay that never lapses into lazy sentimentality. Other than the quarried medieval marble that litters the site, which has been at the heart of the manor of Worth since Saxon times, history has yet to afford any clues as to what stood there before the present manor house, which is Elizabethan at its heart and appears on Ralph Tresswell’s 1585 map of Purbeck. The land has been in the hands of the Earls of Arundel and of John Maltravers, who was implicated in the murder of Edward II, while the present house was owned by notable Dorset families such as the Dollings, Pykes and Hydes before being bought by John Calcraft of Rempstone Hall in 1793. Its subsequent tenants included Benjamin Jesty, who pioneered the smallpox vaccine, but by the turn of the 20th century its north wing was in ruins.

In 1901 the estate passed to naval captain Guy Marston, nephew of the last Calcraft, friend of poet Rupert Brooke and devotee of noted occultist Aleister Crowley. Bedevilled by money troubles, Marston sold Dunshay and in 1923 it was bought by celebrated portrait artist George Spencer Watson, who for the previous decade had rented a holiday cottage in Studland as a second home for his family: wife Hilda, a dancer and mime artist, and daughter Mary.

While George set up a studio in the dairy at Dunshay and many of his paintings and watercolours – much prized by contemporary collectors – depict scenes of his beloved family at leisure, Hilda appears to have been a more restless soul. A client and friend of the psychotherapist, Carl Jung, she nurtured young Mary’s nascent dramatic talents at her studio theatres in London, Studland and Swanage’s Mowlem Institute, where Jung saw them perform in Demeter & Persephone and went to tea at Dunshay afterwards. Hilda also installed a theatre in the stable at Dunshay where she continued to perform, solo or with a company, until her death in 1952 – collapsing in rehearsals for a solo mime called Scissors.

For all that she was dedicated to her necessarily ephemeral art form, Hilda was unsparing in her encouragement of Mary to explore the passion for sculpture that would take her to the Royal Academy and the Central School of Art and enable her as an adult to pursue the life of an artist as her father had done. ‘Hilda was surely talented, undoubtedly eccentric,’ says Ilay, ‘and totally committed to Mary, perhaps to the detriment of her own career. For me, that’s the true mark of a parent’s devotion.’

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Mary (left) and Hilda in front of the old Mowlem Institute in Swanage

‘Some years before she died, Mary told me she was going to make a new will and that I wouldn’t get anything,’ he says. ‘I told her I didn’t expect anything and thereafter she felt comfortable enough to confide in me – I think we recognised a kindred spirit in one another, although Mary was always boss. Her love affair with Margot, though, was all-encompassing and she was incredibly loyal and generous. She knew what those people were like. We spoke about it and what happened after she died was entirely predictable. It was all about money. Mary never completed a new will, so the court upheld the terms of the existing one and they had the paintings that Mary wanted to distribute elsewhere or leave to Dorset County Museum – for instance, she wanted George’s painting, “Four Loves…”, to hang above the stairs there, but instead it was sold for £151,000.’

A decade after Mary’s death, those events still clearly rankle, but on the record at least, Ilay remains circumspect, viewing the events as just another episode in the Dunshay story. ‘The fact that it took such a long time to play out probably makes it easier on those of us who care about Mary and Dunshay. Change happens because change must, but it has happened very slowly here and that has created some distance so it can be viewed with some detachment. It’s still slightly odd to wander through the house I knew as a living, breathing home; although Mary’s curtains are still up in some rooms, little things like that, it’s really just a shell.’

Mary bequeathed Dunshay to the Landmark Trust with the proviso that Ilay remain a presence for life. Her other tenants, including close friend Judy Robson who lived in the flat above the theatre, moved out and other estate properties were sold off. Fashion photographer Tom Munro has since taken Dunshay on a long lease on the understanding that he oversees its renovation. ‘I think Mary would approve of Tom – everyone does,’ says Ilay. ‘He is reinstating the house very sympathetically; he has a feel for it, an understanding of it as a creative hub. What he’s doing is very much in the spirit of how it was in the 1920s. As for me, I’ve had my allotted three score years and ten so everything else is bonus time. I’m here until they carry me out in a box, and believe me, I’m determined to make it to that box.’

Purbeck Arcadia – Dunshay Manor and the Spencer Watsons, (ISBN 978-0-9929151-2-4) by Ilay Cooper is published at by Dovecote Press  and available at £15 from good bookshops and

• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

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