You can imagine the look of astonishment on the faces of the office workers who opened art student Harriet Lowther’s letters in the last six months, not to mention the senior executives on whose desks they eventually landed.
Take Robert Booth, for example. As the man ultimately responsible for all parking issues in the city of Glasgow, it’s safe to say thank you letters do not flood onto his desk on a daily basis.
But Mr Booth was so taken with Harriet Lowther’s letter, sent on February 14 this year thanking his team for the good service she received while arranging a parking permit for outside her flat in the west end of Glasgow, that he wrote to her personally stating, ‘your appreciation will be forwarded to the relevant employee.’
Over at Strathclyde Passenger Transport’s head office, jaws undoubtedly dropped in a southerly direction as Lowther’s letter thanking the people who work on Glasgow’s underground train network for their ‘fantastic service’, was opened up. “I never have a problem with the Subway,” Lowther wrote. “If I happen to miss a train, I know that another will be on its way shortly after. The service is quick, convenient and very useful.”
A thank you letter and bag of Subway goodies arrived for Lowther’s by return of post, together with a letter from SPT marketing manager Amanda Anderson. In it, Anderson thanked the 23-year-old from Lancashire, calling her ‘the kindest customer we have ever had’ and adding: “It was a breath of fresh air as we so rarely get letters of thanks.”
Since early January, as part of her final year project for a BA in Fine Art Photography at Glasgow School of Art, Lowther has written over 200 thank you letters and received almost 100 letters back.
Lowther’s letters have been sent to companies who make or manufacture a product she uses and likes from Maped paper clips to Marlboro cigarettes to Jammy Dodger biscuits, or a service she uses regularly, although she has also sent personal thank you letters. Jamie Oliver received a note thanking him for a ‘delicious’ cheesecake recipe in his Ministry of Food cookbook, while the Queen was thanked for a brief encounter they had two years ago while Lowther and her friend were walking on the Balmoral estate and the Queen was out with her Corgis.
“I am not sure if you recall the time but we were walking with our West Highland terrier and it was rather cold! We chatted a little about visiting the cabin and the weather and then we continued with our separate walks,” she wrote. “I wanted to write to you today to thank you for such a memorable experience.”
Lowther’s Big Thank You project, on show to the public from Saturday, as part of Glasgow School of Art’s annual Degree Show is one of the most memorable on display this year.
Taking up a large panel across a wall in one of the studios, Lowther has hung 296 (eight down and 27 across) of her framed A4 size thank you letters and replies in a grid format and set up a stall in front selling all the vouchers and products she has received in return, including an SPT tea-towel, a DKNY umbrella, a £2 Marmite voucher (on sale at £4.50), a £10 IKEA voucher (for £19.00) and two packets of Fox’s Sports Biscuits.
This piece of mischief is a nod to the way in which her fellow students get caught up in the degree show madness of selling their wares for inflated prices each year. Lowther has even offered to sign them for an additional £5.
Surprisingly touching and intimate in the way they build up a picture of this young woman’s life, there is also a vast well of humour in Lowther’s project, laced in with an almost childlike sincerity.
“It started as a side-project really,” she explains. “I got a polar bear hot water bottle from my twin sister Emily at Christmas and wondered idly who had made it. The more I thought about it, the more I realised we don’t know much about the products or services we use.
“So I decided I’d write thank you letters to see where it led me. The first letter I wrote was to Kleenex on January 6 this year. I didn’t email anything. I was adamant about that although I used the Internet to track down addresses. It’s amazing how few companies put postal addresses online. I learned so much about who owns who.”
Evidently an organised sort of person, who knows her way around a spreadsheet, Lowther’s tone in the letters is never patronising. “I meant every word I wrote,” she insists. There would be no point otherwise.”
Although her area of study is fine art photography, Lowther admits the photography side of things started took a back seat as The Big Thank You grew bigger and bigger. “It started off as a side project and grew and grew. It’s not finished either. I’m going to keep going.”
The test of an idea that works is whether or not it stands up when you walk away from it. Lowther’s project does. It’s not only entertaining, it throws up pertinent questions about the way we live our lives today. We may be in the midst of a recession, but we have all been all been brought up in an age of conspicuous consumption. We expect certain standards and, as the recent banking crisis has shown, we like to put a face to the people behind the corporate machine. At the same time, we have moved further and further away from knowing who runs the services we rely on and who makes the products we use on a daily basis.
As this singular young artist says: “It makes you think about how much you have and how much you need.”
GSA Degree Show 2009
The Glasgow School of Art, 167 Renfrew Street, Glasgow
Saturday & Sunday, 10am-5pm
Mon-Thur, 10am-9pm and Friday, 10am-7pm
- The story so far
- I'm an arts journalist & PR consultant living and working in Scotland. I've been a journalist for more than 25 years. I write a regular column for Scottish quality newspaper, The Herald. I deliver a PR service with an arty bent and work on a consultancy basis with arts organisations, including Scotland's leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth & broadcast support body, ScreenHI. I am currently co-writing a book about the celebrated Scots artist, George Wyllie, with his daughter Louise. Instrumental in making a celebration of his life's work happen in 2012. For more information, see www.georgewyllie.com When I'm not being a mum/working, I talk to my dog. He laps it up. Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org (All work © Jan Patience)