Mid-Century designs are brought to life in the first ever UK retrospective of all but forgotten Fifties’ textile designer Sheila Bownas.
An interview with Rugby’s Chelsea Cefai who rediscovered Sheila’s archive by accident on eBay, by Catherine Vonledebur
On the wall of Chelsea Cefai’s stylish white-washed open plan 1950s inspired kitchen in Hillmorton, Rugby, four vibrant geometric prints immediately stand out.
Two larger prints, one grey, one ochre, hang side-by-side on another wall, besides a 1950s-style Edwin sofa, in a muted linen, handcrafted in the north east of England. They look stunning.
Each piece is based on an original art work by the reclusive Yorkshire-born design icon and painter Sheila Bownas (1925 – 2007), a selection of which Chelsea is now faithfully bringing back to life in the form of textiles, ceramics, lighting, cushions and furniture, all made in Britain by artisan artists –www.sheilabownas.com
Chelsea has painstakingly brought together ground-breaking early paintings, textiles and patterns made across 30 years for the likes of Liberty of London, M&S and Crown Wallpapers in the Fifties and Sixties, as well as personal photographs and private letters, for a new exhibition.
A Life in Pattern: The Life and Works of Sheila Bownas at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum runs from June 25 – September 3 2016.
The impressive centrepiece will be a modern living room decorated with contemporary wallpaper, furniture, textiles, lighting and ceramics updated by artisan British designers from Sheila’s distinctive archive designs.
And it will also include a series of 20 rarely seen intricate botanical studies on loan from the Natural History Museum, London. Chelsea says: “They are tiny, and beautiful.”
But the mid-century Sheila Bownas Archive would almost certainly have been lost forever if Chelsea had not “stumbled across” two original abstract paintings on eBay.
The 46-year-old art gallery professional and husband Gary, a garden landscaper, were renovating their red-brick Victorian home in 2008 when she first spotted the bold designs and instantly fell in love with them. It transpired the seller, a Yorkshire antique dealer, had bought all 210 of Sheila’s original hand-painted patterns when her cottage and studio in Skipton were auctioned off following her death the previous year.
Chelsea’s first instinct was to buy the entire archive. “I had this sudden desire to save them,” she says.
What started as an impulsive buy quickly became a labour of love as Chelsea discovered more about Sheila’s life and work. She even went on a fascinating road trip across Yorkshire with Gary and their daughters, Nancy, aged 14, and Edith, aged 13, to meet Sheila’s remaining family.
Not only did they meet Sheila’s cousin and her children but her god-daughter, neighbours, friends and even a farmer who went to school with the artist in the close-knit village of Linton where she grew up. Many possess original pieces of Sheila’s work.
The family gave Chelsea copyright to all of the designs she owns, allowing her to reproduce the designs. “They felt Sheila has never been given the limelight she deserved,” she says.
Sheila attended Skipton Art School then won a fine art scholarship at London’s Slade School of Art and went on to earn her living as a freelance textile and wallpaper designer. Unlike fellow contemporaries such as Lucienne Day, she never became a household name.
Over the last eight years Chelsea has slowly built a timeline of Sheila’s education, life, career and family history through meticulous research with the help of the late artist’s family and friends, who were largely unaware of her prolific talent until after her death. She was known as a fiercely private individual, who never married.
No-one realised the great archive of designs she had in her home studio.
Chelsea says: “Sheila’s god-daughter 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 life such as letters from Liberty, M&S and Bernard Ashley inviting her for tea. It helped me to start a historical timeline of her life.”
Chelsea has been gradually reintroducing pieces to the homewares market – raved about in design and interior magazines including Elle Decoration, Grand Designs, Real Homes, The Telegraph and The Times’ Bricks & Mortar section.
In response to The Times article in June 2015 Chelsea was contacted by the family of Betsy Tootill, now aged 90 – one of Sheila’s best friends at the Slade. She had lots of photographs from around that time she wished to share with Chelsea. Sheila had lived in a spare room in Betsy’s parents’ house in London for four years. These personal portraits of the artist will be included in the exhibition.
Originally from Newbold-on-Avon Chelsea, a Nottingham University photography graduate, has worked at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum since her daughters were small, so felt the venue was perfect. But she would be delighted if A life in Patterns was also exhibited in North Yorkshire near Sheila’s home.
Chelsea says: “This summer’s exhibition firmly shines a spotlight on Sheila’s unique talent, which was so nearly lost. To finally see the work, go on show for the very first time is the ultimate dream-come-true for me and something I am sure Sheila would have been incredibly proud of.”
Design historian Lesley Jackson has written an essay in accompanying the exhibition catalogue. It is the first publication to provide a comprehensive record of Sheila’s textile designs.
A Life in Pattern: The Life and Works of Sheila Bownas,
Rugby Art Gallery and Museum, June 25 – September 3 2016.
An extensive education programme, including an activity space for families, talks, tours and workshops will accompany the exhibition. Go to www.ragm.co.uk