Sunday, October 5, 2014

Peggy Angus: Designer, Teacher, Painter - James Russell

This post was meant to follow the one about female role models the other day because it was reading about Peggy Angus which set me off thinking about why it might be that we allow ourselves to forget about so many creative women when we should be celebrating them, but the week got away from me.

Peggy Angus is an intriguing figure, her name has cropped up, mostly in relation to her friends Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden, with increasing frequency over the last few years and this summer the Towner gallery in Eastbourne have had an exhibition devoted to her (which this book is partly an accompaniment to). The time is clearly ripe for a reassessment of her work partly because of a renewed appreciation for the likes of Bawden and Ravilious, hopefully because we're getting better at appreciating the decorative arts (it's Peggy's designs for wallpapers and tiles that really stand out in this book rather than her painting), and maybe because there's an effort being made to find some of those lost women artists.

As part of the general excitement around the Towner exhibition (which I wish I had seen) Rachel Cooke wrote an article in The Observer where Peggy is described as designs forgotten warrior, it also makes the point that women weren't meant to be like that back in the 50's (not that it makes them particularly popular now either) and is an interesting post script to the book on a few counts. Russell's book is excellent, right from the title - designer, teacher, painter - which makes clear what order he puts her achievements in (for which he also makes a well argued and convincing case) to the illustrations which are plentiful and quietly inspiring.

One thing I learnt studying History of Art is how important a good bit of gossip or scandal can be in holding the attention of a class, there seems to have been plenty of both around Angus and her circle (Cooke gets quite a bit of it into her article) but it's to Russell's credit that whilst he doesn't ignore this, or the more difficult aspects of Peggy's character, nor does he dwell on it. That in some ways she was an extremely difficult woman is worth considering because clearly still don't like it when a woman doesn't fit into a traditional mould of femininity. Her daughters comments to Cooke make it plain that they had a difficult relationship, Russell reveals that Peggy may have appropriated a design from Victoria that she went on to win a prize with, and comments from former pupils on the Cooke article recall how intimidating she could be. It takes a certain ruthlessness to be successful but we don't like seeing it in women.

On the other hand, and far more importantly, Peggy was clearly an inspired and inspiring teacher who gave her pupils an excellent grounding in history as well as technique. She fought for the right to work after having her children (because she had to) which was unusual  at the time, and at the same time was working on big commercial projects with her tile murals. She believed in, and promoted, patronage of the arts, and looking at the illustrations clearly believed in introducing colour and pattern to every aspect of her life. It's all very exciting, and at the risk of over using the word - inspiring.

Her design work, wallpapers and tiles specifically, are a revelation. Many of the original tile murals are lost now as the post war buildings they were put up in have been pulled down. Similarly wallpaper being something that generally goes up in private spaces and is likely to be changed as houses are sold or tastes change is easy to miss. Peggy compared herself favourably to William Morris, I think she may gave had a point. She preferred to print the blocks by hand valuing the subtle variations in finish that this gave, she would also design papers specifically for the person commissioning them, and highly patterned or brightly coloured as they might be they were also intended to be a background for more art to be hung on. Russell's illustrations show how effectively this worked.

The woman who emerges from this book is a gifted, energetic, complex character whose influence is likely far more wide spread than it's possible to guess. It's high time she got this reassessment, I hope that at some point Carolyn Trant's biography gets a reprint that makes it affordable/accessible so that it can add to the conversation. Meanwhile Russell's book is an excellent place to start exploring from not least because it's very readable (which is a bonus), but also because it begs the question how did she get forgotten in the first place.

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