Mary Burkett: Author and curator who helped save Abbot Hall Gallery and was an expert on the art of the Lakelands


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Famously described as "Cumbria's First Lady of the visual arts", Mary Burkett proved remarkably adept at operating on all sides of the cultural divide. She was an author, adventurer, historian, curator and a world authority on felt-making, and her successful stewardship of Kendal's Abbot Hall Art Gallery brought it, and her, both national and international acclaim.

The eldest daughter of a noted though slightly eccentric horologist, Mary Burkett was born in the North-east. However, her formative years were spent mainly in Ireland living with her grandparents on the Antrim Coast. Educated at Whickham School, in 1942 she went on to study at St Hilda's College, Durham University.

After graduating, her teaching career took her first to Hampshire, to St Vincent's School in Alverstoke. Promotion brought a move north to The Laurels, a girls' boarding school at Wroxall Abbey in Warwickshire. She eventually arrived in Cumbria in 1954 as an arts and crafts lecturer at Charlotte Mason College in Ambleside.

In March 1962 she surprised many by suddenly resigning her position and joining up with a young lawyer, Genette Malet de Carteret. Together, travelling by Land Rover, they undertook a seven-and-a-half month exploration of notable archaeological sites in Persia, Afghanistan, Turkey and Jordan. It was while in Gumbad-I-Quabus, now part of Iran, that Mary purchased her first Turkamen felt. Totally captivated, she founded the International Feltmakers Association, becoming its first president.

Back in the Lake District she joined the staff at the newly opened Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal. Unlike most galleries, Abbot Hall did not start with a collection needing somewhere to be displayed but with a building that needed saving. This beautiful 1759 Palladian-style town house had by the 1950s become almost derelict. It was saved by a determined Lake District Art Gallery Trust, ably led by the local philanthropist, Francis Scott, and his son, Peter (Independent obituary, 26 January 2011).

Burkett succeeded Helen Kapp as Director in 1966, the breadth of her curatorial interests soon becoming apparent. While turning the Gallery into a venue of national importance, she worked tirelessly to acquire exhibits with local connections. Soon works by Romney, Gardner, Schwitters, Ruskin, Cooper, Somervell and Wainwright nestled neatly alongside elegant satinwood furniture by Gillow of Lancaster.

When she first joined the Gallery it had a staff of five; by the time she retired in June 1986, the workforce numbered 45. Into her orbit had come the neighbouring and award-winning Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry, the Town Museum and a toy collection housed in the former Kendal Grammar School building. For a time she also had charge of Hawkshead Courthouse and Stott Park Bobbin Museum.

On leaving Abbot Hall, Burkett inherited the historic 14th century Isel Hall from her great friend, Margaret Austen-Leigh. A grand stately home complete with the impressive Pele Tower and elegant gardens, above the River Derwent near Cockermouth, under her determined stewardship it increasingly played host to a range of painters, potters and sculptors. Taking up residence for a time as she attempted to make a new life for herself in the West was Joseph Stalin's daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva.

Erudite and persuasive, Burkett was a fine writer, making significant contributions to specialist periodicals and exhibition catalogues. Her books include volumes on John Bracken, Kurt Schwitters, George Smith, May Moore, Joseph Sutton, Christopher Steele and George Senhouse. In 2011 she published Dear Mary, Love Percy: A Creative Thread, a record of the letters exchanged between herself and the talented but intensely troubled West Cumbrian artist Percy Kelly. In the interim had come a seminal text, The Art of the Feltmaker.

With David Sloss she compiled volumes on William Green of Ambleside and Read's Point of View, a biography of Mathias Read, the father of Cumbrian painting. A later collaboration with Valerie Rickerby produced A Softer Landscape: The Life and Work of Jenny Cowern and Percy Kelly: A Cumbrian Artist. In 2006, in partnership with Genette Dagtoglou (née Malet de Carteret), The Beckoning East: A Journey through Turkey and Persia in 1962, vividly recreated their epic undertaking.

A Trustee of Whitehaven's Rosehill Theatre and a director of Border Television, she served on Carlisle Cathedral's Diocesan Advisory Committee and its Fabric Committee. Her insights and expertise found a ready outlet as a tour leader and speaker at seminars and conferences worldwide.

Mary Elizabeth Burkett, curator and writer: born Newcastle upon Tyne 7 October 1924; OBE 1978; died Cockermouth, Cumbria 12 November 2014.