martedì 9 dicembre 2014

Mary Burkett obituary

Champion of the arts, she explored Cumbria’s cultural heritage
mary burkett
 Mary Burkett at Isel Hall. She supported, rescued or resuscitated two museums, a theatre and many other cultural ventures in Cumbria. Photograph: Phil Rigby/Cumbria Life
Art was “the foundation of life” for Mary Burkett, who has died aged 90. “Everyone’s mind needs art whether they know it or not” was her creed, and she spent her career proving this. Her energetic promotion of the arts, mainly in Cumbria and the north-west of England, was inspirational and unfaltering. Over six decades and several generations she kept the cultural wheels turning and in good repair.
She was appointed assistant director of the Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, in 1962, and was its director from 1966 to 1986, during which time she consolidated its national reputation and enlarged its collection through private donations and purchases. These included Barbara Hepworth’s Trezion, the Cumbria-based artist George Romney’s The Gower Family, and the triptych TheGreat Picture. Her parallel project, the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry, opened in 1971 and won the first Museum of the Year award for its flair and originality.
She sought out artists whose talents she believed had been insufficiently celebrated, and, in the 12 biographies she wrote, explored Cumbria’s unsung artistic heritage, in the works of John Bracken, William Green, Mathias Read and others. When she found that the German refugee artist Kurt Schwitters had lived in Ambleside during the second world war, her sleuthing resulted in a pioneering essay on his work and an exhibition at the gallery in 1982.
I was the beneficiary of her infectious zeal, for she invited me to write the biography of the Cumbrian expressionist landscape painter Sheila Fell, described by her friend LS Lowry as “the greatest landscape painter of the century”. Long passionate about Fell’s work, Mary staged an exhibition in 1965 and then, after Fell’s early death, a major tribute in 1981.
The artist Jenny Cowern was discovered and promoted by Mary, as was Percy Kelly, a “troubled genius” who acknowledged in his precisely illustrated letters – which Mary later published in Dear Mary, Love Percy (2011) – the importance of her affection and trust, and the “healthy curative breeze” of her support. With Val Rickerby, Mary wrote biographies of both artists, while also encouraging the current generation of Cumbrian artists, including Julian Cooper, Linda Ryle andDonald Wilkinson.
Among the institutions she championed, rescued or resuscitated were the Senhouse Roman Museum, Maryport, the Armitt Museum, Ambleside, and the Rosehill theatre at Whitehaven, along with the Lakeland Arts Trustthe Wordsworth Trust, the Cumbrian Gardens Trust, the Romney Society and countless others.
She exerted pressure on those in positions of patronage or influence with determination, but motivated always by her passionate, selfless belief in art. “You have to put your head above the parapet,” she declared, with the result, as her friend Melvyn Bragg pointed out, that “Nobody dared say no to Mary.” But all were enriched by their encounters with her. In 1978 she was appointed OBE.
Daughter of Alice (nee Gaussen), a violinist, and Ridley Burkett, a watchmaker and repairer, Mary was born in Newcastle upon Tyne. She studied for a general arts degree at St Hild’s College, Durham, during the second world war, then in 1954 took up a post as art teacher at Charlotte Mason College, a teacher training college in Ambleside. While there, she was offered the assistant director job at the newly established Abbot Hall gallery. Before she took up the post, she went on a dramatic and sometimes dangerous seven-month trip in a Land Rover to study ancient civilisations, often in uncharted regions of Turkey and Persia, with Genette Dagtoglou as her fellow adventurer.
The experience yielded vivid experiences, a rich store of knowledge, a book about their adventures, The Beckoning East (2006), and a passionate interest in felt, on which subject Mary soon became a world authority. Her travels inspired several early exhibitions at Abbot Hall – including one on the history of Persian art and another on the Turcoman nomads, in which a fully furnished tent complete with music was erected in the upper gallery.
Her retirement from Abbot Hall merely unleashed new energy. Her work on a catalogue of all the portraits in Cumbria was interrupted when she unexpectedly inherited Isel Hall, near Cockermouth, with its magnificent pink 14th-century pele tower and sunken garden, from her friend and kinswoman Margaret Austen Leigh. Simon Jenkins included it in his book England’s Thousand Best Houses (2003), and related how Mary was once introduced to the Prince of Wales as “the maddest woman in England” for taking it on. I vividly recall the buckets Mary dispersed on all floors of the pele tower and the constant drip of rainwater seeping in. In the dry rooms were fine displays of paintings, ceramics and felt by “her artists”.
With volunteers’ help, she opened Isel Hall once a week to the public and, though her vision of a colony for artists and craftspeople never materialised, she housed at different times the potter Edward Hughes, the sculptress Josefina de Vasconcellos, the artist Nancy Tingey, the musicologist Finbar O’Suilleabhain and the art historian David Cross. Several students lived there in exchange for gardening or maintenance duties.
Mary’s circle of friends was wide and of all ages. Our children delighted in her warmth and eccentricity. Joseph Stalin’s daughter Svetlana visited and asked to be Mary’s cook; the offer was refused, but in their later correspondence she addressed Mary as “my warrior”, an appellation others will recognise. She was active to the last, protesting volubly about the withdrawal of funds from Rosehill theatre.
 Mary Elizabeth Burkett, author and arts administrator, born 7 October 1924; died 12 November 2014
 This article was amended on 7 December 2014. Mention of Mary Burkett being appointed OBE was added, and the publication year of The Beckoning East corrected.

http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/dec/05/mary-burkett

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