I have seen two notable exhibitions on my travels this summer – both focusing on textiles and both featuring talented women designers – who are new new to me.
The first was ‘Marie Gudme Leth: Pioneer in Print’ at the Danish Design Museum in Copenhagen (until 25 September 2016). Gudme Leth had a long life (1895-1997) and a prolific output and the exhibition foregrounds her role as a designer who the raised ‘the status of printed textiles to the level enjoyed by other branches of applied art’. A designer-maker she was born in the Danish town of Aarhus, Jutland. She attended the local technical school before graduating from the Women’s School of Drawing and Industrial Art in Copenhagen. She later attended the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and worked at the Danish Museum of Decorative Art drawing objects for the Museum’s accession lists. She spent most of 1930 studying in Germany at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Decorative Arts) in Frankfurt am Main, and here she honed her printing skills, but returned to Copenhagen to take up the post as a teacher of textile printing at the School of Applied Art – she continued to design and print her own work.
The exhibition includes a large number of her fabrics – beautifully displayed in long lengths without the restriction of glass cases. This means that you can view each fabric at close quarters – a treat, when so often textiles have to be display in cases, but this means that museum staff have to be vigilant – touching fabric is a terrible temptation for many visitors!
Marie Gudme Leth’s work is organised into three stylistic periods. Fabrics from the first are hand-block printed, the patterns arranged simply in few colours and on unbleached linen. The earliest designs are from the 1930s and several were inspired by her stay in Java between 1921 and 1924 where she encountered the batik technique, such as ‘Jungle’, 1932 and ‘Chameleon’, 1938.
Gume Leth’s focus on hand printing was paralleled in England with designers like Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher pioneering its revival in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1935, with external ﬁnancial support, she established Dansk Kattuntryk (Danish Calico Printworks), printing her own designs. The work of her company was retailed through the the Copenhagen shops MagasinBO, Selskabet for Haandarbejdets Fremme (the Danish Handcrafts Guild), Magasin du Nord and Den Permanente.
In 1940 a disagreement caused Gudme Leth to leave Dansk Kattuntryk and for three years she was prohibited from using her own print designs and dyes that she formulated there. This set back, however, did nothing to dampen her creative output – the 1940s and 1950s were her golden years and work displayed represents the second phase of her output
The exhibition devotes a text panel to printing process and outlines the emergence of the hand-screen printing process, which Gudme Leth encountered on a study trip to a German textile printworks in 1930. The technique, was also taken up by a number of British textile firms during the 1930s, particularly for the production of avant-garde and more experimental designs it allowed larger and more complex repeats as well as the better reproduction of mark-making and painterly effects. This focus on printing techniques left me a little disappointed that identification of the printing method was not included on the object labels.
This apart, I have nothing but praise for the show – Marie Gudme Leth’s work was a revelation particularly in terms of pattern and colour. Her ability to develop as a designer can be seen clearly in the range and quantity of work on display – from the simple early repeats, to the sophisticated pattern-making of the mid-period and then her experiments with colouration and colour composition during the last phase of her career. Her work of the 1960s is characterised by overprinted patterns of pure geometry. She continued to print textiles until she closed her workshop in 1963-1964.
I am finishing with an image of her 1945 fabric ‘Friendship’ printed on vistra (a cellulose fabric – used by the designer frequently when natural fibres were difficult to obtain during World War 2). Shown alongside the work of Sheila Bownas they illustrate some of the subject-matter that these two very different designers shared.
‘A Life in Pattern: The Life and Works of Sheila Bownas’ at Rugby Art Gallery (closes on 3 September 2016) showcases an archive bought by Chelsea Cefai in 2008, it brings together examples of the designers’ work from this collection and from her family. Unlike the Gudmen Leth show – there are no fabrics – rather, there are dozens of designs on paper, examples of drawing and painting, sketchbooks and family photographs.
Sheila Bownas (1925-2007) was born in Linton, near Skipton, Yorkshire and her roots are reflected in several pieces on display. She attended Skipton Girls High School and then Skipton Art School and won a scholarship to attend The Slade School of Fine Ar. She moved to London in 1946 where she studied until 1950 becoming a skilled painter – several examples from this period are included in the exhibition.
Bownas is typical of so many designers – she was successful as a freelancer but her name remained hidden from the original consumers who bought her textiles and wallpapers from well-known names such as Liberty, Crown Wallpapers and Marks & Spencer. Apparently she did apply unsuccessfully for staff jobs and for three years she worked as a part-time teacher at Huddersfield School of Art (incidentally where I had my first job teaching design history!)
Her work shows her versatility and her ability to adapt her styles to suit different clients. The exhibition explains her design process (through objects and explanatory text), often a design began life as a doodle in a notebook, the idea was then developed as a scaled design on baking parchment and in repeat before being transferred by hand to paper and coloured in gouache.
The subject matter of her work ranges from novelty designs to florals – in a variety of stylistic treatments -to geometric and mid-century contemporary style patterns that stand comparison with some of the greats of textile design.
Chelsea Cefai, the curator of the exhibition, is also now the custodian of the Bownas archive. She has spent the last few years raising the Sheila Bownas’ profile and working with contemporary designers to make her work available in new products. You can see more on the Sheila Bownas Archive website. Some of these new products were included in the exhibition.
I caught the exhibition in its final week and unfortunately the catalogue was sold out – it is hoped that the exhibition will be shown elsewhere and that the catalogue will be re-printed.
There are so many talented people (particularly women), who are yet to be identified and their work studied. In recent years a few have been recognised and in some cases their work reproduced. Lara McKinnon and Sylvia Chalmers’ work can be bought from the Glasgow School of Art’s Vintage Textile Collections (the Bownas fabrics are also printed there). In my work on Horrockses Fashions I have written about Joyce Badrocke, Wendy Simpson and others – but there is much work yet to be done.