Page 1

alastair morton and

Edinburgh Weavers visionary textiles and modern art

lesley jackson


bEn niCholson’s latEr dEsigns

Ben Nicholson’s positive attitude towards Edinburgh Weavers is indicated by the fact he continued to design for the company. Three Circles (1939) was a direct successor to the Constructivist Fabrics [pl.127]. Although this design is screen printed rather than woven, the slubby spun rayon fabric provides an appropriately textural ground for the deliberately grainy print, creating effects similar in appearance to a jacquard weave. Alastair was clearly very proud of this particular cloth, as it was displayed in a showcase with a built-in magnifying glass at the British Industries Fair in 1939 so that visitors could examine it more closely, and ‘to bring out all the beauty and intricacy of the weave.’65 In terms of structure, Three Circles follows a similar formula to Nicholson’s earlier designs: a unit of pattern repeated several times across the width of the fabric. As with the satin stripes in Vertical, horizontal coloured stripes are strategically positioned to punctuate the design. Although there is no documented source for the design, it draws on motifs from Nicholson’s most recent paintings and reliefs, which by this date often incorporated line-drawn circles juxtaposed with flat painted planes. The muted dove grey, fawn and chestnut brown colouring relates to Nicholson’s mellow palette during the late 1930s. George and Rufus (1938), another pre-war screen

print, was described by Alastair as ‘a childishly beautiful drawing ... a fabric for the light-hearted of all ages’ [pl.128].66 The pattern features two cartoon horses, George and Rufus, who appear in Nicholson’s letters to Jake. ‘Dogs seemed to be called Booboo or Ponto, and horses seemed to be George, or if they were roan coloured, Rufus, and they tended to be skittish,’ Jake recalled.67 Nicholson had recently conceived the idea of producing a children’s book. Although this did not reach fruition, one illustration was used for the fabric instead, the flat surfaces being ideal for screen printing. Alastair himself put the design into repeat [pl.124]. Alastair had three young children by this date, which explains his interest in nursery prints. When he moved into Brackenfell in 1938, George and Rufus was used for curtains in their bedrooms. He also acquired two paintings from this series, one at the time, another given to him by Nicholson in 1940. ‘I wonder if you would like the enclosed piece of nursery realism for your realistic nursery?’ Nicholson wrote. ‘Tell me frankly if you don’t like it, or if it is too much like the one you have.’68 Only one of these paintings has passed down through the Morton family, but it does not match the textile [pl.129]. Painted in oil on board in 1938, it was apparently altered by Nicholson in 1948. Originally it included two horses, although one was later painted out.69 Many other details are different too, so it cannot have been the source for the design. 128 far left George and Rufus, Ben Nicholson, Edinburgh Weavers, 1938 Screen-printed spun rayon and cotton V&A: Circ.464–1939

129 left Illustration for George and Rufus, Ben Nicholson, 1938 (altered 1948) Oil and pencil on board 25 x 30 cm Private Collection

edinburgh weavers | 90

ConstruCtivist FabriCs | 91


bEn niCholson’s latEr dEsigns

Ben Nicholson’s positive attitude towards Edinburgh Weavers is indicated by the fact he continued to design for the company. Three Circles (1939) was a direct successor to the Constructivist Fabrics [pl.127]. Although this design is screen printed rather than woven, the slubby spun rayon fabric provides an appropriately textural ground for the deliberately grainy print, creating effects similar in appearance to a jacquard weave. Alastair was clearly very proud of this particular cloth, as it was displayed in a showcase with a built-in magnifying glass at the British Industries Fair in 1939 so that visitors could examine it more closely, and ‘to bring out all the beauty and intricacy of the weave.’65 In terms of structure, Three Circles follows a similar formula to Nicholson’s earlier designs: a unit of pattern repeated several times across the width of the fabric. As with the satin stripes in Vertical, horizontal coloured stripes are strategically positioned to punctuate the design. Although there is no documented source for the design, it draws on motifs from Nicholson’s most recent paintings and reliefs, which by this date often incorporated line-drawn circles juxtaposed with flat painted planes. The muted dove grey, fawn and chestnut brown colouring relates to Nicholson’s mellow palette during the late 1930s. George and Rufus (1938), another pre-war screen

print, was described by Alastair as ‘a childishly beautiful drawing ... a fabric for the light-hearted of all ages’ [pl.128].66 The pattern features two cartoon horses, George and Rufus, who appear in Nicholson’s letters to Jake. ‘Dogs seemed to be called Booboo or Ponto, and horses seemed to be George, or if they were roan coloured, Rufus, and they tended to be skittish,’ Jake recalled.67 Nicholson had recently conceived the idea of producing a children’s book. Although this did not reach fruition, one illustration was used for the fabric instead, the flat surfaces being ideal for screen printing. Alastair himself put the design into repeat [pl.124]. Alastair had three young children by this date, which explains his interest in nursery prints. When he moved into Brackenfell in 1938, George and Rufus was used for curtains in their bedrooms. He also acquired two paintings from this series, one at the time, another given to him by Nicholson in 1940. ‘I wonder if you would like the enclosed piece of nursery realism for your realistic nursery?’ Nicholson wrote. ‘Tell me frankly if you don’t like it, or if it is too much like the one you have.’68 Only one of these paintings has passed down through the Morton family, but it does not match the textile [pl.129]. Painted in oil on board in 1938, it was apparently altered by Nicholson in 1948. Originally it included two horses, although one was later painted out.69 Many other details are different too, so it cannot have been the source for the design. 128 far left George and Rufus, Ben Nicholson, Edinburgh Weavers, 1938 Screen-printed spun rayon and cotton V&A: Circ.464–1939

129 left Illustration for George and Rufus, Ben Nicholson, 1938 (altered 1948) Oil and pencil on board 25 x 30 cm Private Collection

edinburgh weavers | 90

ConstruCtivist FabriCs | 91


260 far left Design for Horrockses, AM 18, Alastair Morton, September 1947 Gouache and pencil on paper Abbot Hall Art Gallery

261 below left Dress fabric, AM 60, Alastair Morton, 1947 Printed cotton, Horrockses, c.1948 Abbot Hall Art Gallery

262 left Dress, Horrockses, 1948 Printed cotton, AM 60, Alastair Morton, 1947 Manchester Art Gallery (CPA33)

263 right Dress, Horrockses, c.1948 Printed cotton, AM 21, Alastair Morton, September 1947 V&A: T.642–1996

264 below left Design for Horrockses, AM 16, Alastair Morton, September 1947 Gouache and pencil on paper Abbot Hall Art Gallery

265 below centre Dress fabric, AM 17, Alastair Morton, September 1947 Printed cotton, Horrockses, Spring 1948 Abbot Hall Art Gallery

266 below right Design for Horrockses, AM 62, Alastair Morton, 1947–8 Cotton cloth painted with textile dyes Abbot Hall Art Gallery

a sunray pattern wiry infill [pls 255 and 258]. Some designs evoke tangled threads or slubby yarns, suggesting subliminal allusions to textiles [pl.259]. Two decades before the invention of Spirograph, Alastair was creating freehand patterns with similar dynamism, as in the ebullient loops and spirals of AM 18 (‘Stripe & flower’), and AM 60 with its frenetic ovals resembling uncoiled springs [pls 256 and 260–262]. These patterns eDinburgh weAvers | 156

are very different in mood to the more elegant scroll patterns of the 1930s. Twisting, rocking and undulating motifs also crop up repeatedly, as in the jerky crescents of AM 62 [pls 263–266]. Designs such as these seem imbued with a heightened electrical charge. Striped and banded patterns were a distinctive leitmotif, often ribbons of linear motifs alternating with coloured stripes. Narrow stripes frequently appear AlAstAir Morton: Designer | 157


260 far left Design for Horrockses, AM 18, Alastair Morton, September 1947 Gouache and pencil on paper Abbot Hall Art Gallery

261 below left Dress fabric, AM 60, Alastair Morton, 1947 Printed cotton, Horrockses, c.1948 Abbot Hall Art Gallery

262 left Dress, Horrockses, 1948 Printed cotton, AM 60, Alastair Morton, 1947 Manchester Art Gallery (CPA33)

263 right Dress, Horrockses, c.1948 Printed cotton, AM 21, Alastair Morton, September 1947 V&A: T.642–1996

264 below left Design for Horrockses, AM 16, Alastair Morton, September 1947 Gouache and pencil on paper Abbot Hall Art Gallery

265 below centre Dress fabric, AM 17, Alastair Morton, September 1947 Printed cotton, Horrockses, Spring 1948 Abbot Hall Art Gallery

266 below right Design for Horrockses, AM 62, Alastair Morton, 1947–8 Cotton cloth painted with textile dyes Abbot Hall Art Gallery

a sunray pattern wiry infill [pls 255 and 258]. Some designs evoke tangled threads or slubby yarns, suggesting subliminal allusions to textiles [pl.259]. Two decades before the invention of Spirograph, Alastair was creating freehand patterns with similar dynamism, as in the ebullient loops and spirals of AM 18 (‘Stripe & flower’), and AM 60 with its frenetic ovals resembling uncoiled springs [pls 256 and 260–262]. These patterns eDinburgh weAvers | 156

are very different in mood to the more elegant scroll patterns of the 1930s. Twisting, rocking and undulating motifs also crop up repeatedly, as in the jerky crescents of AM 62 [pls 263–266]. Designs such as these seem imbued with a heightened electrical charge. Striped and banded patterns were a distinctive leitmotif, often ribbons of linear motifs alternating with coloured stripes. Narrow stripes frequently appear AlAstAir Morton: Designer | 157


323 left Foreshore, Lucienne Day, Edinburgh Weavers, 1952 Screen-printed cotton crêpe V&A: Circ.143–1953

naturally featured in this exhibition and in later SIA shows. Although Alastair was increasingly winning plaudits for his own designs, he was receptive to other people’s creativity. With his enthusiasm and discernment, he made an outstanding art director, as Gordon Russell recognized: ‘His true humility, friendliness and generosity made it possible – I had almost said easy – for him to recognise, employ and encourage

designers as much as it understands design; it knows how to give the best to them and draw the best from them, and all designers owe them a great debt of gratitude.41 Apart from the creative benefits, using freelance designers made good economic sense, Alastair argued, as their fees were relatively low. In 1954, he calculated that the average cost of buying in and translating a design from a freelance designer was £65, whereas to produce a design from MSF ’s own studios in London or Carlisle cost from £74 to £144. Between 1950 and 1953, expenditure on artwork purchased by Edinburgh Weavers from outside designers more than doubled, rising from £320 to £756. The amount spent in translating these designs into prints and weaves also increased proportionally; the pattern weaving budget rose from £587 to £1,037; the costs of screen making increased from £576 to £1,034.42 lucienne Day

324 above Detail of design for Florimel, Lucienne Day, 1949 Gouache, pencil and ink on paper V&A: AAD/2002/7/10/82

325 following pages Fall, Lucienne Day, Edinburgh Weavers, 1952 Screen-printed cotton crêpe V&A: Circ.144–1953

eDinburgh weAvers | 180

other designers, all of whom liked working for one whose ability in their sphere they acknowledged and whose integrity was never in doubt.’40 It was largely because of Alastair’s reputation that Edinburgh Weavers became such a magnet for artistic talent. Stopford Jacks from the yarn spinners R. Greg & Co. stressed this point in a speech at MSF ’s 50th Jubilee Dinner in March 1956: Frequently, when I talk to young designers about a good design, it is they who bring up in the conversation the name of this firm, and more particularly of Alastair Morton, who has done more than any other textile designer, I believe, to give these young designers encouragement and inspiration. This firm understands

One of the most productive alliances arising from the SIA was with Lucienne Day. Day had studied printed textiles at the Royal College of Art from 1937 to 1940, but her early career was impeded by the war. In 1945, she designed a jacquard-woven rayon fabric for MSF called Martlett, featuring small birds in chevron stripes. This was probably produced as part of the Sundour range, although possibly by Edinburgh Weavers.43 Whether she dealt with Alastair at this stage is unclear, but they were certainly in contact by the following year. ‘Alastair Morton was very influential at the beginning of my career,’ she later recalled. ‘He encouraged me to become more business-like. He advised me on charging as a freelance designer, and suggested that I should charge rejection fees to manufacturers so that I would be paid for my actual work, not just for what went into production.’44 As soon as conditions were right, Alastair invited her to design for Edinburgh Weavers. Two botanical screen prints, Florimel (1949) and Elysian (1949), featuring line drawings of wild flowers, were commissioned in 1948 and produced the following year [pl.324]. These two fabrics were instrumental in launching Day’s career. Florimel echoes Alastair’s designs for Horrockses, which had just appeared on the market. This fabric was shown in a room setting in the Land Travelling Exhibition (an adjunct of the Festival of Britain) and was used in interiors by Gordon Russell.45 The Festival prompted another interesting collaboration, as it was Sundour Fabrics who manufactured the woven upholstery fabric designed by Day for the seating in Wells Coates’ Telecinema. Her pattern, resurrection | 181


323 left Foreshore, Lucienne Day, Edinburgh Weavers, 1952 Screen-printed cotton crêpe V&A: Circ.143–1953

naturally featured in this exhibition and in later SIA shows. Although Alastair was increasingly winning plaudits for his own designs, he was receptive to other people’s creativity. With his enthusiasm and discernment, he made an outstanding art director, as Gordon Russell recognized: ‘His true humility, friendliness and generosity made it possible – I had almost said easy – for him to recognise, employ and encourage

designers as much as it understands design; it knows how to give the best to them and draw the best from them, and all designers owe them a great debt of gratitude.41 Apart from the creative benefits, using freelance designers made good economic sense, Alastair argued, as their fees were relatively low. In 1954, he calculated that the average cost of buying in and translating a design from a freelance designer was £65, whereas to produce a design from MSF ’s own studios in London or Carlisle cost from £74 to £144. Between 1950 and 1953, expenditure on artwork purchased by Edinburgh Weavers from outside designers more than doubled, rising from £320 to £756. The amount spent in translating these designs into prints and weaves also increased proportionally; the pattern weaving budget rose from £587 to £1,037; the costs of screen making increased from £576 to £1,034.42 lucienne Day

324 above Detail of design for Florimel, Lucienne Day, 1949 Gouache, pencil and ink on paper V&A: AAD/2002/7/10/82

325 following pages Fall, Lucienne Day, Edinburgh Weavers, 1952 Screen-printed cotton crêpe V&A: Circ.144–1953

eDinburgh weAvers | 180

other designers, all of whom liked working for one whose ability in their sphere they acknowledged and whose integrity was never in doubt.’40 It was largely because of Alastair’s reputation that Edinburgh Weavers became such a magnet for artistic talent. Stopford Jacks from the yarn spinners R. Greg & Co. stressed this point in a speech at MSF ’s 50th Jubilee Dinner in March 1956: Frequently, when I talk to young designers about a good design, it is they who bring up in the conversation the name of this firm, and more particularly of Alastair Morton, who has done more than any other textile designer, I believe, to give these young designers encouragement and inspiration. This firm understands

One of the most productive alliances arising from the SIA was with Lucienne Day. Day had studied printed textiles at the Royal College of Art from 1937 to 1940, but her early career was impeded by the war. In 1945, she designed a jacquard-woven rayon fabric for MSF called Martlett, featuring small birds in chevron stripes. This was probably produced as part of the Sundour range, although possibly by Edinburgh Weavers.43 Whether she dealt with Alastair at this stage is unclear, but they were certainly in contact by the following year. ‘Alastair Morton was very influential at the beginning of my career,’ she later recalled. ‘He encouraged me to become more business-like. He advised me on charging as a freelance designer, and suggested that I should charge rejection fees to manufacturers so that I would be paid for my actual work, not just for what went into production.’44 As soon as conditions were right, Alastair invited her to design for Edinburgh Weavers. Two botanical screen prints, Florimel (1949) and Elysian (1949), featuring line drawings of wild flowers, were commissioned in 1948 and produced the following year [pl.324]. These two fabrics were instrumental in launching Day’s career. Florimel echoes Alastair’s designs for Horrockses, which had just appeared on the market. This fabric was shown in a room setting in the Land Travelling Exhibition (an adjunct of the Festival of Britain) and was used in interiors by Gordon Russell.45 The Festival prompted another interesting collaboration, as it was Sundour Fabrics who manufactured the woven upholstery fabric designed by Day for the seating in Wells Coates’ Telecinema. Her pattern, resurrection | 181


392 left Skara Brae, William Scott, Edinburgh Weavers, 1958 Screen-printed slubby cotton tweed V&A: Circ.266–1960

393 below left William Scott in his studio, c.1957–8 Archive photograph The artist is working on a textile design using wax, probably Skara Brae. William Scott Foundation

394 below Nearing Circles, William Scott, 1961 Oil on canvas 173 x 160 cm Purchased from William Scott’s solo exhibition at the Hanover Gallery in 1961, this painting inspired Edinburgh Weavers’ textile (right). Private Collection

395 right Nearing Circles, William Scott, Edinburgh Weavers, 1962 Jacquard-woven ramie, wool and rayon V&A: Circ.324–1963

edinburgh weavers | 220

designs are closely related: Skaill was the ancestral Orkney home of William Graham Watt, the Victorian laird who excavated the nearby Neolithic village of Skara Brae. Both textiles are extremely rugged, not only in their pattern but also literally in the physicality of the cloth, inspired by the elemental landscape to which they allude. Significantly, Orkney was one of Alastair’s favourite places too; he went on a family holiday there in July 1955. Nearing Circles (1962) is another impressive largescale jacquard weave [pl.395]. Its asymmetrical design spans the entire width of the cloth. Three irregular black circles run down the centre, with grey and white squares on either side. The design was based on a large oil painting called Nearing Circles (1961), purchased by Alastair on behalf of Edinburgh Weavers from the Hanover Gallery on 18 May 1961 [pl.394].27 The Hanover Gallery on St George’s Street, just off Hanover Square, was one of Alastair’s favourite haunts. At least nine of the works he translated into textiles were purchased from there.28 The textile was produced in a single colourway based on the palette of the painting. The design is calmer than Skaill and the surface of the cloth is smoother, woven from a mixture of ramie, wool and rayon. Alastair clearly admired Scott’s painting as it hung in his office. In a publicity photograph, he is seen seated at his desk with the painting on the wall behind him, holding a length of fabric and a skein of yarn [pl.375]. There can be no doubt from this that Alastair personally undertook the translation of the painting into woven cloth. Whithorn (1962), a screen-printed linen, was also based on a painting acquired from the Hanover Gallery, in this case a gouache called Brown and Grey (1961) [pls 396 and 397].29 The two works were illustrated alongside each other in an article called ‘Art into Fabric’ in Architectural Review in February 1962, which noted that ‘the original design has been modified (by the artist himself ) to unite the main area of colour into a continuous vertical band.’ Whithorn has a serene mellow quality. The textile dyes capture the blurred effects of watercolour, while the heavy slubby linen provides a suitably grainy ground for the print. Like Nearing Circles, it was produced in a single colourway matching the original painting. Architectural Review commented approvingly: ‘The similarity in the quality of edges, etc, in the original and the print does not involve any feeling of forced reproductive accuracy, but is quite at home as a material with linen’s surface qualities.’ Whithorn was commissioned by the architect Eugene Rosenberg, of Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall, for Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry, which was Paintings into textiles | 221


392 left Skara Brae, William Scott, Edinburgh Weavers, 1958 Screen-printed slubby cotton tweed V&A: Circ.266–1960

393 below left William Scott in his studio, c.1957–8 Archive photograph The artist is working on a textile design using wax, probably Skara Brae. William Scott Foundation

394 below Nearing Circles, William Scott, 1961 Oil on canvas 173 x 160 cm Purchased from William Scott’s solo exhibition at the Hanover Gallery in 1961, this painting inspired Edinburgh Weavers’ textile (right). Private Collection

395 right Nearing Circles, William Scott, Edinburgh Weavers, 1962 Jacquard-woven ramie, wool and rayon V&A: Circ.324–1963

edinburgh weavers | 220

designs are closely related: Skaill was the ancestral Orkney home of William Graham Watt, the Victorian laird who excavated the nearby Neolithic village of Skara Brae. Both textiles are extremely rugged, not only in their pattern but also literally in the physicality of the cloth, inspired by the elemental landscape to which they allude. Significantly, Orkney was one of Alastair’s favourite places too; he went on a family holiday there in July 1955. Nearing Circles (1962) is another impressive largescale jacquard weave [pl.395]. Its asymmetrical design spans the entire width of the cloth. Three irregular black circles run down the centre, with grey and white squares on either side. The design was based on a large oil painting called Nearing Circles (1961), purchased by Alastair on behalf of Edinburgh Weavers from the Hanover Gallery on 18 May 1961 [pl.394].27 The Hanover Gallery on St George’s Street, just off Hanover Square, was one of Alastair’s favourite haunts. At least nine of the works he translated into textiles were purchased from there.28 The textile was produced in a single colourway based on the palette of the painting. The design is calmer than Skaill and the surface of the cloth is smoother, woven from a mixture of ramie, wool and rayon. Alastair clearly admired Scott’s painting as it hung in his office. In a publicity photograph, he is seen seated at his desk with the painting on the wall behind him, holding a length of fabric and a skein of yarn [pl.375]. There can be no doubt from this that Alastair personally undertook the translation of the painting into woven cloth. Whithorn (1962), a screen-printed linen, was also based on a painting acquired from the Hanover Gallery, in this case a gouache called Brown and Grey (1961) [pls 396 and 397].29 The two works were illustrated alongside each other in an article called ‘Art into Fabric’ in Architectural Review in February 1962, which noted that ‘the original design has been modified (by the artist himself ) to unite the main area of colour into a continuous vertical band.’ Whithorn has a serene mellow quality. The textile dyes capture the blurred effects of watercolour, while the heavy slubby linen provides a suitably grainy ground for the print. Like Nearing Circles, it was produced in a single colourway matching the original painting. Architectural Review commented approvingly: ‘The similarity in the quality of edges, etc, in the original and the print does not involve any feeling of forced reproductive accuracy, but is quite at home as a material with linen’s surface qualities.’ Whithorn was commissioned by the architect Eugene Rosenberg, of Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall, for Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry, which was Paintings into textiles | 221


Alastair Morton and Edinburgh Weavers  

Sample pages from Alastair Morton and Edinburgh Weavers by Lesley Jackson. Published February 2012. ISBN 9781851776603.

Advertisement
Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you