Mary Ireland was a celebrated British female artist active during the 1930s-1950s, who was influenced by the Birmingham School and in particular the work of Joseph Southall. Although her artistic skills included cartoons, watercolours, stained glass and needlework, she was most noted for her ‘fabric mosaics’ which incorporated fragments of antique textiles into the composition of the picture.
Borrowing from the Georgian technique of enhancing an embroidery with painted features, Ireland would hand-paint certain elements (such as the hands and face of figures) onto plain silk, then create the rest of the image from fabric fragments. The textile mosaic approach she subsequently pioneered was uniquely her own. She initially wanted to work in stained glass, but after falling ill from acid poisoning while trying to work and fuse crushed glass, she was forced to change approach.
In an interview with the Sunday Sun in 1933 Mary explained her revised thinking: “It was my interest in old fabrics”, she explained, “that was really the beginning. I hated to think of lovely materials ever being destroyed by age and being lost to future generations. Kept away from the air, silks, cottons and woollens retain their colour and their original strength for many years. The idea of framing them behind glass seemed a good way of preserving them, and from this the first fabric picture originated. Since I began friends and even strangers who know my work, have sent me scraps of material from every country in the world, some modern and some very old” (‘A New Art’ Elaine Arnott in Sunday Sun, 12.02.1933)
The first antique textile remnant Mary reputedly repurposed was some 18th Century Brocade and she would actively incorporate antique scraps into her pictures well into the 1950s. She particularly admired the late 18th Century fashions but tried to choose scraps that matched the relevant period of the costume in her artwork, and which mimicked the object or effect she was going for: “…These I used for my picture making, cutting and fitting every piece, however tiny, separately. I am always discovering new ways of setting fabric against fabric so that they catch the light from different angles and take upon themselves the appearance of all kinds of things. The pieces are not stuck one on top of the other as in applique work, but inlaid like a pavement of mosaic” (‘A New Art’ Elaine Arnott in Sunday Sun, 12.02.1933)
Ireland first exhibited at the Birmingham Spring Art exhibition in 1929, and soon gained notable commissions, for public institutions in the British Isles and overseas, with Queen Mary purchasing a number of works. Ireland also produced several works for religious buildings and arguably her most important work was a large triptych she produced for Bruges Cathedral. After WW2 Mary would stop cutting up and using antique fragments preferring to repair, research and exhibit them instead. However, from newspaper reviews written about her during the 1930s-50s, none appear to have questioned her practice and instead universally praised her for the unique and engaging approach it created.
The collection of works by Mary Ireland featured in our forthcoming sale have been collected by Paul Reeves over the last 25 years and come from his private collection.
Lyon & Turnbull’s Decorative Arts & Design specialists are renowned for both their knowledge and their sales of artworks conducted from London and Edinburgh and via our live online auctions. Our specialists are experts not only on design from 1860 to the present, but also on current market conditions, an essential combination to any successful auction.
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