The work of reclusive artist and textile designer Sheila Bownas threatened to fade into obscurity until a chance find in a Yorkshire saleroom led gallery professional Chelsea Cefai on a journey of discovery.
Now, with the opening of a new exhibition at the Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate, Sheila’s hand painted designs finally seem destined to reach the audience of her beloved Yorkshire. From playful figurative scenes to jagged modernist patterns this exhibition celebrates one of our most unheralded designers and charts the shifting fashions of postwar Britain.
In 2008, whilst renovating her home, Chelsea Cefai was looking for mid-20th century artwork to hang on her newly painted walls but did not expect to stumble across an entire archive of original, hand painted designs dating from that very era.
A complete treasure trove of artwork by an unknown artist Sheila Bownas, fell into my hands. My initial impulse to buy the designs was to ‘rescue’ the collection and to ensure it stayed together rather than it being sold off separately. I could tell I had found something special and my instinct told me there was a story behind the pieces that could easily have been lost forever.
Chelsea started her research at the auction house in Yorkshire where she bought the pieces from originally. From there she went on to find and make contact with Sheila’s family and very slowly a picture of who she was and where she came from became clear.
Sheila Bownas was born in 1925, growing up in the small Yorkshire Dales village of Linton in Craven. Displaying a natural talent from an early age and with the encouragement of her art mistress at Skipton Girls’ High School, she attended Skipton Art College in the 1940s and secured a scholarship at The Slade, London’s prestigious art school, where she won a number of prizes for her work.
After graduating in 1950, Sheila forged a career as a freelance designer, supplying patterns to the likes of Liberty and Marks and Spencer. She moved between London and Linton for twelve years, before 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. It was only on her death in 2007 her family discovered the sheer scale of her collection of still life, landscape and portrait paintings – alongside the textile designs, which first alerted Chelsea to Sheila’s work.
May Catt, the senior curator at the Mercer Art Gallery has worked closely with Chelsea to bring the show together:
We are delighted to be working with Chelsea in continuing to raise the profile of Sheila Bownas and her 20th century designs. Holding the exhibition here in Harrogate also means the work will be shown together in Yorkshire for the first time, which is particularly poignant given that Sheila was from Linton and spent so much of her life there.
Displaying 100 designs from the archive collection and material loaned from Sheila’s family and friends, the exhibition not only offers the opportunity to immerse yourself in the colourful optimism of mid-century pattern, but also to discover more about Sheila Bownas herself.
A new discovery and highlight of the show will be the unveiling of eight previously unseen designs, recently brought forward by a private collector. The exhibition also includes a contemporary display showcasing wallpaper, furniture, textiles and ceramics featuring Sheila’s distinctive designs, which Chelsea Cefai has developed with UK artisans.
Exploring Sheila’s career over three decades and to coincide with the exhibition, Chelsea has released a new publication, ‘Sheila Bownas – The Art of Pattern’. The catalogue forms the first comprehensive record of Sheila’s textile designs, with 86 colour illustrations and a contribution from design historian Lesley Jackson.
A Yorkshire Life in Pattern will be on display at Mercer Art Gallery from 9 September 2017 – 7 January 2018. Entry to the gallery is free. For more information on the Sheila Bownas Archive, visit www.sheilabownas.co.uk