Mary Spencer Watson

Redoubtable sculptor best known for her work in Purbeck stone

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
boxingAll British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
i100 Charity collates series of videos that show acts of kindness to animals
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game