A Different Canvas: The British Abstractionists

By LIZ HAGER

This is the third installment in a series of posts, in which Venetian Red explores aspects of artist-designed textiles.  For all posts in the series, click here.

Henry Moore—Barbed Wire 1946

Henry Moore, Barbed Wire, ca. 1946,
serigraphy in five colors, spun rayon (courtesy The Ascher Collection).

While primarily known as sculptors and painters, the British “Abstractionists” Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), and Henry Moore (1898-1986) also designed a fair number of textiles. Though not always huge commercial successes, in fact their designs did help revitalize British textile design, which was nearly moribund in the pre-War years.

Nicholson, Hepworth, and Moore were eager to experiment with textiles; they all considered designing for the applied arts to be a legitimate part of their artistic output. Further, they understood the power of the mass-distributed textiles to introduce their individual aesthetics to new audiences.

Barbara Hepworth—Pillar, 1937

Barbara Hepworth, Pillar, 1937,
woven cotton and rayon furnishing fabric, produced by Edinburgh Weavers.

A discussion of mid-20th-century textile design in Britain necessarily begins with William Morris (1834-1896), the undisputed progenitor of the industry. Through tireless efforts, Morris and members of the Arts & Crafts movement provided the framework—in terms of both design and production—that would thrust Britain, indeed the world, into the modern design age.

Ben Nicholson—3 Circles, 1937

Ben Nicholson, Three Circles, 1946-47,
screen printed linen, produced by Edinburgh Weavers (courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum).

By the mid-19th century Britain enjoyed clear dominance in the production of textiles. An ample supply of inexpensive cotton thread from her colonies, together with an unfailing commitment to industrialization of the weaving process and to the production of synthetic dyes (spurred by the discovery of synthetic mauve in 1856 by Sir William Perkin) formed the backbone of her competitive advantage.

Roller printed export cotton, Lancashire 1858

Pre-Morris Design—typical roller-printed export cotton, Lancashire, ca.1858
(courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum).

Nonetheless, the nation’s pre-occupation with technology eventually stymied design innovation. By the 1860s, the industry was hopelessly mired in copy-cat design practices that bred profusely-ornate and garishly-colored patterns. The country’s ability to provide innovative décor and fashion fabrics to a burgeoning middle class was seriously compromised.

Wm Morris—Larkspur wallpaper, 1872

William Morris, Larkspur (detail), 1872, wallpaper design.

By the 1870s, Morris and his colleagues succeeded in breathing new life into the British textile trade. Morris’ imaginative and harmonious designs were influenced not only by the arts of Medieval England and France, but 16th- and 17th-century Italian textiles, as well as growing attention to the cultivation of formal gardens. The designs sought to achieved a more naturalistic depiction of floral arrangements in both color and form. Indeed, great observation was at the core of  Morris’ superior draftsmanship.  Morris succeeded in creating designs that are timeless; a century and a half later, we still find them irresistible.

In addition, Morris’ unflagging promotion the standards of hand-made production (natural dying, hand weaving, block printing) led to innovation in weaving techniques, which, in turn, restored a richness of quality to fabrics that had nearly been lost through the rapid mechanization of looms.

Phyllis Barron—Log pattern , 1915

Phyllis Barron, Log, 1915, hand-blocked cotton.

The shadow of Morris’ legacy was long. Certainly, pockets of creativity existed in Britain well into the 1920s. After Morris, the design standard was ably carried  by C.F.A. VoyseyWalter Crane, Rennie Macintosh, Liberty’s, the Omega Workshops, among others. Originally painters, Phyllis Barron (1890-1964), Dorothy Larcher (1882-1952), and Enid Marx (1902-1998) were committed to continue the revival of hand block textile printing techniques that Morris had begun. Through much truly laborious work, they produced many stunning designs, in the process keeping the hand-crafted principles of the Arts & Crafts movement alive.

Enid Marx, Blue Waves

Enid Marx, Waves, ca. 1930s, hand-block printed cotton.

Outside Britain, perhaps the most visible disciples of the movement were Peter Behrens and the Darmstadt colony, the Wiener Werkstätte, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Lötte Frömel-Fochler—Grünfink

Lotte Frömel-Fochler, Grünfink, 1910, fabric sample.

By the early 1930s, these innovations notwithstanding, the British textile industry on the whole had once again sunk into a deep design funk. In place of British goods, the lushly-ornamental designs of the French had become highly-desirous. The British textile manufacturers were simply unable to compete effectively. Compounding matters, an ever-deepening economic depression enveloped the nation.

Nancy Nicholson—Unicorn, 1930s

Nancy Nicholson, Unicorn, 1930s, bedspread, block print and stencil.

A handful of textile firms specifically sought to redress this problem. In the early 1930s, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth began experimenting with block printing on textiles through Poulk Press, established by Nicholson’s sister, Nancy. Later they would work under the auspices of Edinburgh Weavers (established in 1928) whose director, Alastair Morton, regularly commissioned artists throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s to provide avant garde fabrics to the architectural trade.

Alastair Morton

Alastair Morton, late 1930s (?).

In October 1937, Morton launched the “Constructivist Fabrics” collection with designs by Nicholson,Hepworth,Winifred Nicholson (Nicholson’s first wife), and Arthur Jackson (Barbara Hepworth’s cousin).

Ben Nicholson—Princess, 1933

Ben Nicholson, Princess, 1933, hand block printed cotton.

Nicholson was already pre-occupied with flat geometric shapes in his paintings and linocut prints, and it is easy to imagine why he was influenced by Enid Marx’s work (though he found her techniques too slow and soon had his sister printing his designs). Nicholson produced some of the most austere textile prints of the pre-War period; but as Three Circles (above) demonstrates, he also could harness his fascination with geometry into appealing designs.

Hepworth’s textile designs closely follow her abstract paintings and drawings, in which she often worked out ideas for her sculptures. Hepworth had a gift for mathematics, and was close to her father (a civil engineer), so her two-dimensional works often have the vestiges of technical drawings in them. She and Nicholson were married for over 20 years, and although their work is different, it is also highly complementary.

Marianne Mahler—Treetops, 1939

Marianne Mahler, Treetops, 1939,
printed cotton and rayon furnishing fabric, printed by Edinburgh Weavers.

Though the importance of the Edinburgh Weavers within interior design industry was substantiated by the magazines and trendsetters of the 1930s and 40s, Morton once admitted that the fabrics weren’t always commercial successes:

There may be relatively few buildings yet that can suitably use them. But we are confident that they are the type of buildings and fabrics that the present generation wants and their production will have been justified if they have helped to develop a genuine contemporary style of interior decoration, keeping its place in the living culture of today.”

—Alistair Morton and Edinburgh Weavers, exhibition catalogue, Scottish National Gallery of Art, Edinburgh, 1978, p. 12

The company continued to produce avant garde textiles until Alastair Morton’s death in 1963.

Victor Vasarely, Oeta, furnishing fabric, 1962,
printed by Edinburgh Weavers, (courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum)

Henry Moore first became interested in fabrics during WWII, when Czech exiles Zika and Lida Ascher commissioned Moore, Matisse, Alexander Calder, Jean Cocteau, and others, to create designs for a collection of limited-edition silk scarves for their textile company. Soon Moore had filled four notebooks with designs, not simply for this commission, but for furnishing fabrics and dress-making material.

Henry Moore—Three Standing Figures, 1944, silk serigraphed scarf

Henry Moore, Three Standing Figures, 1944
serigraph on silk, printed by Ascher, Ltd.

His textile designs show a wholly different Moore, full of expressionistic line and color. Textile design fitted Moore’s socialist aim of integrating modern art into daily life, so familiar, though ominous, objects, including barbed wire or twisted safety pins,  gave his designs a distinctive hard edge. Whimsical motifs such as clock hands, sea creatures, and piano keys referenced Moore’s pre-war flirtation with surrealism.

Henry Moore, textile design

Henry Moore, textile design from sketchbook, 1940s, pencil/was/crayon/wash.

Given the drab chroma of his iconic stone and metal sculptures, one of the most astonishing elements of Moore’s textile designs is his use of vivid color. The artist conceived his hues—among them lime green, mustard yellow, bright pink—as a counterweight to post-war drabness. Moore once said that color for him was “a bit of a holiday,” and his work in textiles offered him the opportunity to work unfettered in this realm.

Wider Connections

Enid Marx
Alison Morton, hand weaver & daughter of Alistair Morton
VADS—Textile Collection
Meg Andrews—Antique Costumes & Textiles
Barbara Hepworth

“Henry Moore Textiles”

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3 Responses to “A Different Canvas: The British Abstractionists”

  1. Sara Kirby Says:

    I found this website while researching Robert Graves and Nancy Nicholson for a proposed film, about their life. It is stunning!
    I worked at Sundour Fabrics and Edinburgh Weavers as a textile designer and colourist in the Robin Hood mills, Bolton, after graduating in printed textiles from Manchester Metropolitan University in 1997. My main role was to select designs from the Morton archive and produce colourings for contemporary use. I worked with the original designs including ‘Unicorn’
    by Nancy Nicholson. I have always appreciated the work of Alistair Morton and his contribution to textile design.

    • Sara
      Thank you for finding us and for adding this wonderful bit of information to the post.

      How lucky you are to have worked Edinburgh Weavers! I can only imagine what it must have been like to touch, in a sense, the hands of textile design greatness. I’ve always been in awe of the British textile tradition, as much for its pioneering aesthetic (over the last 2 centuries) as for the respect the industry has always garnered in artistic circles. In a world that sharply divides the “high” and “low” arts, it’s refreshing to know that somewhere in the world, artists don’t make those kind of distinctions. . .

      Is there anywhere one can see the Morton archive?

  2. heritagewshc Says:

    I am working on a project reflecting ‘Creative Wiltshire’ and as part of that project have purchased some curtains made with fabric from Poulk Press, to add to a museum collection in Wiltshire. While the design dates from c1929-1930 it looks amazingly fresh; it is attributed to Nancy Nicholson and produced while she was based at Sutton Veny in Wiltshire. If you would like to read about our project you can do so by visiting http://www.creativewiltshire.com and I am grateful for any information about Poulk Press that anyone can supply. It will help when cataloguing the fabrics.
    Thank you

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