Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The scarlet lady of Stoneborough Court

Having just seen the beautifully acted and filmed version of The Painted Veil, based on Somerset Maughan's story of an unhappily married couple of ex-pats in the1920s, I was intrigued to see a request published in the local press which evoked a real-life marital scandal of that period involving a former Budleigh resident.

According to one of her neighbours in Stoneborough Court on East Budleigh Road, Gwendoline Croysdale (1898-1985), known by her friends as Gwen, was "still tall, elegant and well dressed in her later years." As one would only expect on seeing portraits of this beautiful socialite by fashionable 1920s painters and photographers. I found myself comparing them with Naomi Watts' screen performance of the unfaithful wife in The Painted Veil, forced by her husband as a punishment for her infidelity to accompany him to a cholera-struck backwater of British colonial China.

Depending on your point of view, Gwen Croysdale, also known at various stages of her life as Mrs Gunn and Lady Whinney, could be described  as unlucky rather than unfaithful. Some might call her predatory, with an appetite for wealthy husbands of whom she notched up four. Yet both women may be seen to have gained a kind of redemption by the end of their lives. While the Painted Veil wife finds an inner peace by working with nuns to help poor Chinese children Mrs Croysdale apparently became the benefactress of a local convent. She even persuaded its curate, Fr Ralph Gardner, to become her spiritual adviser and live-in companion, making him follow her in her 70th year by converting from Christianity to Buddhism.

The daughter of a gunboat captain, she was born Mary Gwendoline Charlotte Hillman and brought up in China - another echo of the film. Her first husband was Guy Stafford Thorne (1882-1917). A solicitor's son from Wolverhampton, he worked as an engineer for the Kwang Tung Electric Supply Company under the Chinese Government; it may well have been in China that he first met Gwen. They married in 1916 and later that year he joined the Royal Flying Corps and was sent to France. Described as a pilot of exceptional skill and technical knowledge he was mentioned in despatches. On 18 March 1917, charged with a special mission, he was flying over Arras when he was attacked by five enemy aeroplanes. Severely wounded, he managed to land his aircraft with his observer behind enemy lines but was captured and died a few hours later. 

Following his death Gwen married the Glaswegian painter Herbert James Gunn (1893-1964), with whom she had three daughters, Pauline, Elizabeth and Diana. It's likely that Gunn was dazzled by his wife's beauty, judging by his portrait of her.

Knighted in 1963 for services to art, her husband would find fame and fortune with his portraits of the Royal Family, including Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Prince Philip and the present Queen. He would be elected to the Royal Academy as President of The Society of Portrait Painters.
But Gunn's early life had been blighted by his experience of the First World War in which he had been badly gassed, and the marriage was not a happy one. In 1925, Gwen abandoned him for one of her husband's sitters. Aged 60, her new lover Sir Arthur Whinney (1865-1927) was older but considerably richer than Herbert Gunn.
The Gunns' separation led to a bitter divorce the following year in which Gwen took her children with her and insisted that they adopt the surname of her new lover. Not only that but she denied her husband access to the children for three years. It was only by chance one day in Regent's Park that Herbert Gunn came across Pauline, Elizabeth and Diana accompanied by their nurse. The meeting inspired one of his most poignant paintings, for with the secret agreement of the nurse, Gunn made a study of his three daughters at play in the park which, a work which he regarded as his greatest and the one which he treasured most. The girls were soon stopped from going to the park by their mother and did not see their father again until they were adults. Not surprisingly Gwen has been accused of "vindictiveness" by art historians who have commented on the painting, which was simple titled The Design for a Portrait Group http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/artsales/5032844/Poignant-secret-painting-to-be-auctioned.html
Her third marriage meant that Gwen was now Lady Whinney. Sir Arthur was a successful chartered accountant whose business would later become the internationally known accountancy firm of Ernst & Young. But the relationship was short-lived, for Sir Arthur died in 1927.
Gwen, a wealthy widow by this stage, had lost none of her attractiveness. The portraits of her, taken on 8 August 1929 at the fashionable London studio of Bassano Ltd, Royal Photographers, are proof of that.

At around this time she married for the fourth time, settling in Maidenhead in Berkshire. Thomas Perceval Croysdale, known as Percy, was as wealthy as her previous husband.

In the 1930s Gwen earned herself a reputation in the world of dog-shows, specialising naturally enough in the fashionable Pembroke Welsh Corgis. By 1936 the breed had become personal pets of the Royal Family, and is famed today for being the preferred breed of Queen Elizabeth II.

A page from the December 1936 issue of the magazine Our Dogs featured Mrs Percy Croysdale's Pembroke Corgis. Gwen was instrumental in the setting up of the Welsh Corgi League, attending its first meeting on 21 June 1938 and underwriting the costs of its first breed show on 20 April the following year as one of the new organisation's vice-presidents.

Its first AGM, attended by twenty members, was held at her house in Maidenhead.

This large solid silver "The Champion Aureate of Cays medal" for 1938 is inscribed with the words "Presented by Mrs Percy Croysdale To Breeders of a Champion.

Later in life, Gwen moved from the Home Counties to Axminster, Devon.

Then, in the 1960s she settled in Budleigh Salterton where she spent the last twenty years of her life.

Gwen Croysdale died on 12 March 1985. Her grave is in St Peter's Burial Ground in Budleigh.

American author Emily Benz is seeking information from Budleigh people about this former resident of the town, who settled here after her colourful and eventful life. People with memories of Gwen are invited to contact Mrs Benz's researcher Simone Apel, 17 Coldstream Lane, Hardingstone, Northampton, NN4 6DB.
Telephone 01604 763628 or email simone@press4research.co.uk


  1. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  2. Thanks for the nice comment. I do my best!

  3. Hi, her first husband was Captain Guy Stafford Thorne RFC, shot down March 1917 and died of wounds as a PoW. Guy Thorne, novelist, died in 1923, and she married James Gunn in 1919.

  4. Thanks Davey. I've just seen according to http://masonicgreatwarproject.org.uk/writeup.php?string=3085 that Thorne died in 1917.