‘The Golden Girl of Heal’s’ – Barbara Brown speaks to Ashley Gray

Barbara Brown ‘Sweetcorn’ 1958

The conversation below between Barbara Brown and Ashley Gray took place on 17 April 2020 –

Ashley Gray:
Hello Barbara, thank you so much for speaking with me today. Can we talk about your experience of art school prior to the Royal College?

Barbara Brown:
I was at school in Ashford first of all and travelled to Canterbury by train each day to attend the Art School there before finally finding digs in the town. I did the Intermediate and the National Diploma and wanted to be a sculptor but they said to me “you cannot be a sculptor because you are a woman!” It was very much like that in those days. They said, “you can do textiles” so I did textiles. I did what I was told as that had always been my background. Sculpture was really my first love, Textiles were my second. There were very few of us doing Textiles at Canterbury.

AG:
Yet it was textiles that brought you to the Royal College?

BB:
It was wonderful, I loved the Royal College. The atmosphere, everything, Humphrey Spender who taught there influenced me.

AG:
He designed for Alistair Morton’s Edinburgh Weavers too?

BB:
Yes, Humphrey Spender was lovely, I got to know him very well and we became great friends. We taught at the Royal College together later. I taught for twenty years there.

AG:
The earlier textiles like Sweet Corn were more painterly?

BB:
I was really mucking around in a way, having a good time. Trying to get away from very recognisable things. It was not until later after I left the Royal College that I started doing the very abstract things. Those are the things I still respond to – the abstract things.

AG:
You met Tom Worthington, a legendary figure at Heal’s whist at the Royal College?

BB:
Yes, he would come to the degree shows and bought what he saw at that time. Later he commissioned things from me.

AG:
What was your next step after the Royal College?

BB:
I went to teach. First at Medway where Zandra Rhodes was one of my first students.

AG:
She told me you were a great influence on her.

BB:
She has always been so nice about that, she was a fantastically hard worker, she never stopped. She was one of my first students. I got quite a few students into the Royal College at that time. I also taught visual research at Hornsey. This meant looking at different ways of drawing using microscopes and all sorts. I had a wide range of different students, painters, sculptors, everything. I was teaching in the same way also at Guildford.

AG:
Was this a time of evolution for you personally in your own work, I know you were interested in Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley and others?

BB:
Yes, I was very influenced by them and I was looking at things in a very different way. I loved American art at that point too.

AG:
This influence also seems to have allowed you to work on a much larger scale than previous designers.

BB:
I never thought of these things as hanging in somebody’s front room. I always saw them as something for big spaces, to the extent that one of the big black and white ones was bought by Manchester University and put in their lecture hall. Apparently, all the students complained because it was so strong that they could not focus on the lecturer! It was much too commanding and distracted them all.

AG:
A great example of Op Art!

BB:
I always knew that the cloth was 48 inches wide so I always tried to work at 48 inches. I used to make the repeat to the full width so when you joined them up it became even bigger. I was interested in making images. That’s why I was never very good at repeat.

AG:
Was it the fact that you were not a traditional textile designer that drew Tom Worthington at Heal’s to your designs?

BB:
He came to my flat after the first view and saw what I was drawing. Bits of paper I was playing around with and he would say “I like that, or I like that” and I would develop them from that. He did not arrive and say, “I want to see some textiles”.

AG:
He was a powerful force in bringing Modernism into the home.

BB:
He had a really wonderful vision, he was a brilliant man at his job. He really did know what he wanted and what he was going for. It shows in the sort of things he picked.

AG:
He seemed to have that genius of moving and leading trends at that time.

BB:
Very much, he was very much the leader of it all, he picked all sorts of strange things that were wonderful. He did not go for pretty flowers in repeat! He had a lovely vision.

AG:
In 2017 there was the wonderful retrospective of your work at the Whitworth in Manchester. What was your reaction to seeing that work shown on such a grand scale?

BB:
It was great, I liked it a lot and I very much liked the way they had hung them. You got the feeling of what I was after in terms of the scale of them all.

AG:
Let’s discuss a few of these key textiles, but am I right in saying that the titles were actually given by Heal’s?

BB:
Yes, that’s right.

Recurrance, 1962

AG:
So, starting with the first for Heal Fabrics; Sweet Corn 1958, tell us a little about this piece?

BB:
This was the first one that I ever sold. It came from my degree show at the Royal College and Tom Worthington from Heal’s came and bought it. There was more than one colour way even then I did not like colourways!

AG:
Recurrence 1962 – very diffident to the painterly quality of Sweet Corn!

BB:
This is the first of all my abstract ones, very geometric and I like it a lot. It was also done for ceramics for Midwinters, Recurrence and Reciprocation with smaller circles was from the same time. Recurrence I liked best because it was very simple and I like them when they are very simple.

AG:
Frequency 1959, a very different approach tells us about this design.

Frequency, 1959

BB:
I became very interested in geology and earth movement. Here you get the strata and the folds in the rock. Heal’s photographed it really well and hung it with chimneys above it – it was rather wonderful, it became part of the landscape. It is very much about strata and mountain moving.

Spiral, 1969

AG:
Spiral rather later 1969, again for Heal’s, was very dynamic. Tell us about this.

BB:
This one I really like a lot, there was one similar to this one called Automation. They were very much about engineering drawing. So this one is a great big screw and Automation was from the idea of a building. I was very pleased with these and I particularly like them in black and white because it makes more sense and I like the scale of them.

AG:
So, we enter the early 1970s here with Ikebana.

Ikebana, 1971

 

 

 

 

BB:
This is very much about movement, these two big blocks of white coming from the left are moving the balls. So, like frequency it is about earth movement and how it is affected by water. You get the water bubbling up between the rock. It’s very much about earth movements again but in a very geometric way. You see these great huge white lumps coming through which move the water.

AG:
Barbara, Thank you so much.

Messums Yorkshire opens in Harrogate

Saturday 11 July 2020

Internationally renowned contemporary art dealer Johnny Messum hosted a summer opening at the new gallery in James Street, Harrogate, following the success of the James Street pop-up exhibition held just before lockdown. Launched over the weekend of 11 – 12 July, guests were invited to book timed appointments so they could view the exhibits in a safe and relaxed environment. Johnny plans to hold six shows of the best of international contemporary and Modern British art each year with accompanying talks and events, mirroring the highly acclaimed programmes currently on offer at the galleries in London and Wiltshire.

With a nod to Yorkshire’s deep links with the textile industry, the Harrogate programme opened with Material Textile: Modern British Female Designers, which showcases some of the most colourful, important and collectable textiles created by female artists during the 1950s – 70s. They have been brought together this year for the very first time. To complement the textiles, one of France’s leading ceramic artists Thiébaut Chagué, familiar to visitors to the V&A and the Louvre, also has his most recent studio works on display.

The upper floor focusses primarily on British Impressionist paintings championed by Messums since the 1960s, including artists such as Walter Sickert and Harold Gilman. The sculptor Dame Elisabeth Frink, the subject of a major show this summer at Messums Wiltshire, is also represented.

Messums historically has strong connections with Yorkshire and Yorkshire artists.  Regular exhibitors at the Harrogate Art Fair, the gallery promoted artists of the Staithes School, in particular Dame Laura Knight, to London collectors. We have also shone a light on Northern artists with an annual exhibition on Cork Street titled The Elemental North, which focuses on renowned artists such as Jake Attree and Norman Ackroyd RA.  In addition, Johnny Messum represents the sculptor Laurence Edwards, whose important installation The Doncaster Heads: Portraits of a Mining Community commissioned by the town of Doncaster, will be unveiled later this year.

Johnny Messum says, “I am delighted to be opening a gallery for Yorkshire’s discerning viewers in a town we know so well. I am looking forward to strengthening the gallery’s longstanding relationships in Yorkshire as well as to forging new ones.  At times like these, the power of art to inspire and uplift is more important than ever.  Our vision is to create a place where artists, art lovers and collectors can come together on a regular basis to enjoy the best contemporary art and craft from every corner of the world”.