Celebrating Modern Artist Textiles at Gray M.C.A

16 April 2023, by Ashley Gray

In this week's blog, curator Ashley Gray gives an insight behind the exhibition 'Styled by Design: Modern Artist Textiles' that is on display at Gray M.C.A. from 18th-30th April. Ashley explains the history of the 20th century Modernist textiles on which the exhibition focuses, which includes pieces by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

Fashion and Textiles Gallery Gray M.C.A, are returning this April to London’s hub for the Arts, Cromwell Place to unveil ‘Styled by Design’ -  Modern Artist Textiles an exhibition of framed 20th Century Modernist Textiles that brings together a collection of rare and limited edition works by renowned artists Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, John Piper, Elizabeth Frink, Patrick Heron and more.

The exhibition will celebrate Modern Artist Textiles as a vital creative pillar in the story of Modern and Contemporary Art, examining significant textiles designed by the great modern masters of the 20th Century.

It was rare for artists, who considered themselves painters, to work with textiles other than on the very canvas they used to make their painting. Yet the rise of Modernism challenged these taboos and allowed artists to experiment with designs and drawings with a new, versatile and exciting medium. Diverse fabrics such as silk, rayon, woven wool, linen and cotton allowed experimentation with creating vivid textures and colours that brought both new life and a new audience to their work.

Through the vision of Alistair Morton of Edinburgh Weavers, the Modernist painters William Scott and Alan Reynolds would produce rich textures as dramatic as any oil painting.  And Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth’s silkscreen designs for Zika and Lida Ascher of Ascher Ltd would hold the same subtle delicate beauty as any watercolour.

Richard Calvocoressi former Director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, writing in 1978, encapsulated Morton’s unique talent. “Morton exhibited a quick and thorough understanding of the process of weaving, the construction of fabrics and the actual fibers themselves. His fascination with the surface of materials, the exciting contrasts of textural effects achieved by mixing different yarns, wool, silk, cotton, rayon and other synthetic materials became the hallmark of Edinburgh Weavers”. At the time of Morton’s death in 1963 it was widely recognised that he could interpret in fabric the full quality of the artist’s handwriting.

Working with the same passion, but with an alternative vision, were Czech émigrés Zika and Lida Asher who were to become a dynamic addition to the creative drive behind post war London. Like Alistair Morton, Zika Ascher had grown up and worked with textiles, his family having run one of the most prestigious luxury fabric stores in Prague. Forced to flee the Nazi’s whilst on honeymoon, Zika and his wife Lida Ascher would bring new meaning to artists textiles by commissioning Modern artists work for both interior and dress fabrics.

The celebrated Modern artist Henry Moore was the first of the Modern artists with whom Ascher Ltd stuck up an immensely important and creative relationship. Ascher was hugely moved by the atmosphere and power of Moore’s drawings of Londoners sheltering from German bombing in the underground at the ‘Shelter Drawing’ exhibition held in 1941 at The National Gallery. He immediately approached Moore with the idea of a commission for textile design. Moore was thrilled with the idea and by 1943 Asher was thumbing through four notebooks filled with striking and beautiful textile designs.

Together Ascher and Morton truly lit the blue touch paper that allowed Modern artists to widen their scope and challenge their skill and ultimately highlight their work on a central stage in modern homes. The 1951 Festival of Britain celebrated and promoted the Modernist textiles to a watching world, encouraging Modern Art to feature in the home through interior design that complemented the architecture and mood of the day. This was further championed by Hans and Elsbeth Juda’s publication ‘The Ambassador’ which sponsored ‘Painting into Textiles’ at the ICA in October 1953 encouraging a further stable of the giants of Modern British Art to produce work that could be used for textiles. One such design on paper by Modernist Graham Sutherland exhibited in the 1953 exhibition was used as a basis for a dress design for Horrockses Fashions. The label also collaborated with other artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi and Edinburgh Weavers’s Alastair Morton to create alluring designs for their fabrics.











The exhibition includes the vast 1949 Ascher screen print on linen ‘Two Standing Figures’ - an iconic museum quality work by Henry Moore at the height of his fame and global recognition; Ben Nicholson’s 1937 ‘Vertical’ for Edinburgh Weavers; Patrick Heron’s ‘Nude’ silk scarf - drawn whilst Heron worked for his father, Tom Heron at Cresta Silks, which perfectly captures his freestyle early paintings of the late 1940s and early 1950s; and John Piper’s stunning screen print commissions for both Arthur Sanderson and David Whitehead that include ‘Church Monument, Exton’ (1954), ‘Arundel’ (1960) in woven linen and ‘Brittany’ (1969).

From the mid-20th Century onwards, many eminent artists including Picasso, Braque and Mattisse worked with influential textile manufacturers both in Britain and the United States to produce exclusive and limited edition textiles with the aim of transporting Contemporary art into the home as never before. Textile powerhouses Arthur Sanderson and David Whitehead swiftly followed, as did Fuller Fabrics and Bloomcraft in America, capturing the public and media’s attention in an innovative, multi-disciplinary fashion, leaving a legacy that holds vast significance to the Fine Art and textile industries to this day.

The Styled by Design exhibition of textiles celebrates the modernist view that ‘a good textile was the equal of a good painting’. Post-war, innovative textile firms truly democratised Modern Art by making it literally a part of the furniture. bringing Modern Art centre stage on the runway and in the home These powerful artist textiles are a vital part of the history of the evolution of Modern Art.

Styled by Design will open on Tuesday 18 April at Cromwell Place and is on view until Sunday 30 April with an added programme of events. Amongst these an inspiring panel discussion on Sutherland’s Coventry Cathedral TapestryChrist in Glory’ that will see leading textile and modern art curators and historians in conversation, in aid of The Friends of Coventry Cathedral. A further in conversation event ‘Textiles and Literature’ with Nicola Beauman the founder of Persephone Books will be chaired by former journalist and founder of Haptic & Hue podcast, Jo Andrews.

Members of the Costume Society have been invited to an exclusive guided tour of 'Styled by Design: Modern Artist Textiles', hosted by Ashley Gray, on April 29th. Become a member to gain access to this and other exclusive events. 

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