If, as the early 1960s advertising slogan stated, Thoresby Hall was the Heart of Sherwood Forest, then Marie-Louise Roosevelt Pierrepont, Countess Manvers was surely the Art. The Lady in the cream jacket, skirt and hat, that the residents of Thoresby Park would routinely come across seated amongst the trees, faithfully recording and cataloguing the life of the Estate in her water colour sketches much as one might do today on iPads and cell phones.
As someone who lived the first thirteen years of his life on Thoresby Estate, formative childhood years during which I observed and encountered the Lady in question at work, I offer this article in response to Nottingham University’s exciting “Wandering Thoresby” project. See also a previous blog post on #wanderthoresby outlining this project.
Born in 1889 as Marie-Louise Roosevelt Butterfield, the future Countess Manvers exhibited a passion for art at an early age. So it was that her father Sir Frederick Butterfield of Cliffe Castle, Yorkshire, enrolled her in the Julienne School of Art when the family moved to Paris in her teens. This Art School ( Academie Julien) placed particular emphasis on developing a high standard of drawing skill, the legacy of which is evident in the portrait and figure studies she would subsequently make of the servants and game keepers on Thoresby estate. At the turn of the century, the young Marie-Louise’s style combined a high level of observational drawing skill with the colourful palette of Post Impressionism, and would continue in this manner for the rest of her life; capturing the vitality of a scene without sacrificing the accuracy of its detail. When one looks through her oil paintings, and the voluminous amount of water colour sketches, it is apparent this is not simply the work of a privileged girl spending her hours painting for leisure. This is a highly motivated, prolific artist with a clearly defined agenda: To record life as it goes on around her, paying equal regard to accuracy and artistic expression.
Before recounting my own memories of Countess Manvers at Thoresby, might I direct the historians’ attention to one particular 1930s water colour of hers which will both illustrate my point and chill the soul. It is a small painting depicting a narrow street I assume to be situated in Germany. It is not a remarkable piece. One imagines Marie-Louise seated there in a fairly innocuous place documenting her travels in her sketchbook. But look closer. From one of the upper widows hangs a small flag, unfurled, but bearing the unmistakable insignia of the then rising Nazi party. The artist places no emphasis on the flag. It is simply and accurately recorded within the impression of the street as one might depict the doorsteps and paving stones. But oh what that little flag would soon come to represent in that very place.
Marie-Louise had married Gervas Evelyn Pierrepont in 1918. When he succeeded his cousin as the 6th Earl Manvers in 1940, she took on the title she would always be know as when moving into Thoresby Hall at the start of that era. I was born the son of one of the estate’s joiners at the very start of the 1950s. Like every other small child on the estate I knew how to stand still at the side of the road when we saw Countess Manvers’ limousine approaching from the distance, to wave politely should she wave first, and to move on only after she had passed. Does that sound a bit servile? Not a bit of it. We loved her. She was the nice lady who stood by the piano in the grand hall, handing us our presents at the end of the annual Christmas parties organised for the children of the estate’s workers. We were looked after. The 3rd Earl Manvers was responsible for the building of the school. The 4th Lady Manvers would organise the delivery of fresh milk, eggs and butter to any child too ill to attend Sunday School. Marie-Louise, the 6th Countess Manvers, carried on this close, caring relationship between Duke and estate employees. And, of course, she never stopped painting.
One of my earliest memories of seeing Countess Manvers outside of her limousine or the Great Hall, was the day she came into Perlethorpe Primary School, situated close to the Hall, and now serving as an Environmental Education Centre. In the already silent classroom there was of course a great hurrying to stand as teacher Mrs Bruce greeted such an important guest. It transpired that Countess Manvers was looking for a model for that day’s sketching. It came as no surprise to us all that she selected Verna Langstaff, one of the senior girls (c.11 years old) widely regarded by us all to be the prettiest. Countess Manvers then escorted an undoubtedly nervous Verna across the road, seated her on a low branch beside the church gate, and commenced to draw. That drawing became a must see favourite with us all when visiting the Hall. But it did something else. It planted a seed in small minds that Art was something important to do. Combined with the endless nature walk specimens we drew, and even the little weaving frames we used in class, the fact that the Lady of the Estate spent time sitting and painting, gave such skills a position of importance to us. A skill to respect.
A second encounter with the Art of Countess Manvers occurred much closer to home. By the mid 1950s my father’s work as a joiner had gained him the position of Foreman at Thoresby Estate’s Woodyard, requiring us to move from Perlethorpe Village Green to the Victorian house know as Three Gables, attached to his place of work. There was undoubtedly an element of friendship within my father’s relationship with Countess Manvers. Possibly because it was not uncommon to find him re-upholstering and repairing items of her antique furniture in our back kitchen before they were returned to Thoresby Hall in time for the weekend tourists. That amused us no end.
Perhaps as a consequence of this relationship, when Countess Manvers turned up at the Woodyard one day in 1962, intent on depicting the activities therein, her choice of subject was to be my father, William “Jock” Craig, in the joiner’s workshop. Countess Manvers, with her chair and easel, was almost always chauffer driven to her painting sites. On this occasion the car’s engine had barely stopped before William was dashing all of a nervous fluster into our house calling out for a clean shirt! I’m sure a most understandable and patient Countess Manvers had probably tried to persuade him that wasn’t really necessary.
The resultant large water colour sketch, a combination of relevant detailing and enhanced colour, accurately captures the atmosphere of that mid Autumn workshop I remember so well. We certainly enjoyed seeing that picture hanging on the wall in Thoresby Hall, and I was even more delighted to obtain it upon the Hall’s closure as a stately home.
We left Thoresby Estate in 1963. The last time I saw Countess Manvers was in 1979. She was once again engaged in conversation with my father as I, now a full time art teacher, kept the respectful distance I would have observed as a child. She was in the Great Hall, standing by the same piano where a lifetime before she had handed out Christmas presents to children like myself . It was the end of the Manvers line; the end of Thoresby Hall as a stately home open to the public. With her usual grace and smile she was greeting the Hall’s final visitors before its closure; selling souvenirs. I bought a souvenir pencil, and have it still.
Ian Gordon Craig
Ian Gordon Craig definitely wanders in the footsteps of Countess Manvers and art has been his lifelong passion: he first studied for a Foundation Course in Art at Mansfield College (1969/70) , then studies Art at Liverpool University (1970-73). in 1974 he took up a post as arts teacher and eventually Head of Art at West Bridgford School. Since retiring in 2005, Ian has been a full-time artist. Follow him on twitter @IanGordonCraig and see examples of his art on flickr