The Long Read: Reassessing the art of mid-twentieth century screen-printed textiles

by Mary Schoeser, world-renowned textile historian, curator & author

Pondering the topic of why women designers played such a prominent role in the provision of artistic patterns for printed textiles of the mid- 20th century, one can turn to four inter-related factors: demography, educational reforms, printing technology and publicity. All four came into play after WWI, when 700,000 deaths created a large gap between the male and female populations of people aged 25 to 34. With 1,158,000 unmarried women versus 919,000 unmarried men, according to the 1921 census, this discrepancy was not in itself a new phenomenon except for one feature: the higher social status of the women remaining unmarried as a result of the significant number of officers who had been killed. Sensationalised by the press as “surplus” women,[1] the better appellation would be “enterprising” women, who, emboldened by the British arts and crafts ethos – itself promulgated by art colleges who took in increasing numbers of females – set about creating workshops, galleries and collectives that did much to define the artistic landscape by mid-century.[2]


Nicola Wood ‘April Showers’

Of particular importance was the rise of “self-made” printed textiles, as distinguished from the established method of large-scale production, namely engraved roller printing. From the early 1900s it was batik, stencilling, lino-printing and, by the later 1920s, hand-screen printing, that provided a means of mark-making entirely novel in its directness. Freed from the mediation of the highly technical transfer of designs to copper rollers, such methods were attractive to those who wished to control their artistic outcomes. In retrospect, it is clear that women took greater advantage of these possibilities, which did not require large premises or vast investments. This legacy remained when hand-screen printing was taken up in the early 1930s by firms already hand-block printing, as well as by firms newly established soon afterwards especially to produce artist-designed printed textiles, such as Allan Walton. By the early 1950s, despite the fact that the ratio of British men to women was still low – 92.5 to 100[3] – one cannot argue that the visibility of creative women was due solely to their single status, nor to a shortage of male competition. No, it was to do with their much closer involvement in the experimental developments surrounding hand-screen printing. That this technique offers a unique capacity to translate faithfully a myriad of small studio or “kitchen sink” artistic mark-making to cloth is borne out by the sensitive replication of batik (for example Nicola Woods, April Showers), oil, gouache and watercolour painting (Barbara Brown, Sweetcorn and Colbertaldo Dinzl, Orpheus and untitled), collage (Jacqueline Groag, Traffic Light), stamping (Mo Sullivan, Garland), sgraffito (Mary Warren, Nautilius) and mono-printing (Lucienne Day, Linden). In addition, screen printing could accommodate printing with surface pigments, as opposed to cloth-saturating dyes. Best known for using this approach was the newcomer in 1957, Hull Traders, who made sensitive use of pigments to create intense and flat expanses of colouration (Shirley Craven, Kaplan) as well as impasto-like effects (Althea McNish, Rubra).

How do we know? The evidence survives within archives, museum and private collections, but at the time was being made visible through influential media vehicles such as The Studio, founded in 1893 by Charles Holme and under his editorship from 1895-1919, and thereafter until 1964 maintaining an Arts & Crafts ethos of equality between media and methods. Founder Holme had been a silk manufacturer so it is no surprise that amid the mix of media, textiles received fair coverage. It sought to create an international means of communication, meaning that it was well illustrated, often showing work by women. This role might be said, certainly for textiles, to have been supplanted postwar by the magazine, The Ambassador. From 1946-72 (from 1961 a Thomson Publication), its founder Hans Juda and his wife, Elsbeth – responsible for much of the magazine’s striking photography – vigorously promoted British exports through their monthly publication in English, German, French and Portuguese. Its success demonstrated that publicity, more so through editorials and exhibitions than advertisements, was an essential component in the campaign to bring good design to the people. And judging from the number of women both depicted and represented as designers, ‘the people’ – that is the consumers – were understood as more likely to be women.[4]


Barbara Brown ‘Sweet Corn’ 1958

Overseas sales mattered and, as a result, overseas tastes. The taste in postwar America was for art, especially expressed through manufactured goods such as textiles. As early as 1946 the art critic Walter Abell was to conclude: ‘Today industry appears to have established itself as the largest single source of support for the contemporary American painter.’[5] Aware of this trend, both the Judas and organisations such as the Cotton Board’s ‘Colour, Design and Style Centre’ in Manchester sponsored exhibitions aimed at inducing British textile manufacturers to back the (pre-War) principle of ‘art into industry’. While the Style Centre’s export-focused 1941 exhibition, ‘Design for Textiles by Twelve Fine Artists’, was remembered for the inclusion of works by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Paul Nash, John Piper, Eric Ravilious and Graham Sutherland, by the 1950s their support for artists’ designs looked beyond the establishment. Its ‘Living in Cotton’ exhibition in late 1961 declared ‘Suddenly, British cottons have found a design hand-writing. …Perhaps the most significant feature of the fabrics is the new bold use of colour. Young designers have contributed largely to this.’ And the gender ratio had also changed. Of the ten Design Award fabrics featured, seven were by women, predominantly students (or graduates) at the Royal College of Arts and the Central School of Arts & Crafts.[6] Subsequent exhibitions – ‘Young Ideas’ and the ‘Inprint’ and ‘Texprint’ series which continued into the early 1970s– had a similar flavour. ‘Inprint Infact’ of 1964-5, for example, featured 35 furnishing fabrics by two men and nine women, including Pat Albeck, Barbara Brown, Colleen Farr, Natalie Gibson, Fay Hillier and Althea McNish.[7] A lively exchange between the Style Centre, the Design Council and colleges ensured a sustained promotion of young, talented women, all with “hands-on” experience. Barbara Brown, for example, had taught Zandra Rhodes at Medway College and encouraged Tom Worthington at Heal’s to take on the three designs the firm produced for their 1964 and 1965 seasons, including Zandra’s first, Top Brass.


Zandra Rhodes ‘Top Brass’, 1964

While exceptional roller-printing firms, such as David Whitehead Fabrics Ltd., had been producing artist-designed printed rayons since 1951, the majority were hand-screened on cottons, linens or (if scarves or for fashion) silk, and thus more costly – effectively limited editions. This changed once flat-bed ‘automatic’ screen printing was introduced by several printers, including Whitehead’s in 1958. Now, ‘they are able to offer “expensive” furnishings at roller-print prices. They can print small quantities for sampling and thereby incorporate more experimental designs and colourings; there is no need for the burden of the heavy run required by roller printing.’[8] This, just as Pop Art was emerging in Britain and then America, gave a convincing and quantitatively far more visible expression of artists’ engagement with new types of subject matter, as well as new ways of presenting it. Having emerged from interwar explorations of individualistic textiles – call them series or limited editions – these screen prints had a longer pedigree than serigraphy on paper. In addition, other ground breaking art-into-textiles movements had also occurred during the interwar years, notably the initiatives in France of Marie Cuttoli (1879–1973), who engaged artists with a new, simplified form of tapestry making.[9] Postwar, this entrepreneurial role was taken up in America by Gloria F. Ross (1923-1998), who ‘described her work as the translation of paint into wool’, from 1965-96 commissioning innovative weavers in France, the Southwestern United States and at the Dovecot Studios in Scotland.[10] Unlike Cuttoli, Ross commissioned women artists too, including her sister, Helen Frankenthaler. Although in all countries the tapestry artists were more often men, what mattered for our story was another textile-based confrontation of the supremacy of easel painting and validation of the series as a legitimate artistic enterprise. In addition, women had led the way from the late 1950s onwards in the emergence of experimental wall hangings, or fibre art – critically and once again made by their own hands rather than by others, whether in an atelier or industry – and within a decade, wearable art.[11] Thus textiles of several sorts were, from the 1930s at least, the site of the first post-modernist initiatives and within these women played a foremost role. Mid-twentieth century screen printed textiles, now rather taken for granted, need to be reconsidered in this light.


1‘surplus-women’-a- legacy-of- world-war-one/. Accessed 24 January 2020.
2  See Mary Schoeser, ‘Following the Thread’ and ‘Spreading the Word’ in Sylvia Backemeyer,Making Their Mark: Art, Craft and Design at the Central School 1896 -1966 (A & C Black: 2000)
3 › articles › overviewoftheukpopulation › february 2016. Accessed 24 January 2020.
4 See Chris Breward and Claire Wilcox (eds.), The Ambassador Magazine: Promoting Post-War British Textiles and Fashion (V&A Publishing: 2012)
5 Abell, W. ‘Industry and Painting’, Magazine of Art, March 1946, p.89, cited in Dilys Blum, ‘Painting by the Yard: American artist-designed textiles 1947-57’ in Schoeser and Boydell (eds.), Disentangling Textiles: Interdisciplinary Techniques in the Study of Design (Middlesex University Press: 2002), pp.109-110.
6 The Cotton Board Colour Design and Style Centre, Living in Cotton: December 14, 1961 to January 19, 1962, typescript catalogue, pp.1-2, collection of the author.
7 The Cotton Board Colour Design and Style Centre, Inprint Infact: December 15, 1964 to January 22, 1965, typescript catalogue, pp.1-3, collection of the author.
8  ‘David Whitehead Fabrics Ltd.: Automatic Screen Prints’, The Ambassador, 12:57, p.45.
9  See K. L. H. Wells, Weaving Modernism: Postwar Tapestry Between Paris and New York (Yale University Press: 2019).
10 See Ann Lane Hedlund, Gloria F. Ross and Modern Tapestry (Yale University Press: 2010) and Elizabeth Cumming, The Art of Modern Tapestry: Dovecot
11 See Dilys Blum, (ed.) Off the Wall: American Art to Wear (Philadelphia Museum of Art/ Yale University Press: 2019).


view Material: Textile exhibition


Top image: Shirley Craven ‘Kaplan’, 1961


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