The Bridge Interviews
Many of our interviewees have led multi-faceted lives and this month we meet another such person. She has stories to tell about being, amongst other things, a gallery owner, jeweller, horsewoman, sailor and co-owner of one of Burford’s longest-established businesses. And we learnt of one other activity which came as a big surprise to us.
Veral Marshall’s story is intertwined with that of the Stone Gallery, formerly of Newcastle-on-Tyne but now of this parish. We start with her side of it. She was born Veral Gibbons in Sunderland and grew up in Darlington where her parents for a time ran a small farm. Her mother was called Vera but resisted family pressure to give her daughter the same name. After running through the alphabet, she hit on Veral as a suitable variant. So far Veral has not come across anyone sharing that name. An only child, she was educated at a Quaker school. “We were brought up as young ladies with a wide education but not especially academic. At that time it was unusual to go to university, especially in the north.” When she was ten her parents left the farm and her mother started a riding school in Darlington. Horses were in her blood. A distant ancestor had imported the Darley Arabian, one of the three source stallions of British thoroughbreds. After studying for A levels at Constantine College at Middlesborough, Veral joined the business and led riding holidays for up to 30 people, crossing the moors to Whitby or Scarborough and staying at youth hostels. During this time she met a dashing young man called Simon Marshall. “He wore shiny boots and had nice calves in jodhpurs”.
Backtracking a little: in 1918 a young man returning from service in the Great War had found that his job at a fine art dealers in Newcastle was no longer available so he set up his own business as Bernard J. Stone. This was bought in 1937 by Tilly Dring, a former actress, who later married Mick Marshall, who had trained as a potter after leaving the Royal Navy and later became an art dealer as well. Their son, Simon, worked with them. Veral joined the gallery as receptionist after she and Simon became engaged. After they married they lived in a flat on the Blagdon estate. Through the business they met several politicians and noted actors such as Edward Heath, Nicholas Ridley, Barry Humphries and Freddie Jones (father of Toby) and became friends withthe husband and wife team of Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray. Dulcie, who wrote more than 20 books in addition to her acting career, asked Veral to introduce her to Catherine Cookson. “It was very embarrassing. Catherine would only talk about her own books.”
The gallery was well known, selling work by leading artists like Henry Moore, Picasso and Epstein, with excellent national reviews, This brought L.S. Lowry into it and was where Veral first met him. “He used to stay in a hotel at Seaburn for three or four weeks at a time. He would come into the gallery at about 11 am and stay for the rest of the day. Simon and I took on the chore of entertaining him so that Simon’s parents could get on with their work of running two shops and the gallery. He would spend every evening with us. He even came in the day we returned from our honeymoon and we had to cook for him the next evening. If anyone visited whom he did not like, he would pretend to be asleep. “We used to drive him around in a red Volvo. He would say ‘Look at this car’ and hit it with his stick.” Decades later Simon and Veral were invited to talk about Lowry on the BBC’s Countryfile to mark the 40th anniversary of his death. “The programme makers found a red Volvo like our old one. We were supposed to walk into the shot and say ‘Look! Just like our old car’. Because of background noises they had to retake the shot about five times and we had to pretend to be astonished each time.”
When she left the business to have her son, Tom, Veral gained another string to her bow by learning how to repair jewellery at evening classes. She began making items which Simon could then show and sell in the gallery. “I had a workshop in the kitchen. When Tom became too big for the flat we moved into a farmhouse and I set up my own workshop. Then Simon started making jewellery too and had a workshop in the gallery. We still make some of the designs from that time.”
The business came under threat when the centre of Newcastle was redeveloped. In 1984 they lost the lease on the premises. The gallery had been selling pictures from a flat in Duke Street St James’s, in the heart of London’s fine art market, where they specialised in Pre-Raphaelite art. One memory is acquiring the death mask of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and delivering it to the buyer, John Paul Getty II, who was living at Rossetti’s former home in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea.
Wanting to benefit from the London connections they made the momentous decision to move to somewhere within 80 miles of the City so that London customers could reach them relatively easily. Simon had lived in Icomb as a boy so they first tried the Cotswolds. “We drove around the area over a long weekend. Simon’s parents knew Burford in the 1950s and said there was nothing there, but we arrived and found it teeming with people, but all the premises were occupied. We left a card at every shop and hotel and asked them to let us know if somewhere became available. Jan Cohen’s father at the Highway rang to say one of his customers wanted to sell the Green Door Café and would we be interested?” They took the building and moved in 1985. The Stone Gallery in Burford was born. It is now one of the oldest businesses in Burford to have remained in the same ownership. The shop was originally a 17th century cottage. It was a condition of the sale that they would use Albert Nash, the builder, to work on it. “He was marvellous. We budgeted for a cost of £25,000. The bill was £4,000. We tell people we live in a Nash house”.
They quickly became involved in the community. Veral enjoyed helping run three of the Burford Raft Races in aid of Cancer Research, and both Simon and she joined the Chamber of Trade and the Burford Society, Veral becoming secretary to both. At that time there was little liaison between those organisations so she suggested and arranged an annual fun quiz between them and the town council. “I even made a little silver Ramping Burford Cat silhouette as a trophy. I wonder where that is now the quiz is defunct.” The gallery continues to sell a range of jewellery made both by the family and by others including Georg Jensen, fine art and design, sculpture, and paperweights. Have they had any distinguished visitors? She reels off Jeremy Clarkson, Ruby Wax, Ronnie Corbett, Nicholas Parsons, Jack Straw and David Cameron. Anne Robinson is “such a charmer…the sweetest of people”. She and her daughter wore Stone Gallery necklaces while making a television series about America. Veral and Simon have been joined in the business by Tom, who studied at the Birmingham School of Jewellery (“The only one of us who has had formal training”). Tom’s partner, Becky, is the owner of Caspar, the magnificent Siberian husky which is often seen around the town.
Veral has always been a keen reader, as anyone who has followed her articles in this magazine about Alice’s Book Group will know. About 1995 she was on the inaugural committee to set up the Friends of Burford Library. “It was to assist the library any way we could, not really money raising.” Things changed after the banking crash and the Friends now pay for some of the librarian’s hours and for items for the library. They also organise a small battalion of generous volunteers who staff the library for part of its opening times. In 2018 Veral was awarded the Burford Medal in recognition for what she had done for the town. At the award ceremony the mayor, John White, described her as:
“A lady who is co-proprietor with her husband and son of one of our genuine destination shops and who for years was the backbone of our local Chamber of Trade. But her main claim to fame followed the financial collapse of 2008 and the imposition of austerity. She had always been interested in the Library and when it became clear that OCC was about to take a machete to Oxfordshire's Library services she resolved to fight tooth and nail to keep Burford Library open. And, together with rest of the Friends of Burford Library, she has done just that. Be very clear, without her there would be no Burford Library.”
They also have a boat. In their first dinghy they travelled the length of the Thames from Lechlade to Windsor. Who is the skipper? Simon unhesitatingly points to Veral. She has taken part in boat handling competitions. “It’s like dressage for horses. You do a series of manoeuvres such as rescuing a man overboard and towing a grounded boat.” The photo below shows their boat towing the larger vessel. Once she was crowned top lady boat handler of the year. They now have a larger boat called Zippidy. “It makes a lot of other people burst into song as we go by.”
The surprise was that Veral and Simon are keen motor cyclists. “Tom was interested in motor bikes. We thought the best way to restrain our son would be for his parents to join in. We failed miserably.” They bought a bike each (no pillion riding for Veral!) and have travelled on two wheels to France, Wales, Cornwall and the north. “We are both past retirement age but we don’t tend to retire in our family. We hope Tom will carry on the gallery when we have gone. They always said at school that I ought to write. I write bits of verse and odds and sods, and if you want to write, you write. I always say do what is nearest to your hand. My life has had no particular direction, things just turn up. I have had no great ambitions, and my life may not have been earth-shattering but luckily has turned out quite well.” And has had a lot packed into it.