The tone for the flourishing of artist’s textiles was set in the pre-war years, most notably by the Fauvist painter Raoul Dufy, whose ground-breaking first commission for textile design came from the Parisian couturier Paul Poiret and his interior decorating firm Maison Martine in 1911. He produced stylised designs based on his woodcuts, which took inspiration from primitive and archaic art, which was sweeping through avant-garde circles at this point, and his work depicted the colours of Fauvism, alongside the planes and strong outlines of Cubism, which resulted in a series of original designs perfect for Poiret’s modernist interior.
The success of this collaboration led to Dufy signing an exclusive contract with the Lyon textile manufacturer Bianchini-Férier by 1912, a collaboration which lasted for 16 years and produced over 4000 designs (Lots 123 & 124). Dufy’s remarkable success in the sphere of textile design had a pervasive influence on artists internationally, particularly in Britain and Roger Fry.
Fry believed in ‘The erroneous distinction between fine and applied art’ (Roger Fry, letter to George Bernard Shaw, 11 December 1912) and would have been aware of Dufy’s textiles from November 1911, when the restauranteur Marcel Boulestin had a shop in London “which sold the whole Martine range, including Dufy’s work…the silks, the velvets, the linens” (quoted in Geoffrey Rayner (ed.), Artist’s Textiles, p.13). Thus, it is of no surprise that textile design formed a substantial part of the Omega Workshops and could be considered one of their most significant accomplishments that had implications and gave textiles prominence which allowed it to flourish into the 1950s.
Clearly indebted to the avant-garde art scene in London, European Modernism and the Omega Workshops is the rare bedspread by Percy Wyndham Lewis (Lot 126) considered to have been made for The Rebel Art Centre around 1914. It can be considered one of the earliest examples of modernist textile design in Britain in the 20th Century, with hand-block printed primitive and stylised tigers, cats and birds in vibrant Fauvist colours that places it at a moment when Modern British art was caught up in an acrimonious debate between the opposing forces of modernist art of the Omega Workshops and the Vorticists just before the outset of World War One.
This flourishing of textile design during this period allowed it to be considered as an appropriate part of an artist’s oeuvre in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s, but it was the lead of entrepreneurs such as Zika and Lida Ascher in the 1940s which brought the concept of artist’s textiles to fuller fruition and as a serious commercial enterprise that could provide much needed income for cash strapped artists in the years immediately after the end of war. Setting up Ascher Ltd. in wartime London to produce high quality textiles for the couture fashion market, they commissioned their first ‘art’ textile designs by Henry Moore in 1943, a thirty-six inch square headscarf, which would become synonymous with their brand and known as the ‘Ascher Square’. The breakthrough of their firm came in 1946, when the company showed their range at the ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition, held at the Victoria and Albert Museum (Lot 127); clever marketing resulted in a large amount of media coverage and an exhibition in New York in 1947 and other artists joined the enterprise such as Graham Sutherland with ‘Trellis’ for Ascher in the same period.
However, the major evolution of artist’s textile designs for the mass market was to come a few years later, not as one might imagine with the major cultural event of the age, the Festival of Britain which promoted few artist’s textiles except by the painter Roger Nicholson for Heal & Son Ltd., David Whitehead and a fifty foot batik wall hanging by Michael O’Connell, but by the likes of individuals such as Hans and Elsbeth Juda.
In 1953 they conceived the idea of an exhibition Painting into Textiles, a collaboration between The Ambassador Magazine and the ICA, showcasing textile design as an art form and twenty-five artists were commissioned to produce artwork for the exhibition. It was considered a huge success by the public and manufacturers, bringing about wider admiration for textile design as a form of artistic expression and leading to numerous commissions. The manufacturer David Whitehead Ltd. purchased a large number of works by artists such as Henry Moore, William Scott and most significantly John Piper who continued to design for them until 1970 (Lot 132). Other manufacturers followed suit commissioning artist’s directly amongst whom Martin Bradley was engaged by Liberty of London (Lot138) and Paule Vezelay by Heal & Son Ltd.
“the whole standard of textile design has been raised in the most interesting way by the introduction of designs inspired by paintings. They have ceased to be something purely commercial and have formed a bridge between commercial art and fine art.”
(Paule Vezelay, 1959)
Companies such as Edinburgh Weavers were spurred on by the exhibition, recommencing their collaborations with artists of international standing to undertake textile design, managing to harness the style of prominent artists such as Elizabeth Frink (Lot 139), Keith Vaughan (Lot 129), William Gear and once again Ben Nicholson, with designs translated into furnishings and dresses.
This new approach to textile design in the 1950s and 1960s opened the way for subsequent decades and trends, but it was the 1950s which witnessed the high point of artist led textile designs that elevated textile design to high art.
I hope bringing together this collection of works highlights the significance of textile design in Britain as an artistic form through the early to mid 20th Century and in a small way helps as part of its re-assessment. It is particularly pleasing to be able to display these works at The Mall Galleries, located adjacent to the ICA on The Mall, somewhat in homage to the seminal and what some considered controversial exhibition Painting into Textiles that they had the audacity and foresight to put together as early as 1953.
-Philip Smith, Head of Sale
Established in 1942 by Czech émigrés Zika and Lida Ascher, Asher Ltd. sought to unite the complex worlds of fabrics, art and fashion. Throughout the 1940s they established a working relationship with many of the most prominent artists of the day, including British artists Moore, Hepworth, Sutherland, Nicholson, Piper, as well as international artists to include De Staäl, Calder, Derain, Cocteau and Picasso. The consequence of this relationship was a review of the definitions between art and industry, epitomised by the series of silk squares produced on a limited basis between 1944 and 1953.
The Ascher’s limited each artist to design a scarf no larger than 36 x 36 inches (90 centimeters square) and were usually made using serigraphy, a type of screen printing. The initial creations were launched at the Britain Can Make It exhibition at the V&A in London in 1946, the first design exhibition after the end of the war, with the intention of energising post-war fashion with bright colours and bold designs. They became an instant hit, and Lida Ascher popularised Moore’s designs by presenting Three Standing Figures on the BBC in 1947.
However, they soon became works of art more often framed than worn, an idea that was facilitated when the Lefevre Gallery launched an exhibition of the scarves in 1947, which was followed up with a world tour as far afield as San Francisco, Montevideo and Sydney. Historically they are of particular importance as they mark one of the first endeavours to merge fashion and art for a mass audience.
The Omega Workshops, established in 1913, was a design enterprise founded by members of the Bloomsbury Group. In 1914, Lewis set up The Rebel Art Centre as a workshop for the applied arts, and it is likely that this handblocked bedspread was designed for one of these. The same design is visible on an embroidered and block-printed silk robe created by Lewis in 1914.
This design was seen by the authority on the Omega Workshops and Rebel Art Centre, Dr. Judith Collins, who identified this design as the work of Wyndham Lewis. Although closely related to Lewis’s slightly earlier applied designs for The Omega Workshops and The Cabaret Theatre Club, Dr. Collins considered it to dated from 1914 and the period of Lewis’s involvement with the Rebel Art Centre.
At the point of commissioning of Warriors Elizabeth Frink was one of the rising stars of British art, and one of the textiles was exhibited alongside the original watercolour at Modern Art in Textile Design at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester in 1962. The frieze like composition, evokes classical relief sculpture, a subject that was of particular inspiration to Frink and which she returned to on a number of occasions in differing media.
Warriors was one of the most expensive fabrics in the artists’ textile series by Edinburgh Weavers at £6 a yard, this took into account the difficulty of the weave and the choice of expensive woollen yarns. Evidently Frink must have favoured the design, as curtains made from Warrior fabric were in use at her Dorset home until at least 1982.