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Mary Spencer Watson

Redoubtable sculptor best known for her work in Purbeck stone

Friday 10 March 2006

Mary Spencer Watson, sculptor: born London 7 May 1913; died Langton Matravers, Dorset 7 March 2006.

Although initially trained as a modeller, who went on to do some fine pieces in terracotta, it is as a carver of stone, particularly stone from the quarries near her home on the Purbeck Hills, that the redoubtable sculptor Mary Spencer Watson will be best remembered.

She was born in London in 1913, into an artistic family. Her father, George Spencer Watson, RA, was a fine draughtsman and painter of the late Romantic school, whilst her mother, Hilda, strongly influenced by Edward Gordon Craig, was deeply involved with mime and dance. As the result of a holiday at Swanage on the Dorset coast, in 1923 her parents purchased Dunshay Manor, which was to be Mary's home for the rest of her life.

A former chatelaine of Dunshay, Lady Alice de Bruyeres, gave the builders of Salisbury Cathedral 12 years free access to the local quarries in order to extract the famous blue-grey marble for the great columns. Once extracted, the marble was shipped by sea and river to Salisbury, so it was appropriate that, in the summer of 2004, when Mary Spencer Watson was honoured with a retrospective exhibition of her work by the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, the larger pieces had to be transported from Dunshay by the same route. It was also fitting that the exhibition flowed out of the museum into the Cathedral Close and cloisters.

Growing up in such a creative household, studio practice was a natural part of Mary's life from a very early age; not only would she be in and out of her father's studio, but she learnt dance and helped her mother create the masks, essential for the production of the mime-plays, which were her speciality. At the age of 15, she started attending Bournemouth School of Art one day a week, but was already familiar with most of what was taught there.

Two years later she progressed to the Slade, hoping to improve her drawing skills, but, instinctively, she preferred modelling to drawing, and moved on to the Royal Academy Schools, where the Sculpture School was under the direction of William McMillan. Emphasis at the Academy was entirely on modelling from life, though McMillan tried hard, if unsuccessfully, to alter this, recommending that one of the Landseer Prizes should be for a carved head. During her time at the Academy Schools, Mary Spencer Watson won various prizes and medals, but, encouraged by McMillan she moved on yet again, this time to the Central School, to study carving with John Skeaping. She also learnt casting, and it was at this time that one of her tutors, John Galizia, cast in bronze her little head, Thought, from an earlier plasticine model.

In 1937, when just 24, Spencer Watson was invited to hold her first solo exhibition at the Mansard Gallery at Heal's in Tottenham Court Road. The announcement boldly proclaimed that the exhibition would consist of "Sculptures in green marble, alabaster and wood" as well as "Figures and Plaques in terracotta", the latter being the result of a particular study she had made whilst at the Academy Schools of the collection of Tanagra figures at the British Museum.

Despite her years at Bournemouth, the Slade, the Academy and Central Schools, and with a successful exhibition under her belt, Spencer Watson still felt the urge to work in the studio of an established sculptor. Eric Gill's name was mooted, but, as a consequence of a visit to Paris with her parents in 1937 to visit the International Exhibition, she went to work for three months in Ossip Zadkine's studio in the rue d'Assas, where she not only carved an 8ft-high figure under his direction, but had to do a series of weekly compositions.

These essentially ephemeral works were an integral part of his teaching method, intended to give his pupils a lifelong mastery of the handling of mass. She took the opportunity, whilst in Paris, of haunting the Musée Cluny with its wealth of medieval art and later, with a group of friends, visiting Autun and studying the work of Gislebertus.

By the time she left France, war was impending and there was little immediate prospect of being able to pursue a successful career as a sculptor, so she divided her time between farming the land around Dunshay and teaching sculpture at various local schools: Clayesmore, Cranborne Chase, Poole College of Art, Spyway and the Old Malt House. The headmaster of the Old Malt House was anxious that the pupils should learn pottery, so Spencer Watson took an A-level course in London, whilst studying glazing at Richmond, which she disliked, finding it "too much like cooking".

It was some years after the war before she was able to give up teaching and return full-time to her true vocation. In 1953 she visited Greece and drew fresh inspiration from the great classical sites – the Acropolis, Mycenae, Delphi and Olympia. A direct result of this visit was her Purbeck freestone carving Musician, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1955, where it attracted the attention of Sir Edward Maufe, who commissioned two large gilded angels in limewood for Guildford Cathedral.

By this time, Spencer Watson had already attracted several other important commissions for work in public places, especially from Sir Frederick Gibberd, who had commissioned Magic Beast for Crofton Common Infant School at Longbridge and Cheiron Teaching the Young Hero for Harlow New Town. Nicholas Usherwood, in his essay for the book which accompanied Spencer Watson's 2004 Salisbury exhibition, noted that "the Guildford angels exemplify another distinctive element within the development of her carving technique that has its origins in the lessons learnt from Zadkine, namely the celebration of the mark of the tool".

Whilst Skeaping had taught her to carve with the adze and then smooth-out its marks, Zadkine had rejoiced in the mark of the chisel, thus giving his work a certain crude archaic quality. This quality, which Mary achieved in the Guildford angels, chimed exactly with her love of English medieval sculpture and her admiration for the work of Gislebertus, but in no way is it backward-looking. All her work, though built on her knowledge of thousands of years of sculptural history, was firmly set in the 20th century.

Mary Spencer Watson was a strong, energetic and no-nonsense character, who knew her own mind; although dedicated to her own work – and she was still carving into her nineties – she went out of her way to encourage younger sculptors, such as Emily Young, always making time to visit their exhibitions and urging others to do likewise.

Peyton Skipwith