The abstract painter and printmaker, Marie Walker Last, was born, Marie Walker, in 1917 at Scholes, Kirklees, although she lived and worked at Ilkley from the early 1960s onwards to her death in 2017.
Marie grew up in the early years of the twentieth century in an affluent household at Scholes, near Brighouse, with walls lined with paintings acquired from Royal Academy Summer Shows by her arts enthusiast father, Hubert Walker, a successful textile manufacturer.
As a child, another important influence on her artistic development was the work of an aunt, Hilda Walker, a successful painter and sculptor living in London. Marie later recalled visiting her aunt’s studio, watching her work, and being captivated by the smells, sights and painting process. Hilda encouraged Marie and took her on sketching trips to the Yorkshire Dales, where Marie was introduced to landscape painting that eventually became the focus for her own work.
At boarding school in Surrey, Marie pursued her art studies at weekly art classes. These mainly involved still life subjects, but Marie persuaded the staff to allow her to work outside on nature and landscape studies of the Surrey countryside.
After leaving school, she returned to Yorkshire but in 1939, after the start of WW2, Marie joined the Land Army and later became a driver in the YMCA. Her wartime duties gave her little time for painting, but in the immediate post war period she began to paint the Yorkshire landscape again.
In 1953 she joined a group of amateur painters on a painting course in Bruges, led by the watercolour landscape painter, Jack Merriot. Encouraged by his tuition, she became a member of the Northern Federation of Artists and attended their summer painting schools during the mid 1950s. Here she met leading artists of the time, including Robert Medley and Terry Frost, who encouraged their students to consider landscape as a means of personal expression, rather than just a form of pictorial representation.
Robert Medley, in particular, encouraged Marie to apply to Chelsea School of Art, where in 1956 she was accepted and was taught by another Yorkshire landscape painter, Vivian Pitchforth.
In 1957 Marie spent the summer in Majorca painting landscapes and met the writer, Robert Graves, who lived there and who showed an interest in her work.
I first met Marie Walker Last in the very early years of my career as a curator, and she has remained one of its bright stars ever since. I still cherish the print that I bought from her then. A monotype of a bonfire in a field — nothing grand, but its smoke is rendered with such a forceful intensity that it morphs into a tall poplar, a billowing column against windswept clouds. This ability to translate into pictorial form her emotional response — even to the smallest of visual delights — was one of the defining characteristics of Marie’s work.
The marginalisation of women artists and the gradual capture of their rightful position in the history of art is now so well-rehearsed that it is perhaps difficult for younger people to imagine the situation as it was some fifty years ago, when Marie first determined to pursue her profession in painting. The odds were further stacked against her by the prejudices of a London art scene that, in the main, refused to believe a contemporary vitality could exist beyond its boundaries.
Happily, Marie justly gained recognition from a number of discerning curators and critics but, like many other women of her generation, the true extent of her talent is yet to be properly celebrated. Hopefully, this exhibition will help to set that going.
Marie’s determination to paint and create was tempered by a deep humanity and rare humility. That, put together with a sharp perception and enviable dexterity, made her an outstanding gem in the rich vein of Yorkshire artists able to feel and express the natural world in all its moods.