Frances Gair Wilkinson

Without Frances Gair Wilkinson the Halsway Manor Society would never have come into being. She was the daughter of two talented artists and herself an accomplished artist and teacher. Her parents, Arthur and Lily Gair Wilkinson, were free-thinking idealists who endeavoured to live close to nature. Frances and her brother received no formal education, their parents wishing them to learn by experiencing the very best in arts and crafts from the source. They travelled about England in a horse-drawn caravan living very simply. For about half of each year they rented a villa in Tuscany from where they could visit the great works of Italian art and architecture, attending operas and concerts. The children were encouraged to study for themselves from the excellent books they were given. The whole family practised amateur theatricals and were expert puppeteers.

Frances studied art at the Slade School of Art, her brother studied music in Budapest. The family had moved to Spaxton, a little village in the northern slopes of the Quantocks a few miles over the hills from Halsway. They had converted a barn into a simple theatre and produced plays with people of the village and had a studio for spinning, weaving and painting.

Although Arthur and Lily were pacifists their son had joined the Royal Air Force at the outbreak of war and was killed early in the conflict. Frances, who was teaching art near Ilfracombe, looked after her parents. They died within a short time of each other.

Ten miles from Halsway, at Huish Champflower in the Brendon Hills, Marjorie Hunt farmed with her husband, Donald. As secretary of her local Women’s Institute she organised evening classes in painting and Frances came to teach the class. It was then that Marjorie realised that the two had met in Ilfracombe during the war. The classes ran for several years and the two ladies became well acquainted. In 1962 Frances Gair Wilkinson’s financial position improved considerably and she decided to buy a big house and use it as home for herself and as a centre for the visual arts. Halsway Manor was bought and Donald and Marjorie Hunt were asked to run the house for her as bailiff and secretary. The centre flourished with regular weekly painting days, art holidays, classes and exhibitions until in 1964 she became engaged to a long time friend and fellow artist, Frederick (Dusty) Miller.

The Hunts, on tour in Poland with a folk dance group, gave the news to the tour organiser, Bill Rutter, a leading figure in the Southwest folk scene. When they added that Frances would be moving to Dusty’s home in Kingston St Mary and wanted to find a use for the house the idea of a folk centre was born. Frances, pleased that the manor would still be used for an artistic and creative purpose, readily agreed to the sale, and offered it to the proposers on extremely generous terms. A debenture issue was opened supported by folk enthusiasts from all over the country. The Halsway Manor Society Limited was founded and the manor purchased on June 11th 1965.

Frances and her husband had moved into the Mews building temporarily. When they were ready to move the Mews was offered to the Society which regretfully felt unable to enter into further commitment. The Mews was bought by Miss Marion Twigg and four friends and converted into five communicating flats.

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