Mary Elizabeth Burkett (1924-2014)

Mary Elizabeth Burkett

Written by David A Cross

Occupation: Museum Director

Background and Early Life

Born in Newcastle on 7 October 1924, Mary was the elder daughter of Ridley Burkett (c.1881-c.1963), a watchmaker, repairer and maker of scientific instruments, whose grandfather was a successful builder in Newcastle.  Her mother was Mary Alice Gaussen (c.1880-c.1963), a violinist and the daughter of the Rev James Gaussen (1853-1896) of Loughgall, Co Armagh, Northern Ireland.  The Gaussen family claimed descent from St William of Gellone (c.755-812/4), a favourite of Charlemagne.  In Mary’s lifetime, her aunt Sarah ‘Sasie’ Edith Gaussen (d.1953) was a missionary in Kienningfu, China and probably the source of Mary’s wanderlust.  Educated at Whickham School, near Gateshead and St Hild’s College, Durham, she recalled that her aesthetic sense matured through experiencing birdsong, Romanesque architecture and the hall of mirrors at Versailles.  She taught art in Portsmouth and at Wroxall Abbey, Warwickshire and even had a brief spell as a life model. Mary had a strong sense of the disparity in her parents’ backgrounds and was surprisingly critical of her father’s family.  Her sister Josephine Whitehead (1926-2017) was an artist.

Appointed as a lecturer in art at Charlotte Mason College in 1955, Mary was also involved in the local Parents’ National Education Union (PNEU) school.  Her shock of red hair and fierce energy inspired many students in whom she instilled her belief that ‘art was the foundation of life’ (Haste). She also worked in Austrian refugee camps and raised funds for an Ockenden home for refugee children in Ambleside. Her parents had links with the south of France, where Mary became friendly with the novelist Patrick O’Brien (1914-2000; ODNB) and heard Pablo Casals (1876-1973) playing several times at the Prades Festival.

Having met the intrepid Dame Freya Stark (1893-1993; ODNB) in 1961, she travelled for seven months the following year with the young lawyer Genette Malet de Carteret (b.1938) to Syria, Jordan, Persia, Afghanistan and Turkey.  Genette was the daughter of the Seigneur de St Ouen, Jersey, later a barrister and the wife of law professor Podromos Dagloglu (d.2022) of Athens and Regensburg.  The two friends explored a range of ancient sites, notably Palmyra and an Assassins’ castle and returned with bullet holes in the land rover, having been mistaken for bandits by a military patrol. Their expedition later resulted in the book The Beckoning East: A Journey Through Turkey and Persia in 1962 (2006).

Arrival at Abbot Hall

On 5 November 1962, Mary was appointed at Abbot Hall Gallery as the half-time assistant to the cultivated, well-connected and dynamic Helen Kapp (1901-1978; DCB).  Kapp had established a significant reputation in the north during her time at Wakefield Art Gallery and with references from the director of the V and A, Sir Trenchard Cox (1905-1995; ODNB) and Sir Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001; ODNB) her expertise had been welcomed in 1961 by the trustees of the new gallery in Kendal.  Mary’s experience in education was important to the founding director, who was attracted by her manifest brio. 

Helen sent Burkett down to St Ives to try to secure a sculpture of Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975; ODNB) as a gift, but the artist refused.  Later, in 1963 they were able to raise funds to purchase Trezion, which was placed on the lawn outside the gallery. A trip to Edinburgh saw Mary returning with a work by Samuel Peploe (1871-1935; ODNB).  She was immensely fortunate to join the museum world at a time of optimism and expansion and was truly blessed to be able to work alongside Helen, whose vision had a lasting impact both on her and upon Abbot Hall.  Mary also ran an excavation at Ambleside, an interest which brought her the friendship of Dame Rosemary Cramp, professor of archaeology at Durham. At other times she gave art classes at Bela Prison, explored geological sites and became a keen ornithologist.  As an efficient ‘autodidact’ she was able to assimilate the repertoires of several useful professional specialities (Bragg).

Helen Kapp retired in 1966 and Mary was appointed acting director.  Some gallery trustees argued that the post should be advertised, but John Clegg (1909-1998), formerly the director of Haslemere Gallery, urged his colleagues to give her a chance.  So later that year Mary was promoted to be the director of the gallery, which provided a launching pad for many activities for almost two decades.  She built on Kapp’s foundations, providing a centre of excellence for those interested in the arts and encouraging this interest in the wider population, particularly amongst children. Used to delegating tasks to her sister in childhood, delegation at the gallery increased and the staff expanded to fulfil her numerous grand hests.  She became very adept at extracting both funds and artworks from local families, whilst the Friends of Abbot Hall, established by Kapp, organised visits, lectures by major figures and established a picture loan scheme. Mary had a strong relationship with the philanthropist Peter Scott (1917-2010; qv) of the Provincial Insurance Company in Kendal, for many years chairman of the trustees, and regularly met Alfred Wainwright (1907-1991; ODNB), the treasurer of Kendal town council.  Wainwright drew her house, named Demavend after the Persian mountain, which was an A-framed wooden structure above Windermere (illus Verrinder).

Living in a rural county, Mary pondered the goal of a folk museum and toured European agricultural museums for ideas. Subsequently, many locals presented farm artefacts and industrial relics to the new Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry (MOLLI) which was established in 1971.  In this enterprise she was ably supported by the versatile John Anstey (qv) who had been recruited from Reading Museum of Rural Life and in 1973 they won the 1st museum of the year award for MOLLI.

Artworks Acquired

Mary sought out a range of artists and collectors and her two greatest acquisitions were by George Romney (1734-1802; ODNB) and Jan van Belcamp (1610-1653).  Romney’s great work The Gower Children, bought in 1974, was part funded by the Friends of Abbot Hall, the V and A and the NACF (The Art Fund), (this painting is not The Gower Family, as it is often described, as the oldest child Anne Leverson-Gower (1761-1832) is the step sister not the mother of the others and she married the Edward Venables-Vernon-Harcourt (1757-1847; ODNB) bishop of Carlisle (qqv)).  Then in 1981 Burkett bought from Lady Evelyn Hothfield (1908-1989) The Great Picture by van Belcamp, a huge triptych which celebrates the genealogy and accomplishments of the indomitable Lady Anne Clifford (1590-1676; ODNB). Many years later, Mary was at hand to witness the tricky diagonal passage of this work, following the removal of a window, to its new place in Abbot Hall.

Collectors like Anne Hull-Grundy (1926-1984) gave precious objects and a bronze by Jacob Epstein (1880-1959; ODNB), whilst Cornish Torbock (1905-1993; qv) later bequeathed significant watercolours by Thomas Sunderland (1744-1823) and Joseph Farington (1747-1821; ODNB).  Gradually Abbot Hall accumulated work by Hilde Goldschmidt, Patrick Heron, LS Lowry, Sheila Fell, Joan Eardley, Anne Redpath and the potter Lucie Rie. Further examples of Gillow furniture joined the collection including a very rare trou madame table.  In these ways Mary consolidated the national reputation established by Helen Kapp. She maintained an amicable rivalry at the picture sales with Dr Robert Woof (1931-2005; ODNB) of Dove Cottage, who was increasing that collection of Lakeland art.  Good at enthusing others and drawing out their abilities, Mary also encouraged many young artists, including Julian Cooper, Celia Washington, Linda Ryle and the photographer Cressida Pemberton-Piggott. 


Mary had bought her first felt in Gonbad-E-Qabus in Iran in 1962 and organised an exhibition to showcase this material, its catalogue entitled The Art of the Feltmaker (1979).  Mary was involved in 1984 with the establishment of the International Feltmakers Association and was later dubbed ‘the mother of felt’.  (In 2000, she was presented at Charlotte Mason College with Mille Fleurs (illus Verrinder), a huge felt carpet, made collaboratively by feltmakers worldwide, which was displayed in a separate room at Isel Hall).  Being friendly with the artist Jenny Cowern (1943-2005; qv) Mary encouraged her work in felt, which became popular in the county.  Jenny demonstrated her extraordinary skill by making a facsimile of a slice of Isel agate in that medium. Shocked by her premature death, Mary and Val Rickerby wrote Jenny Cowern (2007) to commemorate her fine work.

Mary’s exhibitions in Kendal included 1000 Years of Persian Art, 1967; Cumbrian Characters: Famous People of the Lake District, 1968; John Ruskin, 1970; The Turkoman of Iran, 1971 (which included a fully furnished tent); Four Kendal Portrait Painters, 1973; Qashqai Carpets, 1976; Percy Kelly, 1976; Viewfinders: Lake District Landscapes, 1980; Julius Caesar Ibbetson, 1982; Jordanian Art, 1984; and Richard Long, 1985.  Her retirement in 1986 coincided with the 25th anniversary of Abbot Hall when she showed the Queen round the gallery.  Reluctant to stop working at this point, she was awarded a Leverhulme scholarship to make a survey of portraits in Cumbrian houses, where her network of contacts with the landed families was an enormous help.  

Isel Hall

In the same year she inherited Isel Hall, near Cockermouth, from her friend Margaret Austen-Leigh (1899-1986; qv), a descendant of the Lawson baronets, notably the temperance MP Sir Wilfred Lawson 2nd bt (1829-1906; ODNB).  Margaret’s late husband Richard Austen-Leigh (1872-1961; ODNB) was a relative of Jane Austen (1775-1817; ODNB) and had edited the novelist’s letters.  From the south front of the hall was a panoramic view which encompassed Skiddaw, Isel church and the river Derwent, where occasionally, salmon would be caught in the pool below.  As a long-time enthusiast for the castle restorations of Lady Anne Clifford, Mary now started upon her own slate roof, leaking windows and damp 14thc pele tower, at Isel. Supervised by the architect Michael Bottomley (1927-2015; qv), the 16th c fabric of the hall was repaired by Norman Tiffin and the leaded windows made waterproof by Tom Kupper (later resident at Ely cathedral), through the funding of English Heritage.  During this period, at the opening of an environmental centre at Threlkeld, she was introduced by Patrick Gordon-Duff-Pennington to Prince Charles as ‘the maddest woman in Cumbria’ for taking on this huge project (Jenkins).  In 2003 she surprised her neighbours by having the rendered peel tower painted strawberry pink. On the terrace, she enlisted the help of Cornish Torbock to re-plant the rectangular beds whilst in the 17thc sunken garden she kept greylag geese.  As a keen ornithologist, she further rejoiced to see grey wagtails perched on the pinnacles of the parapet.

Wishing to have the house populated, she invited her sculptor friend Josefina de Vasconcellos (1904-2005; DCB), to stay in the west wing, which was extremely cold. Soon afterwards Edward Hughes (1953-2006; qv), the potter, agreed to restore the stables to house his own kiln, studio and accommodation, whilst the artist Nancy Tingey also moved into the house. Next, being increasingly conscious of the need for security, she welcomed Finbar O’Suilleabheain, the musicologist and David Cross, the art historian to live in the upper part of the west wing.  Thus she created an informal artists’ colony. Sometimes she would introduce Hughes as ‘my potter’, O’Suilleabhain as ‘Stockhausen’ and Cross as ‘Romney’.  During Mary’s frequent absences, upon the sighting of aliens, the alarm cry ‘mantraps!’ was heard and one of the residents would sally forth to interrogate the invader.

In order to fulfil the requirements of the English Heritage grants, the house was soon opened, on Mondays in the season, through the efforts of a loyal team of volunteers.  Visitors were treated to stories told by May Moore, who had been a maid in the house in the 1930s.  Several local ladies including Carol-Vanessa Hudson assisted with the upkeep of the interior and Dorathy Morgan was Mary’s unpaid secretary for many years.

At Isel, she also welcomed many visitors, including art historians and dealers; a Persian prince; Lady Egremont; Sir Oliver Millar (1923-2007), one time surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures; Edith Thomas (c.1920-c.2000) the partner of Kurt Schwitters; Eva Chew, the widow of Prince Charles’ headmaster at Gordonstoun; and  Josef Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva (1926-2011), who offered to be her cook. Mary was not interested in cooking and often said she would rather just consume a handful of pills each day. Consequently, wise friends would arrive with a picnic to be sure that they would be fed. Visiting adults were regularly dragooned into action and children were given geological specimens in exchange for a chore or two.

Her bailiff Nigel Harris was assiduous in maintaining the fences around the estate and driving off poachers from the river.  A series of gardeners including Edward Rust and later Jackie XXXX strove to maintain the immediate grounds.  During his residence, O’Suilleabhain mowed the lawns and became adept at removing moss from the pebble paths, whilst Cross kept willow herb at bay, planted a beech hedge of 300 whips and had numerous bonfires. Mary also played the organ at Isel church on Sundays.

She packed a huge number of things into each day, speeding round the county to a succession of meetings, lectures, concerts, parties and encounters with friends (Inglewood).  Mary hated to be alone and rarely stayed in the house. If accompanied on her crazy drives, passengers would be startled when she skidded to a halt and leaped over a gate to inspect an ancient stone trough, a wall of ‘clay dabbin’, an inscription, or a vernacular detail.  She had ‘a low boredom threshold and created dramas in her life from day to day to alleviate this’ (Nancy Tingey).  At lectures and concerts she always sat at the front.

In order to increase the income from the house, she decided to give notice to three of her tenants in 1993, thus ending the fledgling colony, which was succeeded by several commercial tenants.  Edward and Shizuko Hughes were secure as they had restored the stables and negotiated a life tenancy.  Looking back, several of the creative tenants reflected that they had enjoyed the experience but were shocked by her behaviour from time to time, for example when it was made clear for whom they should vote in local elections.

Mary’s publications included Old Photos of the Lake District (1974); William Green (1984) and Matthias Read (1995) (both with David Sloss (qv), a retired London physician); A Cumbrian Artist: Percy Kelly (1997) (with Val Rickerby (qv), a retired journalist);‘I Was Only a Maid’: The Life of May Moore (1998); Sutton and his Circle: The Cockermouth School (2001) and booklets on John Bracken (fl.1665-1719), George Senhouse (1739-1793), George Smith (aka the Skiddaw Hermit; fl.1860s) and Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948). She contributed to A History of Gillow of Lancaster (1984), articles to the Transactions of the CWAAS and wrote an article on Romney’s master, Christopher Steele, for the Walpole Society (1987) (re-published 2003). Having read Cumbrian Brothers (2007), David Cross’s edition of the letters of Percy Kelly (1918-1993) to Norman Nicholson (1914-1987), she commissioned Cross to edit her own letters from Kelly (2011).  Impatient to hold it in her hands, she made the process difficult; memorably saying at one meeting: ‘don’t worry about the Kelly details, this book is about me !’  Nonetheless, this book won a Lakeland Book of the Year award and appears in some of her late publicity photographs. Mary also encouraged Cate Haste to write Sheila Fell: A Passion for Paint (2010).

Living alone at Isel, beyond her 90th birthday, Mary was well supported by friends, often being heard to mutter that old age was ‘not for wimps’.  She died on 14 November 2014 and her funeral was at Isel, in a packed church, with the eulogy given by Cressida Inglewood.  Her burial was in the churchyard, alongside her predecessor.  At the cathedral memorial service on 6 February 2015, Melvyn Bragg spoke, beginning with the words: ‘No one ever said no to Mary Burkett’.  She had always been rather acquisitive and left a significant collection of artworks, auctioned in 600 lots at Mitchell’s in Cockermouth. Her collection of archaeological finds had already been given to the British Museum; some felts are now at the Horniman Museum.


Mary Burkett displayed wit, good humour, kindness, drive and a great zest for life, but she could be intimidating, sometimes bullying her staff in her drive for particular goals.  People or objects were assessed and divided into the ‘good’ or the ‘useless’ and ‘there was no middle way’ (Inglewood).  That she was very keen to be thought of as distinguished, was a reflection of her surprisingly deep seated insecurity.  As director of Abbot Hall, she accrued prestige which was enhanced by her residence at Isel, where she enjoyed being chatelaine. Much of her energy was channelled towards the maintenance of her Cumbrian profile: as an interesting character, as an expert on a wide range of subjects and as a distinguished leader of the arts community. Despite this reputation amongst the more affluent in the county, she had many battles with representatives of institutions, colleagues, neighbours, and her own staff.

Mary never married, in part because she revelled in her independence and was a good friend to many. Liam McDowall, a member of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan referred to her ‘breath-taking life-affirming approach to everything she did’.  She was driven by curiosity about many aspects of the living world, history and art.  Proud of her many links with both the creative and the aristocratic families of Cumbria, her activities were thus effectively bolstered, but she did also take some interest in individuals within the wider population.

Though well-known at Abbot Hall for her liveliness and periodic lack of restraint, these traits were less evident at Isel. From 1986 she became more formal, imperious and conscious of her elevated status and it could be said that she might have been more fun had she not inherited the house and all its responsibilities.  Occasionally, she would revert to her earlier more girlish behaviour, when for example taking a friend on a tour of Crossrigg, when the elderly Torbock brothers (qqv) were safely ensconced downstairs.

Her Achievements

Thinking of Mary as a leader of many Cumbrian cultural activities, the words of Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852-1917) come to mind: ‘for a king (or queen) to have a brilliant reign, he (or she) must allow others to become great’.  Though she did encourage others, Mary was a little prone to take the credit for the efforts of others.  This is evident even in the photographs used to illustrate her obituaries where she holds a large volume which she called ‘my book’, which, predictably, had been written by someone else.

Nonetheless, Mary sat on numerous committees, including Border TV and the Diocesan Advisory Committee. She was also president of both the International Feltmakers Society and the Romney Society and involved with the CWAAS, Cumbria Decorative and Fine Arts Society, Dove Cottage, the Armitt, the Norman Nicholson Society, the Guild of Lakeland Craftsmen, Cumbria Gardens Trust, The Otter Trust and Red Squirrel Alert.  Having been friendly with the late Miki Sekers (1910-1972; qv), she raised funds as a trustee of the Rosehill Theatre and fulfilled the same function for the Senhouse Museum. Twice, in 1984 and 1998, she won a Lakeland Book of the Year prize.  Her role as champion of artistic projects in Cumbria was acknowledged by an OBE in 1978 and by honorary degrees from Lancaster and Cumbria universities in 1997 and c.2007.  Her portrait by Carel Weight (1908-1997; ODNB) is at Abbot Hall, whilst others by Josefina de Vasconcellos and Tom Dearden were knocked down at her Mitchell’s sale.


  • Charles L Boynton, Directory of Protestant Missions in China, 1919
  • Melvyn Bragg, introduction to Verrinder, 2008
  • Melvyn Bragg, eulogy, at her memorial service, 2015
  • David A Cross, Dear Mary Love Percy: the Letters of Percy Kelly to Mary Burkett, 2011
  • David A Cross, Helen Kapp, Cumbrian Lives, 2022
  • Alice Gaussen, Men of the Midi, 1934
  • Cressida Inglewood, eulogy, at the Isel funeral, 2014, see the Lakeland Arts website 2022
  • Simon Jenkins, England’s 1000 Best Houses, 2003
  • James B Leslie, Armagh Clergy and Parishes, 1911
  • Rosemary Sullivan, Stalin’s Daughter, 2015
  • Ben Verrinder, I Felt Like an Adventure: The Life of Mary Burkett, 2008
  • Antiques Trade Gazette 2015
  • The Guardian, 5 December 2014 (written by Cate Haste)
  • Independent, 25 May 2020
  • Quarto, Oct 1991 vol xxlx, no 3, 16-18
  • The Times, 25 November 2014
  • Times and Star, 21 November 2014
  • Westmorland Gazette, 21 January 2021
  • Conversations with Mary Burkett between 1981 and 2014
  • Conversations with Josephina de Vasconcellos, Edward Hughes, Shizuko Hughes, Nancy Tingey and Finbar O’Suilleabheain (who cited Liam McDowall)