Estra Clark [1904-1993]: York artist and pictorial cartographer

It is only now that I come to realize that Estra Clark and I share a great deal in common: first and foremost the privilege of having been born & raised in the“most famous and fayre Citie of York”, as 17th Century mapmaker, John Speed described my historic home town on his map of the West Riding of Yorkshire [1610]. It would be a map that would provide ready inspiration for much of Estra Clark’s later work as a pictorial cartographer.

A far greater coincidence lies in the fact that Estra and I at one time lived in the same village – Poppleton – actually the adjacent settlements of Upper & Nether Poppleton, lying close to the River Ouse, some four miles to the north west of York itself. Estra and her husband Isaac would enjoy their retirement years here, in Nether Poppleton, from the late 1950s onwards. For myself, Poppleton features in many of my earliest childhood memories during the early 1960s and is a  place for which I retain a lasting affection & attachment.

So it is fitting indeed that Estra Clark (née Walker) should be the subject of this current blog post. Estra was a pioneering & highly independent woman artist and York art teacher, whose cartographic legacy lies in five delightfully designed pictorial maps, all published within a relatively short 12 year period between 1947 and 1959.

Estra Walker, circa 1925-30  

Image © 2018 – courtesy of family of Eliza May Gilbert (née Allatt)

Estra Walker was born on Sunday March 13th 1904, probably at Clarendon House, 18 Scarcroft Road, York, where the Walker family are recorded in the 1911 Census. Clarendon House is still so named, a substantial semi-detached Victorian villa, situated just beyond Micklegate in the Victorian suburbs between the City Walls and the Mount, on the south-western outskirts of the City. Estra’s unusual Christian name was apparently derived from the ancient Germanic goddess of Spring, Eostre (from which also derives the word “Easter”). She was the only child of William Walker [1866-1952], a former York grocer who was now manager of a local agricultural merchant and Annie Elizabeth (née Mason) [b.1868]. The couple has been married in the nearby village of Acomb in 1901. Given York’s status as a major railway hub, it is hardly surprising that William’s father, Thomas Gaskarth Walker [1843-1941], a native of Durham, had settled in York and found gainful employment as a specialist joiner and railway coachbuilder. Several other family relatives also found local employment as railway clerks and administrators, including Estra’s future husband, Isaac Oswald Clark [1902-1980], whom she married in 1942.

The Walker family were evidently devout Methodists and Estra was quick to offer up her skills & artistic talents in support of her faith, as evidenced in the 1926 handbook to the Wesleyan Church’s National Conference in York, which she personally typed up (according to the handbook’s credits) and whose front cover she also illustrated. Her illustration work would also grace the handbook of the Methodist Church’s National Conference in Leeds exactly thirty years later in 1956. Interestingly her last-known cartographic production was published by the Methodist Church’s Epworth Press in 1959. It was advertised in Geographical Magazine at the time as “a beautifully designed and printed picture map showing the main events of the Old Testament”, being a large wall map over a metre across, “ideal for Classrooms”. Evidently now quite scarce we have so far been unable to trace any surviving institutional examples of this work.

Unfortunately we know almost nothing of Estra’s early upbringing and education. She was evidently extremely gifted, both artistically and musically. She apparently studied for a time at London’s Royal College of Music, and, in January 1920, aged 15, was highly commended (winning 1 shilling) in a national children’s art competition (worth £100 to the winner) to design a front cover for My Magazine, the so-called Children’s Newspaper.

York City Art Gallery, Exhibition Square c.1910-20

The Gallery housed the York School of Arts & Crafts for much of the 20th Century. Estra Walker was a student here during the 1920s. The statue in front of the Gallery is of the famous York artist, William Etty [1787-1849]

By the early 1920s Estra was student (and very possibly, subsequently, teacher) at the York School of Arts and Crafts, an influential City-funded institution, since 1913 headed by William Edward Parkinson, ARCA [1871-1927] and located within the confines the City Art Gallery. Parkinson placed particular emphasis on teaching the skills of traditional craftsmanship & design.

Both during and after the end of the First World War, the School had offered an increasingly wide variety of art classes to help rehabilitate and provide vocational and professional training for local soldiers and military personnel. Through the provision of evening scholarships and attempts to encourage broader access to art education and technical training, as well as fostering closer links with local schools and businesses, the School’s influence & reputation, both charitably and demographically, was increasingly recognized across the City and far beyond. Moreover the School’s students played an increasingly  prominent role in the political & cultural life of post-war York, designing & creating significant works of art, often of national importance, and reviving many of the age-old skills & techniques of traditional craftsmanship.

Such pieces included a specially fabricated medieval-style “cap of Maintenance” presented by the King to the City; several wooden or leather-tooled caskets, often richly embellished with special inscriptions, pictorial decorations & painted panels depicting the City’s historic buildings (& frequently packed full with local Rowntree’s chocolate!); and an array of richly illuminated vellum scrolls presented to important local dignitaries when bestowed with the honour of the freedom of the City. Recipients included the likes of Albert Prince of Wales; Princess Mary, the Princess Royal; Lloyd George; and W. M Hughes, the Prime Minister of Australia.

York Minster Through the Centuries by Estra Walker [1927]

(Author’s Collection)

The extent of Estra’s involvement in such artworks is not known, though in July 1927 a small illustrated pamphlet entitled York Minster through the Centuries was advertised in the local press. It was Estra’s first published work, and one to which the Art School’s headmaster, Mr Parkinson, whose sudden & unexpected death had been announced just two months earlier, had generously contributed a charming introduction prior to his death. It is not clear if Estra was at this point still a student at the School or whether she had, perhaps, by this stage, joined its teaching staff, perhaps a a junior assistant.

One of Estra’s attractive vignette illustrations for her 1927 York Minster pamphlet

The pamphlet was designed to show the growth and development of the Minster, through successive periods of history. Through the use of charming vignettes and a series of small plans, each on the same scale and on semi-transparent pages, the reader is able to envisage how the Minster’s footprint evolved and expanded over the centuries.

Parkinson noted in the introduction that:

Miss Walker, like myself, feels it to be a perpetual joy and inspiration to be able to live and study in a wonderful old city like York – to become familar with its treasures of stone, galss, wood, illuminating, and particularly its chiefest glory – York Minster…And if by this small effort, she succeeeds in fostering a love for it on the part of others, I am sure she will feel amply repaid.

In 1931 Estra undertook an important solo trip to the United States, visiting a number of family relatives in New York State and New Hampshire. Several photographs of Estra taken during this trip by her American relatives have been very kindly provided to me by their present owner and now illustrate this article.

Estra Walker photographed during a visit to the United States in 1931

Image © 2018 – courtesy of family of Eliza May Gilbert née Allatt

Around this same time Estra became increasingly active in several local societies, notably the Yorkshire Architectural and York Archeological Society (YAYAS), eventually taking on the role of Secretary of its Junior branch in 1937. The Society had significant outreach into several local girls schools, mainly through the determined efforts of influential fellow YAYAS member, Georgian Society stalwart and Queen Anne’s School History teacher, Miss Isabella Pressly.

Estra also seems to have become increasingly closely acquainted with such prominent local figures as Dr William Arthur Evelyn [1860-1935], whose unrivalled collection of 1200 historic prints and watercolours of the city of York was offered to the City Art Gallery in 1931, but only finally acquired only after a vociferous six month  public appeal. She is known to have offered Dr Evelyn one rare early print of the City for his collection and may well have supplied him with others.

Another significant influence on Estra during this period, and someone who also seems to have had close connections with Parkinson and the School of Arts, was the York architect, Charles William Cashmore Needham [1893-1962].

It is said that under Needham’s personal guidance & tutelage Estra’s interest in pictorial cartography was first piqued. Needham’s father Samuel, also an architect, had moved to York in the late 19th Century and initially worked for the Tadcaster Brewery Company, before setting up in private practice in 1904. After training with his father, Charles was appointed City architect to Leicester Corporation before eventually returning to York in 1927 to carry on the family practice, which would later become Needham, Thorp and then Needham, Thorp  & White. Conservative by nature, Charles Needham embraced traditional architectural styles and materials and was consulting architect to the City’s two great medieval guild halls, the Merchant Adventurers and Merchant Taylors, as well as a founding member of the York Georgian Society. He would later play a prominent role as a consultant in plans for the post-war redevelopment and re-generation of several important northern Cities, including York itself [1948], Hartlepool and Sheffield. Needham was a particularly significant figure in York civic life during the 1930s and 1940s, working closely alongside other local luminaries such as Dean Eric Milner-White [1884-1963], Oliver Sheldon [1894-1951] and John Bowes Morrell [1873-1963] in attempts to improve & preserve for posterity the heritage and aesthetic beauty of York & its unrivalled wealth of ancient buildings.

By October 1935, we find evidence of Estra’s new interest in cartography & pictorial maps. A review of the Autumn Exhibition of the York Arts Society describes one of the most striking pieces on display, a decorative hand-painted pictorial map of Ryedale, “conceived largely on the lines of 16th Century cartography, not only showing the contours from Helmsley to the Vale of Mowbray, but indicating the natural features and with a few spirited little sketches in the manner of 400 years ago indicating historical points and occupational interest”. The present whereabouts of Estra’s Ryedale map are sadly unknown, assuming of course that it ever survived the ravages of the past eight decades.

*Addenda & Update to Original 2018 blog post (@April 2024, very belatedly): I was very excited to receive notification from John Brisby that Estra’s Ryedale map had indeed survived the past nine decades and that he is the current owner of it. He has published a wonderful article about the map in the Autumn 2020 issue of the Voice of the Moors, the Magazine of the North Yorkshire Moors Association (NYMA).

It is with his kind permission and much gratitude that I include the following images of Estra’s delightful Ryedale map:

In the September 1939 National Register Estra, still living with both her parents and elderly grandfather at 18 Scarcroft Road, is described as a Secondary School Art Teacher. Married in wartime York in 1942, it is not until May 1946 that Estra’s next cartographic project first attracts public interest & attention. Amongst the items described in the York Arts Society Summer Exhibition of that year is a fine pictorial map of York, “a new departure on the lines of medieval cartography” showing “all the historic spots of the City”.

It is interesting that just two months later, in July 1946, Charles Needham along with Dean Milner-White and J B Morrell, first launched the York Civic Trust Association (formally established in 1949) to preserve York’s historic architectural heritage and buildings.

Estra’s exhibit is presumably an ink & watercolour prototype for the ensuing printed map, entitled Historic York, that was first published by local printers, Ben Johnson Limited, in the following year and offered for sale for a price of 2 shillings. It would remain a highly popular and long-lived production, issued in a number of different formats during the ensuing years.

Historic York [1947]

(Author’s Collection)

Two years later, Estra undertook a much larger & more significant commission for the recently nationalised British Railways: a large quad royal poster in the form of a striking pictorial map of the county of Yorkshire. In its scale, decoration & detail, it is an outstanding piece of cartographic design & workmanship, and probably her finest work.

A Map of Yorkshire – Estra Clark for British Railways [1949]

(Author’s Collection)

The local York department store, Leak & Thorp Ltd, would recopyright a reduced-size version of the map for their own promotional advertising in the early 1960s:

In 1952, following on from the success of her pictorial map of Historic York, Estra designed a matching companion piece depicting Historic Canterbury.

Historic Canterbury [1957]

(Author’s Collection)

In 1957, another design by Estra, entitled Historic Jersey and printed in black & white and vibrant green, depicts this most beautiful of the Channel Islands:

Historic Jersey [1957]

(Author’s Collection)

Estra’s last cartographic production was the Old Testament Picture Map published by the Epworth Press in 1959. Around this time she and her husband Isaac appear to have retired from the York suburb of Acomb to the peace and quiet of Nether Poppleton, where they lived quietly until Isaac’s death in 1980.

Estra’s devoted commitment to local Methodism was demonstrated in what was probably her last commercially produced artwork design –  a special plate commemorating the Centenary of Poppleton Methodist Church in 1990:

Estra Clark passed away in York in February 1993, aged 88.

Fifty years earlier, William Edward Parkinson’s successor as headmaster of the York School of Arts & Crafts, R T Cotterill, wrote a public letter on the subject of the Function of Art Education. He described how there was at that particular point a necessity, to “train Artists, Designers and Craftsmen to carry on the traditions of the past, to enrich the present, and to leave a notable mark in history as contributors from their generation” as well as fostering the “spiritual side of the individual”.

In almost every respect, Estra Clark’s work as an independent woman artist & pictorial mapmaker admirably matches Cotterill’s vision of the well-trained, enriching professional artistic career. She carried on the traditions of the past, enriched the present and left her own small yet distinctive mark on the history of 20th Century pictorial cartography.

In Estra’s case she probably owed everything to the place of her birth and to the many important local friendships & connections that she formed during her long artistic career, but, above all, she owed most to “the perpetual joy and inspiration” of being able to live, study and work in & around the City of York throughout her life.

Refs:

David Rumsey Collection

The History of the York School of Art [Jye O’Sullivan, 2000]

Early Years of the York Georgian Society [Katherine A Webb,  lecture to York Georgian Society, Dec 2009]

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NB. I am especially grateful to the family of Eliza May Gilbert née Allatt [1888-1985] for permitting me to use the photographs of Estra Clark that illustrate this article. Please note that these images remain the property of the family and may not be republished or reproduced without permission.