Mary Burkett, 1924 – 2014

Mary BurkettGoodness we’ll all miss Mary. She never really needed a surname in Cumbria, we all knew which Mary we were talking about, she influenced and touched so many of our lives at different times and in different ways. It is both an honour and a daunting task to try and capture her life in a few minutes, she achieved so much, she had so many interests and so many friends.  There was no middle way with Mary, you were either a good thing or you weren’t, things were either terrific or terrible. And old age was terrible, ‘not for wimps’ she said, and we must all be thankful that she died while she was still living life to the full, and that she’d seen so many of her friends from all over the world who had come to join her 90th birthday celebrations last month.

Mary was proud to be descended from a saint. Her forebear, Saint William of the Desert, was a favourite and protector of Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor. Fast forward to Mary’s mother who came from an old and musical Irish family and her father who was a soldier in the Royal Engineers. They met at the outbreak of the Ist World War and married soon after it ended. Mary was born in Newcastle in 1924, grew up in the North East and went on to Durham University before becoming a teacher, first in Portsmouth, then Warwickshire and in 1955 coming to Charlotte Mason College in Ambleside which was then both a teacher training college and a PNEU school. With a shock of red hair and enormous energy, enthusiasm and a great sense of fun, she was an inspirational teacher both to the children and to those training, and as throughout her life, she went the extra mile. She taught Art but when one girl who longed to be a doctor couldn’t pass an essential Maths exam and everyone had given up on her, Mary took her on and got her through it. She spent summers working in refugee camps in Austria and then helped to raise money and start an Ockenden Venture house for refugee children in Ambleside.

In 1962, inspired by the writings of Freya Stark and with great spirit of adventure, Mary left Charlotte Mason and set off in an old landrover for Persia with Genette Malet de Carteret. They discovered a ruined Assassin’s castle, worked on a dig for several weeks, and travelled widely and at times dangerously. This trip gave her a lifelong love of the Middle East and Afghanistan and their ancient civilizations. She’d always been very interested in Archaeology (as well as Geology and Ornithology and wildlife), and subsequently she directed a small excavation in Roman Ambleside and played a very important part in setting up the Senhouse Museum in Maryport. While she was in Persia Mary also came across felt making for the first time. She researched its history, wrote about it, championed it as an art, founded a worldwide network of felt artists and was proud to be known as the Mother of Felt.

After 9 months of travelling Mary returned to take up a post at Abbot Hall, then a newly formed museum, and in 1966 became the director. During her 20 year rule the museum enlarged enormously, she cajoled locals into give furniture and paintings, created the adjoining Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry largely through donations, and made a number of very important acquisitions as well as encouraging young artists and craftsmen. My first real memory of Mary is in the mid 70s when I had just left the Royal College and she came to look at my photographs to see whether she thought them worthy of an exhibition. She put my folio on the floor. “I always told my pupils to look at things upside down” she said, swinging her head down between her legs. She really was a great Patron of the Arts, she encouraged those who were creative to create, and those with money to buy. In 1973 Abbot Hall won the first Museum of the Year award.

Mary fitted more into a day than most people would contemplate. The day of our wedding in 1986 was also the day of Margaret Austen-Leigh’s funeral and Mary went to both. Margaret was an old friend and distant cousin of hers and Mary was her heir. She had just retired as director of Abbot Hall, so while others might have thought of downsizing Mary moved from the log cabin she had built at Bowness to the great and ancient Isel Hall and so began another chapter of her life. With help from English Heritage she undertook a long restoration programme to the building, making it water and weather tight, she filled it with an eclectic collection of modern art and supported and encouraged painters, potters, poets, writers, dancers, musicians and sculptors. She continued to research and write on Cumbrian Artists, played the organ in this beautiful church, sped round the county going to meetings, lectures, concerts and parties and visiting friends. Mary had a great gift for friendship, she made friends everywhere, in trains, in shops, on the beach, it didn’t matter.

She was a member, trustee, chairman, patron and president of more organizations and charities than one can count. She raised money, filled lecture halls, organized exhibitions, she was unstoppable. She was always good company and the most generous of friends as well as being quite demanding. I don’t think she really liked being alone and latterly she was often looking for a companion, a driver or somewhere to stay the night as she hated to miss anything, even when her energy was failing. Other than her Christmas party it was best to visit Isel in summer. To conserve heat the curtains were rarely drawn back in winter, she hated cooking, her kitchen was prehistoric, and it was a good idea to arrive with a picnic. There were notices telling one not to waste water, and her wonderful letters were always in used envelopes with gummed labels. She didn’t spend money on herself, she quietly helped friends and causes she thought important. When we visited Nino, a friend of hers in Georgia, Russia, Mary gave us a small packet of money to pass on to her.

It’s hard to imagine life without Mary, her death leaves a great sad hole, but I think her legacy will live on in so many ways and through so many people that her spirit will be around for a long time to come.

A tribute by Cressida Inglewood of Hutton-in-the-Forest