In the first of a two-part series, Mary Burkett, director of Abbot Hall art gallery at Kendal from 1966 to 1986, recalls the history of the building and the early days of the gallery.

  • IT WAS in 1759 George Wilson built a beautiful Palladium-style town house in Kendal’s Abbot Hall park, originally the Benedictine Abbey of St Mary’s of York, hence why it was so named.

The property changed hands rapidly and by 1897 stood empty. An eclectic mix of occupants left it in poor repair and only the onset of the war saved it from demolition.

By the 1950s the Georgian Society and local residents, concerned for its survival, under the chairmanship of Earl Temple of Stowe, set up a fund-raising committee – and generous backing from F C Scott Charitable Trust and the Provincial Insurance Company restored a dilapidated building into a new gallery and cultural centre.

Recently returned from Persia and Turkey, I came to Abbot Hall on November 5, 1962, joining Director Helen Kapp, a secretary, a caretaker and his wife. I remember our enormous pride in the gallery. There was such a feeling among everyone that we just wanted to make it a success.

We were given so many wonderful objects. One of my first jobs was to clean a Tang Horse given by Mrs Saleeby; I spent hours removing years of grime off its glazed surface. There was a musical box in the form of a grand piano – the tune is going through my head as I write.

We established the Abbot Hall Society of Friends, who gave hours of their time mailing invitations and the Society magazine. We called this operation ‘stuffing’, and we soon had hundreds of new Friends and supporters.

I have many fond memories of those early years… The lectures… Richard St Bart-Baker, when talking about planting trees in Africa, made us all stand up, stretch our arms into the air as if they were branches and press our feet down into the ground, as roots. Nicholas Pevsner when he paced up and down the platform as he lectured.

The friends we made… we all knew Mr Wainwright, as Borough Treasurer he dealt with our salaries.

Every Monday I went to his office at 10am. When Hunter Davies was writing his book on AW and saw this constant date in both our diaries, he suspected an affair. I pointed out that 10am on a Monday morning was hardly a good time for an assignation.

AW had no car so I often drove him to places for his books. I was the first person to photograph him, I just took the photograph and he said: ‘Did you take a photograph?’ and I took another and he just said: “Oh”.

The collection… I remember Helen Knapp sending me to St Ives to persuade Barbara Hepworth to give us another sculpture. Needless to say she wasn’t up for that, but I had a nice few days watching her work and picking up a chip of marble as a keep sake. A more successful trip was when I took the train to Edinburgh on a shopping spree and came back with the Peploe.

For the gallery’s 21st anniversary I asked Patrick Heron to come and help with the celebrations. He suggested I invite another artist so I asked Richard Long. ‘Why should I?’ was his response, nevertheless, he came – on the train from Bristol with his bike.

We have always had so many good and generous friends among contemporary artists who continue to support us 50 years on.