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Pattern Perfect: How Enid Marx revolutionised print design in Britain

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Elizabeth Finney heads to the House of Illustration in King’s Cross to speak to curator Olivia Ahmad about how illustrator Enid Marx changed the face of British design in the 20th century

“I fear my insistence on preserving the character of my design may appear unduly meticulous. But I feel very strongly that, if the works draughtsmen are to make free translations of the designs, the full possibilities of the material will never be developed…”

–      Enid Marx, letter to Frank Pick, managing director of London Underground and Chief Executive of London Transport, 25 October 1937

Enid Marx was, in many instances throughout her life and career, undeterrable. Born in 1902, she refused to toe the line and as a result became one of the most significant designers behind pattern and print in Great Britain in the 20th century, turning her hand to everything, from illustrations and covers for children’s books to industrial textiles for the London Underground. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of her death, Quentin Blake’s House of Illustration has curated an exhibition dedicated to her work.

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“She went to the Royal College [of Art] in the 1922, but she was refused the diploma because the college thought her work was too modern, though that didn’t deter her,” Olivia Ahmad, curator of the exhibition, says. “She really made things happen for herself and it was one of the first times where women who studied art could actually go out and make a living doing it.” Marx’s classmates there included Edward Bawden, Barbara Hepworth, Barnett Freedman and Eric Ravilious, who’d secretly teach her everything he learnt in the wood engraving class Sir Frank Short disallowed her to attend.

Her 70-year career truly began when she started as an apprentice for Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher, two reportedly eccentric women who were two of the leading hand-block printers of textiles working in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. “It’s quite an ancient technique but they had spent the past 20 years bringing it up into the modern day,” explains Ahmad. “Marx did all the dirty jobs so she understood the drudgery of making textiles. She was washing the fabrics, mixing the dyes and ironing.” After a year with the renowned design team, Marx opened her own studio in a former cowshed in Hampstead before moving to St John’s Wood in late 1928, where she remained until the beginning of World War II, experimenting with wood-block printing on fine cottons, linens, velvets and voiles. “At that time, there were quite a lot of women-led craft shops. Women were making spaces for other women, promoting them in their shops and selling their products and textiles,” adds Ahmad. 

Hero image: Enid Marx working on flower and shell designs, 1946. Pictured above: Printed curtain, 1960. All images courtesy of The House of Illustration and the Estate of Enid Marx.

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According to her early writings, Marx remembered how her grandmother had always taught her to look critically at materials and feel their different textures. This is clear from her work with industrial textiles, and you’ll recognise the legacy of her work if you’ve ever sat on a London bus or Tube. A sudden change of direction came when she was commissioned to design the seat fabrics for the London Underground in 1937. “She would just give things a go,” says Ahmad. “She’d never done industrial textiles before. She designed some amazing, abstract patterns. She said ‘dazzle and dirt’ were the main things: they couldn’t make passengers feel sick on the journey, they had to suit a variety of lighting and they couldn’t pick up the dirt too much. It was a real technical challenge for her and she really rose to it.” Marx created five complex designs on moquette that were put into production. When her initial designs were skewed by the manufacturers (see her quote), she delved into the world of production so she could ensure that the desired effect was created.

It was her work with industrial fabrics that meant she was perfectly suited to her next role, that of board member on the Utility Scheme for the Board of Trade. “This project combined two agendas: the need to control the allocation of resources in wartime to those most in need… and at the same time to impose ideas about good design…” (Enid Marx, The Pleasures of Pattern by Alan Powers.) It was up to Marx to add ‘cheerfulness’ to a range of utility products for those in desperate need during the war, an innovation at the time that aimed to veer away from the harsh reminders of circumstance and devastation that aggressively functional and unstylish furniture were known to provide.

Pictured above: Patterned paper for Judd Street Gallery from wood engraving by Enid Marx.

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She was renowned for her versatility, her love of a challenging brief and her ability to move between disciplines. “She didn’t really have one style and she was more interested in applying her work to lots of different contexts,” says Ahmad. “When she started out she was doing more modernist, cutting-edge block-printed textiles, but later on she worked in more industrial textiles, so she was really adaptable and sensitive to different manufacturing processes.” While continuing to work within industry during the war, she began to create prints for stamps, bookplates, leaflets and calendars, and even began writing her own children’s stories – complete with her own illustrations, of course. These included Sam and Arry (based on her two Siamese cats), The Little White Bear and The Pigeon Ace, among others. “She did some really beautiful woodcut illustrated books such as the Zodiac Book of Nursery Rhymes,” Ahmad adds. “Her woodcuts are not restrained in the way that a lot of woodcuts are. There’s a lot of vigour behind the work rather than studied restraint.”

Pictured above (L-R): 'Spot and Stripe' utility fabric, 1946 and the London underground moquette - Study for Chevron moquette for London Passenger Transport Board, pencil and gouache on paper 1937 by Enid Marx.

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Welcoming approximately 45,000 visitors a year, the House of Illustration opened in 2014 in King’s Cross. Like Enid Marx, who found her way into teaching later in life, founder Quentin Blake felt people would benefit from discovering more about the world of illustration. “He is passionate about the work of other illustrators and knows a lot about the history of the art. He was Head of Illustration at the Royal College of Art for a long time,” Ahmad says. “He thought that there should be a dedicated space as there hadn’t been one before, so this is the first public gallery for illustration.”

It cannot be denied that Enid Marx printed a new era of design for Great Britain, but what makes her particularly special is her dedication to sharing her work and using it to help the masses. “We often focus on untold stories,” says Ahmad. “Sadly the work of women is really under-represented in research, books and exhibitions, so we’re really interested in the work of women and bringing things to light that should be better known.”

Pictured above (L-R): 'Feline Phantasy' linocut in four colours, 1948 and 'Carried in Comfort' lioncut in six colours, 1955, by Enid Marx.

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The exhibition, Enid Marx: Print, Pattern and Popular Art, will run until 23 September 2018 and is listed as part of the London Design Festival’s King’s Cross Design Route.

 House of Illustration, 2 Granary Square, N1C 4BH. houseofillustration.org.uk

 Enid Marx, The Pleasures of Pattern by Alan Powers (RRP £40) is available to purchase online.

Pictured above (L-R): Cover for A Book of Modern Verse, Chatto & Windus, 1939. Cover for Some British Moths, King Penguin. Cover for Lytton Strachey on Florence Nightengale, Chatto & Windus.

 

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