PAINTINGS that will stir some powerful memories of a bygone Basingstoke are currently on display at The Willis Museum.

Diana Stanley: Her Works is the first exhibition to be showcased at the new Sainsbury Gallery following a £600,000 refurbishment.

Diana, by any standards a remarkable painter and illustrator, was renowned for her work in books such as Mary Norton’s The Borrowers and Barbara Euphan Todd’s Worzel Gummidge.

The charming illustrations in these books no doubt evoke memories, but the exhibition, which runs until Saturday, May 16, also gives a fascinating glimpse of Basingstoke before the bulldozers rolled in to redevelop the town in the 1960s.

Sue Tapliss, curator of The Willis Museum, said: “Diana Stanley is very much known as a local Basingstoke artist – but there was much more to her than meets the eye.

“She knew that lots of the buildings were soon to be demolished, so instead of just capturing them in photographs which can be quite clinical, she painted them, catching something of the spirit, texture and character of these old places that had stood at the heart of Basingstoke for many years.

“For visitors to the museum, who knew Basingstoke before the 1960s, the exhibition will be a real trip down Memory Lane, stirring lots of inspired memories. For people who didn’t, they will be able to see what was here before the shopping centre was built and know that it isn’t just a new town and that it’s got a long and distinguished history.”

The exhibition brings together Diana’s paintings held by Basingstoke Library, Hampshire County Council Museums Service and private collectors.

Many were shown exactly 43 years ago at The Willis’ predecessor, Basingstoke Museum, which was in New Street. Diana also published many of the works in 1968 in a book called Within Living Memory.

An indication of the esteem that was felt for Diana’s work is shown by the fact that the eminent poet, writer and broadcaster John Betjeman wrote the book’s forward, saying: “Basingstoke is lucky in having so sympathetic an artist and writer.”

Back in May 1966, drumming up publicity for her exhibition, Diana said: “Most of us are half blind to the beauty of the familiar.We see our surroundings through eyes and minds that are jaded by living.

“Beauty not only has a luxurious but also a commonplace aspect and this can be seen in quite simple things.”

She went on to say: “See how marvellously the sunshine, which cannot be demolished, strikes colour from our brick walls and how shadows, which no one can deprive us of, take on a caricaturing life of their own.

“It is easy enough to see the charm of Black Dam and its swans, the view of the Common from Rucstall’s Hill, and the distant view of the town from Cliddesden Hill, but come and see how colourful the old stalls are in the market square, and how monumental the gasometers can appear at the dawn from the station siding.”

During the war, Diana lived in London working as an engineering draftswoman and endured the Blitz. On one occasion, while staying with a friend, who managed a bookshop near Victoria Station, the glass front was shattered in an air-raid.

On the protective canvas that replaced the glass, Diana painted lively cartoons. They proved to be so popular that she was besieged with requests to do the same for other shops all over London.

Her artistic career could have come to an end had it not been for her determination because, while on firefighting duty, her right arm was badly injured. She was taken to hospital and was treated by a surgeon, Professor Aubrey Pannett who was later to become her husband.

After operations and a skin graft, movement with her right arm remained restricted, but undeterred, Diana learned to draw with her left hand and was able to hold a London exhibition of her works in 1945.

She won royal approval when a later exhibition was visited by Queen Mary, who commissioned her to paint a watercolour of Greenwich.

Diana died in July 1975, but her work still evokes a response from locals like Pam and John Kirkby, who live in Hook.

Visiting the exhibition, the couple spotted Brook House which was a casualty of the 1960s redevelopment.

Its replacement, above the Victory Roundabout, on Churchill Way, was the base of builders HN Edwards, where Pam once worked and which is itself waiting to be demolished.

One work showing Mussellwhite’s Yard, featuring the town’s two old gasometers, brought back memories with a chuckle from John.He recalled Friary Motors, at Hatch, where he worked as a 16-year-old.

“Me and my mate Mick Bradley, climbed up one of the gasometers and painted in six foot high letters ‘Free Love and Sex’,” said John.

Impressed with the exhibition, he said: “I miss the old Basingstoke. It was a true market town where everybody knew everybody.

“It’s a great shame that they knocked down some of the most beautiful buildings that you would have seen in a beautiful market town.”