For the past few months I have been acting as a consultant for this exhibition currently on show at Keele University, Staffordshire, which showcases the work of textile designer Pat Albeck and her late husband, theatre designer Peter Rice. Their son Matthew and his wife and business partner Emma Bridgewater (both designers) came to Keele University with the idea for the show (the Emma Bridgewater Factory is located a few miles away in Stoke on Trent). The team at Keele have gathered an eclectic array of Pat and Peter’s work as a fitting tribute to this creative couple.
My role in the show relates specifically to the work of Pat Albeck – who I first got to know when I was researching Horrockses Fashions. It was here that Pat worked at the beginning of her long and illustrious career. She started at Horrockses while still a student at the Royal College of Art in 1952 where she was talent-spotted by two of Horrockses’ directors. She worked for them alternate months while at the RCA and became full-time after graduation, and this early experience was so important for her future career. There are a number of examples of early work in the exhibition, including these skirts and a sun dress.
The Venice Market design (middle right and bottom) is a particular favourite of hers and was discovered quite recently on Ebay, the original design is in the V&A, as is the design of lobsters completed for one of the Horrockses’ stylists John Tullis. She worked closely with firm’s fashion designers throughout the six years she was with the company. The sundress is also a design by Tullis with Pat’s distinctive drawing style.
Pat was born in Hull in 1930 and attended the local art school before travelling south to study at the Royal College of Art. The elements of the exhibition devoted to Pat’s work reflect both the diversity and longevity of her career. When she left Horrockses she began a successful career as a freelance designer – there are too many companies to list here – but some of the best known include Sam Sherman, Sekers, M&S, John Lewis and Sandersons. Her work for John Lewis was particularly significant. In the sixties she was asked to produce a design based on the patterns of William Morris – her response was ‘Daisy Chain’ – printed in several colourways it was their best seller for 15 years. Pat feels that it was her work for Cavendish Textiles (the production arm of John Lewis) that included some of her best work. Working directly for a retailer, meant it was easier for her to understand who the end-user of her designs was going to be, the most important person to her is always the consumer.
Pat met her future husband, Peter Rice, at the Royal College of Art where he was studying theatre design. I have been lucky enough to some spend time with both Pat and Peter over the last few years and their complementary partnership was wonderful to witness.
Peter had been closely involved in the planning of this exhibition, but sadly he passed away on 24 Dec 2015 – I think he would have been very pleased with the show. His work is represented by numerous drawings and models for his extensive catalogue of theatre and opera productions. His first opera production was Il Seraglio in 1952 for Sadler’s Wells and he was designing for Holland Park Opera well into his eighties. His theatre work included designs for a revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and in 1988 he did the sets for Maureen Lipman’s Re:Joyce. In the Keele exhibition a reproduction of the mural that Peter painted for the Bridgwater factory takes a prominent place. Painted in 2013 ‘A Bright Past for Stoke-on-Trent’ and features its architectural heritage and is one of the last major pieces that Peter produced.
Although Pat Albeck is best known for her textile designs, she produced designs for ceramics, tins and wallpapers – also represented here.
There is a wonderful display of tea towels hanging in rows from the ceiling. How many of you have an Albeck tea towel lurking in a kitchen drawer? She designed ranges of products for them, including tea towels, from 1967 and still designs a tea towel for them every year.
Always passionate about flowers (but rejecting the phrase ‘floral’) – this subject has dominated much of her output. A close examination of a couple of designs demonstrates her mastery of the pencil – her drawing is always exquisite.
In recent years Pat has turned her creative attention to the production of cut paper designs – again flowers dominate. The fact that at her last show every one sold is testament to her continued creativity.
The design dynasty is continued by Matthew Rice and his wife Emma Bridgewater, and one of their four children who works as an illustrator.
For more information:
- Pat Albeck’s website – http://pat-albeck.co.uk/
- Exhibition video – ‘Back to the Drawing Board’
- Boydell, C (2010) Horrockses Fashions: Off-the-Peg Style in the ’40s and ’50s, V&A Publications
- Boydell, C ((1999) ‘Pat Albeck: textile designs for Horrockses Fashions 1953-58’, Text, 29: 5-10