21 July 2016

The Life & Work of Sheila Bonas

Every word written, picture painted or building designed tells us something about its creator, about the place they grew up in, their past and their vision of the future. Artistic expression being a little window into specific lives, and particular points in history. Some brushstrokes, voices and lives are louder than others: quieter ones become hidden away, work locked in drawers disappearing from view, little parts of their heart and self-expression lost to the world for good. This month sees the launch of a new exhibition at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum, celebrating the life and work of a quiet artist and designer who was almost lost, nearly forgotten. This is also the story of a curator foraging into the past to bring her work back to life, of breathing life back into forgotten, yet painstakingly hand drawn patterns. This is the story of the past and future of Sheila Bownas' work.

In 2008, whilst browsing on the internet for home decor inspiration, Chelsea Cefai discovered something that could be described as a little window into post-war Britain, a collection of mid-century modern designs. She found an archive consisting of approximately 210 original hand painted/drawn surface pattern designs dating from the early 1950s and spanning 30 years. Having a natural eye for talent, Chelsea recognised the significance of the archive of work she had discovered. She began a quest to piece together the jigsaw of Sheila's life, and to preserve the work of one of Britain's unknown artists. So who was Sheila Bownas, and how did she come to create work that is still so fresh and contemporary today?

“It is very exciting to have an ‘Old Girl’ doing something so spectacular and so different from the ordinary.”

Her artistic talent was soon recognised and, as a teenager, she left her native Yorkshire to attend The Slade School of Art in London. In 1948, a month after Sheila had her first work accepted at the Royal Academy. Her former headmistress, Enid Wise, wrote, “It is very exciting to have an ‘Old Girl’ doing something so spectacular and so different from the ordinary”. The girl from a small village in the Dales certainly made her mark, winning several prizes, including the 1948 summer competition for ‘Figures Beneath Trees’. Sheila had five paintings accepted and exhibited at The Royal Academy of Arts and in 1949 her postgraduate studies took her to Florence, Italy to study History of Art. Sheila had proven talent and went on to start her design career in one of the most exciting times in British design history. Little is known about Sheila's private life, and she was incredibly modest about her work. It was only upon her death, when relatives cleared her artist's studio in Skipton, that the wealth of paintings and designs were uncovered. What Chelsea Cefai has discovered is that Sheila Bownas was born in 1925 in the small village of Linton, in the Yorkshire Dales. Sometimes wild and windswept, sometimes gentle and heavenly; a landscape patterned with walled fields, wild flowers, fast flowing streams and curved limestone bridges. Sheila was born into an environment that was largely undeveloped but full of natural beauty and inspiration, a topography of contrasts. This would influence many of the patterns she designed in her later career. Some examples being the stone bridges in (site image), the architecture of Linton and the surrounding villages in the Yorkshire Dales.

"The 1950s became a very creative time for designers and artists in Britain and many broadened their boundaries, creating textiles, wallpapers, ceramics, posters and book covers." — Emma Mason

Sheila began work during an exciting period in the world of design, a time full of hope when Britain was emerging from post-war austerity. The 1950s in London was a thrilling decade, people were seeing television for the first time and rationing was slowly coming to an end. The Festival of Britain was held in 1951 as a celebration of British redevelopment in science, construction and the arts - wallpaper designs were showcased here and designers like Robin and Lucienne Day came to the fore with abstract, colourful, hand drawn designs. It was during this time of reconstruction that Mid-century Modern was born. Housing was designed to be built quickly, with clean lines and furniture, and pattern design followed suit, with geometric shapes and curves taking the place of fussy, ornamental flourishes. Prompted by the enthusiastic response to the Festival of Britain, the Design Centre opened in London's Haymarket in 1956, the look of Britain was changing.

When Chelsea Cefai bought the collection of 200 designs from antiques dealer Michael Vicary, she knew she had found something special and wanted not only to preserve the collection as an archive, but she also set upon a voyage of discovery to find out more about Sheila Bownas and to get her the recognition she deserved. She took a road trip to Yorkshire and met Sheila's family - it is here that she discovered the breadth of Sheila's freelance design career.

“Sheila’s goddaughter Rachel Elsworth, rescued paperwork from the skip outside Sheila’s cottage after it was sold, including an important chunk of documents that laid out her career details and her business affairs such as letters from Liberty, M&S and Bernard Ashley inviting her for tea. It helped me build a historical timeline of her life.”

— Chelsea Cefai.

In the early 1950s, there was a rise in middle class consumerism and post-war prosperity. Plenty of opportunities arose for artists and designers to work for retail industries and Sheila took full advantage of these, forging a career as a freelance textile designer, supplying surface patterns to the likes of Liberty and Marks & Spencer throughout the 1950s and 60s. She worked by hand, meticulously calculating the measurements and repeats, sketching & scaling designs that would be used for wallpaper and fabric. Unlike Lucienne Day, she did not receive recognition for her work, and many of her designs remain uncredited by the companies that used them. Despite applying for permanent work, she was often told that the role would be better suited to a male designer. Chelsea believes this enabled her to more fully express her rich & diverse style. She was not hemmed in by any particular company’s style and maintained an independent career into the 1980s, working as an artist for clients including the Natural History Museum, which commissioned Bownas to paint a set of botanical studies.

"Sheila was at her happiest in Yorkshire; it was here that her natural talent truly flourished as an artist and designer."

Sheila Bownas maintained an independent career as a freelance designer, living between London and Yorkshire. After leaving Slade School of Art in 1950, Sheila moved between London and Linton for 12 years, finally settling in her beloved Dales for the rest of her life. She continued selling designs by post for a further twenty years and worked on several portrait commissions. Sheila was a practising artist until her death at the age of 82.

She passed away in 2007, but in some ways this is just a new beginning. Since purchasing the collection in 2008, Chelsea Cefai has established the Sheila Bownas Archive and is once again bringing the patterns to life. She is working with ceramicists, upholsterers, and fabric printers to produce well crafted, contemporary furnishings and prints for the modern home. At a time when the beauty and skill of things crafted by hand are experiencing a renaissance, Chelsea recognises the unique quality of a hand drawn pattern.

Private, modest people are often overlooked, but Sheila Bownas' talent endures. Driven by the determination of Chelsea Cefai to keep Sheila's name alive, to preserve her work and share it with the public, the pieces of the jigsaw are now beginning to slot into place. After eight years of research and hard graft, Sheila Bownas' design work is at last being labelled with her own name in an exhibition that will tell the story of one of Britain's most talented artists and designers of the Mid-Century Modern era. Chelsea is giving a voice to one of the quiet artists of our past, a woman who was talented, independent and, to quote the words of her old headmistress, created designs that were 'so spectacular and so different from the ordinary'.

All images courtesy of Chelsea Cefai