AN ART enthusiast who devoted 40 years of his life to Waterperry House has died peacefully at home aged 81.

Bernard Saunders became steward of the stately home in 1971 and created Art in Action, an art and craft festival pulling in crowds of 25,000 every year.

Born in North London on June 19, 1934, the son of an electrical engineer and a nurse, Mr Saunders was evacuated to Derbyshire during the Second World War.

He was drawn to the arts after viewing Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna of the Rocks on a visit to the National Gallery aged 11 with his mother, Dora.

At the age of 12 Mr Saunders lost his mother to bone cancer, followed by his father four years later.

In the months that followed he gave up training as an electrician to study sculpture at The City and Guilds of London. During this period he also met his first wife, Verity.

Following years in the Royal Engineers and working at the Victoria and Albert Museum and London School of Economic Science, Mr Saunders was offered a job at Waterperry in 1971 and moved to Oxfordshire with Verity and his four children. The pair would later divorce.

As steward of Waterperry estate, Mr Saunders worked with staff and volunteers to restore the house and establish the gardens, as well as helping the institution make a profit.

Under his guidance the first Art in Action event was held in 1976 with 51 artists and craftsmen. Over the past 40 years that number has snowballed to 400.

Current chief organiser Simon Buchanan said Mr Saunders "inspired many in his life as a teacher, boss, mentor and philosopher".

He added: "At the age of 80 he would rush about the 80-acre estate pausing occasionally for me to catch up... he gave fully with no thought of reward.

"I always felt completely at ease in his presence and never lost a sense of respect. He had a lovely sense of mischief about him that still makes me grin."

Mr Saunders leaves behind his second wife of 33 years Carolyn Saunders, who met him while studying at Waterperry and described her late husband as "a great man", and six children aged 19 to 57.

Tributes are being organised by Chelsea Funeral Directors, tel 02073850866.