THE relatively unknown work of a textile designer who supplied Liberty London and Marks & Spencer is showcased in a new exhibition at an art gallery.
Sheila Bownas (1925-2007) created colourful patterns including floral and geometric motifs alongside playful designs of children dancing and animals, capturing the optimism of the post-war era.
The exhibition, Sheila Bownas – The Art of Pattern, at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester from February 21, is a chance to discover the work of a talented British textile designer who, alongside many other female designers in the mid-century textile industry, remained invisible during her career.
It has been curated in association with Chelsea Cefai, who first discovered Bownas’s work at auction in 2008.
The quality and scale of the designer’s output indicates that she was a talented and prolific designer, yet she received little credit for her designs during her lifetime. Her designs were issued by various textile and wallpaper manufacturers under their name – a practice that was (and still is) the norm in the commercial world of textiles. Sheila Bownas’s career was typical of what was on the whole a low-profile, low-paid and largely female profession, which remains invisible to the public eye to this day.
Like many art school graduates, Sheila Bownas operated as a freelancer, selling patterns to various clients rather than being on staff at one particular firm. Her clients included Liberty London and Crown Wallpapers, who also worked with Lucienne Day, as well as Lancashire textile firms of Simpson & Godlee and Turnbull & Stockdale (Rosebank Fabrics), Marks & Spencer and the stationers Gordon Fraser.
Sheila Catherine Bownas was born in 1925, growing up in the small Yorkshire Dales village of Linton. She displayed a natural talent for painting at a young age, attending Skipton Art College in the 1940s before securing a scholarship at the Slade School of Art in London. During her time at the Slade, she won a number of prizes for her work and had nine paintings accepted for the Royal Academy summer exhibitions She graduated in 1950 and moved between London and Linton for twelve years, before finally settling in the Yorkshire Dales for the rest of her life, selling her designs by post.
Her bright and bold designs reflect the changing mood of consumers during the early 1950s. After years of post-war austerity, British households eagerly welcomed the new designs that began to appear on wallpaper and home furnishings as manufacturers capitalised on a new feeling of optimism that swept the country, exemplified by the Festival of Britain in 1951. It was in this climate that Bownas forged a career as a freelance designer, supplying patterns to the likes of Liberty and Marks and Spencer.
It was only on her death in 2007 that her family discovered the sheer scale of her output, which included still life, landscape and portrait paintings as well as textile designs. The archive first became known at auction in 2008, when Chelsea Cefai bought 200 of Sheila’s hand-painted patterns. She founded the Sheila Bownas Archive in 2010 in order to bring her work to a wider audience.
The Sheila Bownas Archive is particularly striking thanks to the stylistic variety of her designs. She was able to turn her hand to a diverse range of subjects, which no doubt helped to contribute to her success as a designer. Whether her clients were looking for bold abstract designs such as SB 1471, or figurative patterns such as SB 159, which depicts children playing together, the standard of her work remained consistently high.
Sheila Bownas: A Life in Pattern will be on display in the De’Longhi Print Room at Pallant House Gallery, 9 North Pallant, Chichester, from Wednesday February 21 until Sunday May 20. Entry to the De’Longhi Print Room is free. Phone 01243 774557 or visit pallant.org.uk.
* Sheila Bownas – The Art of Pattern, a comprehensive record of Sheila Bownas’s textile designs, is also available to buy from the Pallant Bookshop.
* Art historian Jill Seddon gives a talk on Women Designers and the Design Profession in Interwar Britain at Pallant House Gallery at 6pm on Thursday March 15. Tickets £10/students £9/Friends £8.50. The talk is followed by a book signing and a complimentary glass of wine.
Words courtesy of the Pallant House Gallery.
Above: Sheila Bownas, SB 301, circa 1960-69, Sheila Bownas Archive © Sheila Bownas Archive
Main picture, top: Sheila Bownas, SB 159, circa 1950-59, Private Collection – Rachel Elsworth © Sheila Bownas Archive
Below: Sheila Bownas, SB 467, circa 1960-69, Sheila Bownas Archive © Sheila Bownas Archive
Above: Sheila Bownas, Untitled 1, circa 1950-59, Private Collection – Jill Wharton © Sheila Bownas Archive
Below: Sheila Bownas, Untitled 3, circa 1950-59, Sheila Bownas Archive © Sheila Bownas Archive
Above: Sheila Bownas, SB 1466, circa 1970-79, Sheila Bownas Archive © Sheila Bownas Archive
Below: Sheila Bownas, SB 1471, circa 1970-79, Sheila Bownas Archive © Sheila Bownas Archive
Above: Sheila Bownas, Untitled 10, circa 1970-79, Sheila Bownas Archive © Sheila Bownas Archive