Back in the 1980s I was working on my PhD on the American textile designer Marion Dorn and was in New York where I interviewed Yvonne McHarg, a food stylist, who had known Dorn back in the 1930s through her sister Madge Garland. Garland was a fashion journalist and the founder of the first fashion course at the Royal College of Art, she and Dorn were good friends. On that trip Yvonne gave me her copy of Vathek. The book was a re-print of William Beckford’s 1782 gothic novel – which tells the story of Vathek, a caliph, who builds five palaces, each devoted to the enjoyment of one of the five senses. The book was published by the Nonesuch Press in 1929 with illustrations by Marion Dorn. In this article I would like to draw attention to the relationship between Dorn’s textile design and these illustrations.
Dorn’s eight full-page illustrations and two vignettes were printed by the Curwen Press. There was a limited print run for the volume with 1050 copies produced in the UK and 500 in the US. The printing process used was lithography and each illustration has a pastel-like quality. At the time she produced these designs she was starting to become a very successful textile designer and was gaining a reputation for her batiks which she had been designing since she settled in London in 1923 with her partner and fellow American, graphic designer, Edward McKnight Kauffer.
When Dorn arrived in London she continued to develop the batik work which she had begun when she lived in New City, New York with her then husband the ceramic artist Henry Varnum Poor. The fabrics she produced in England in the 1920s ranged from large-scale bespoke pieces, to smaller items such as scarves and handkerchiefs and occasionally dresses.
Dorn’s pattern-making skills are evident in both the illustrations to Vathek, in her batik patterns and the increasing number of carpet designs she was starting to produce by the late 1920s. In her first illustration for the book (see image shown next to book’s binding, above) one can clearly see the geometric composition of the floor of the palace that derives from her batik work and was developing in her rug designs, especially the important commission she received for the 1932 extension and redecoration of Claridges Hotel, London by Oswald P Milne.
The second full-page image in the book illustrates the area described in the text where ‘a hundred groves of sweetly scented shrubs’ were situated and where Vathek went to breath fresh air and drink the pure water. Dorn’s treatment of the trees intended to represent the range of different species found there, she intersects them with a flowing stream. The way she handles the depiction of the various leaf forms relates to her skilled rendering of leaf and plant forms in both her rug and fabric designs.
Vathek builds an observation tower with 1,500 steps on the top of which a fire is built in and a sacrifice made. In a further episode in the story tigers attack a group of travellers. In both these illustrations Dorn’s drawing is accomplished and her composition and pattern-making skills obvious.
In some of the illustrations we see motifs that recur again and again in Dorn’s textile work, particularly leaves and birds.
Dorn’s abstracted treatment of birds was developed in several textile designs in the 1930s. The surreal treatment of the disembodied hand and heart was adapted for a design she did for a screen print ‘Hand & Poppy for Warner & Sons in 1935.
Vathek is the only book that Dorn illustrated, probably because her career as a textile designer really took off in the 1930s. Her name appeared regularly in the art and design press and in 1934 she set up her own limited company – unusual for a designer at the time.
She did occasionally produce works on paper, these included cards, wallpapers and embroidery transfers – but her real talent was working with fabric and fibre, whether that be for printed textiles or more textural weaves and rugs. Writing in 1939, the writer and interior designer H.G.Hayes Marshall described Dorn ‘ as one of the most prominent and successful designers of our time’. (1)
(1) Marshal, H.G. Hayes (1939) British Textile Designers Today, F Lewis.
Boydell, C (1996) The Architect of Floors: modernism, art and Marion Dorn designs, Schoeser
Boydell, C (1996) ‘Batik in America and Britain 1920-1930: The Early Career of Marion Dorn’, Text, 24: 4-8
Boydell, C (1996) ‘The Decorative Imperative: Marion Dorn’s Textiles and Modernism’, Journal of the Decorative Arts Society, 19: 31-40