Maria Walker takes inspiration from the everyday events of the past.


This story begins with a bundle of old letters I found one rainy Sunday afternoon in an antique centre in Cheshire in 2009.  I had originally intended to cut up the letters to use in the mixed media collages I was making at the time, but when I started to read them – somewhat guiltily at first – I realised that I had discovered a real treasure trove of social history and my scissors were not allowed anywhere near them.

The letters were dated from 1923 and 1924 and had all been written to Frances Lightfoot who was at that time living away with her aunt. All the members of her large family, who lived in Widnes in Cheshire, wrote letters to her, and between them they recount what everyday life was like for a working class family at this time. Mostly the letters were written by Frances’ mother, Ada Lightfoot, who kept Frances informed of all the local gossip, the antics of her younger brothers and sisters, and the ordeal of doing the washing. Other letters contained stories of trips to the dentist, ice skating on frozen ponds, Christmas parties at school, killing pigs, mending boots and the general election.

These letters provided me with inspiration for my textile art, which is inspired by memory and everyday life, and I started to create narrative-based artwork that told the stories I found hidden in these letters. I was particularly inspired by Ada’s numerous accounts of the minutiae of everyday life,  For example, the arduous task of doing the laundry and keeping her children clothed and warm. I wanted to bear witness to what this family had gone through in the 1920s through my textile-based practice so I started to create digital collages from the scans of the letters, incorporating lines from the letters, images from my own personal photographic archive and items such as buttons, lace and stamps from the period. For example, in ‘Nice Frock’ I used a photograph of my mum when she was three in 1926, to represent Dorothy Lightfoot, of whom Ada writes “she is delighted with the photograph of her with the nice frock”

Nice Frock

The text itself became an integral feature of my artwork as it gave voice to the universal concerns of the working class woman that Ada was writing about in her letters.  I felt that through the act of embroidering Ada’s words onto garments I was able to reinforce their impact and make them relevant for today.

Ada’s Corset

Corset detail

Doing the family’s washing in the harsh winter weather took up most of Ada’s week, sometimes her son Peter would stay off school to help put the clothes through the mangle. ‘The Washing Gets Me Down’ is a digital collage in which the overall worn by one of the women is made from scans of the words written by Ada in her letters to Frances and was inspired by Ada’s references to the ordeal of doing the laundry, which took her the best part of a week. For this work I used an image of my husband’s grandmothers, one of whom he tells me,  was never seen without an overall.

The Washing Gets Me Down

The next chapter of this story took place while I was working as an Artist in Residence at an event for creative writers and by chance I met a poet called Angela Topping.  As I talked about the letters and the family who wrote them, Angela realised that I was talking about her own family and the letters had been written by Angela’s grandparents to her Aunt Frances. There were even a couple of letters written by Angela’s father who was about 10 at the time.  We later decided to collaborate and started to plan an exhibition that would be a fusion of textile art and poetry, and that is exactly what we did.

I was particularly interested in the lives of ordinary working class women and used memories of my own grandmother to explore the theme of a ‘woman’s work is never done’. She was a very industrious woman and in her life she ran a bakery, an off licence and finally a boarding house in Blackpool. I used images of her to create a design, which I printed onto a tea towel and embroidered the names of household chores around the side.

A woman’s work is never done

I also used an old photograph of her working on her sewing machine to create the work ‘Make me a Dress’, using the technique of reverse applique. As the work progressed words from Angela’s poetry became intertwined with my textiles.

Make me a Dress

Ada’s accounts of the hardship of doing the laundry resonated with me so much that I decided to explore this theme further and created an installation called Ada’s washing line, each garment recounting a particular aspect of Ada’s story. I
made children’s garments using vintage fabric and designs I found in pattern cutting books from the 1920s. I added text found in Ada’s letters by stitching and cutting into the garment.

Ada’s Washing Line

Garment Detail

Garment Cutwork

Lettering detail

I was also interested in the objects the family would have used and how these objects also have a story to tell. I often juxtapose objects with my embroidery to create installations which reinforce the narratives I recount. In Ada’s ‘Ironing Board’ I used a vintage children’s ironing board and embroidered the lines from Ada’s letter telling Frances of how she had cut her thumb and how painful it was when she had to do the ironing.

Ironing Board

The poverty of the Lightfoot family was apparent in the letters and they did not have any precious objects to pass down. My stitched textile collage ‘No Heirlooms’ reflects this through collage, free machine embroidered drawings and text from one of Angela’s poems.

No heirlooms

Inspired by the paper-cut artwork of Rob Ryan I developed a technique of creating lines of text through cutwork in my installation ‘Lean into the Wind’, which was inspired by the poem Angela wrote about her father skating on a frozen pond.

Lean into the wind

Cutwork in progress

Another exciting aspect of our collaboration was that I was now able to use Angela’s images of her family in my artwork.  Imagine my excitement when I was able to re-unite a photograph of each of the family members with their actual words they had written all those years ago. The words “I’d rather have a Spoon” came directly from a letter written by the father Peter when he recounts that he was going to a hotpot supper and complained that he would have to use a knife and fork but would rather have a spoon. I loved this letter so much that I had it enlarged and printed onto canvas to hang on the wall in the gallery.

I’d rather have a Spoon

Peter’s Letter

I have now made over sixty pieces of artwork and the Lightfoot Letters exhibition has been exhibited widely across the UK. There is not enough space here to talk about every piece of work but you can see more on my website.

Maria Walker

Website:  www.mariawalker.co.uk

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