Exhibition celebrates genius of forgotten Yorkshire artist and textile designer

One of the prints on sale at the Mercer Gallery
One of the prints on sale at the Mercer Gallery

The genius of forgotten Yorkshire artist and textile designer Sheila Bownas is apparent for all to see at the Mercer Gallery’s latest exhibition. Sharon Dale reports. Main pictures by Gary Longbottom.

Quiet people have the loudest minds, according to Stephen Hawking, who hints that they are often unfairly disregarded. That was certainly true of mid-century artist and designer Sheila Bownas, who was both talented and highly original. Fabric and wallpaper manufacturers snapped up her surface pattern designs but her name went unchecked, unlike that of her equally gifted contemporary Lucienne Day.

Sheila and her mum Minnie, pictured at home in the Dales.

Sheila and her mum Minnie, pictured at home in the Dales.

Her quietness, which later led to an increasingly reclusive life in her native Yorkshire Dales, along with blatant sexism, meant that she was never publicly applauded.

Now, a decade after her death, she is the star of an exhibition at Harrogate’s Mercer Art Gallery. Sheila Bownas: A Yorkshire Life in Pattern, which opens today and runs until January 7.

According to senior curator May Catt, it “celebrates one of our most unheralded designers and charts the shifting fashions of post-war Britain”. This much-deserved moment in the spotlight is thanks to Sheila’s biggest fan, Chelsea Cefai. A gallery professional from the Midlands, Chelsea stumbled across the artist’s work in 2008 when looking for some inexpensive art for her home.

Trawling eBay, she had scrolled through hundreds of listings, when two pictures demanded her attention. “I was struck by the designs, which were listed as ‘two prints by Sheila Bownas’. I asked the seller if he had any more and he said he had 210. He was selling them off bit by bit but I knew they had to be kept together, so I asked if I could buy them all.

Designs from the 1970's by Sheila Bownas, which feature at an exhibition at the Mercer Gallery.

Designs from the 1970's by Sheila Bownas, which feature at an exhibition at the Mercer Gallery.

“I ended up with a treasure trove of artwork by an unknown artist. I could tell I had found something special – it was so timeless and so vibrant,” says Chelsea.

“My instinct told me there was a story behind the pictures that could easily have been lost forever.”

The urge to play detective was overwhelming and Chelsea’s investigation began at Hartleys in Ilkley, where Sheila Bownas’s belongings had been auctioned after her death in 2007. From there she went on to find and make contact with Sheila’s family and was able to piece together a remarkable story.

Sheila Catherine Bownas was born in 1925 in Linton in Craven, near Grassington, where her parents ran the local shop. With encouragement from her art mistress at Skipton Girls’ High School and her loving parents, Reg and Minnie, she attended Skipton Art College and won a scholarship to the Slade in London. While there, she won a number of prizes for her work and had several paintings accepted for the Royal Academy Summer exhibition.

May Catt, curator at The Mercer Gallery,  with some of the designs by Sheila Bownas.

May Catt, curator at The Mercer Gallery, with some of the designs by Sheila Bownas.

After graduating in 1950, Sheila forged a career as a freelance designer, supplying patterns to the likes of Liberty and Marks & Spencer. She moved between London and her parents’ home for 12 years before finally settling in her beloved Linton for the rest of her life.

Her collection of letters reveals that she tried to secure a permanent position but failed because of to the sexism in male-dominated design studios. One letter sent from Crown wallpaper in 1959 states: “Thank you for your letter enclosing your design No. S.B. 286. I have decided to retain this design so would you please let us have your invoice? With reference to your desire to obtain a position in our studio, the Director feels that should an appointment be made at all, a male designer would be preferable, considering our future policy.”

Chelsea Cefai says: “She didn’t give up applying for a job and got around 100 rejection letters from the mid-50s to the late 60s.

Sheila continued as a freelance for a further 25 years, quietly supplying the nation’s top manufacturers from her studio in an outbuilding close to her cottage.

She died at the age of 82 and not even those closest to her realised the extent of her brilliance. Her friends and family describe her as a quiet, private and lovely person, who would rise at around noon and work into the night on her paintings.

She never married and never had a television. Her constant companion was Radio 4, although local children often popped in on Friday, which was her baking day.

“She was exceptional and very in tune with the trends,” says Chelsea, who, with the blessing of Sheila’s family, has worked with artisans to make wallpaper, furniture, textiles and ceramics featuring the distinctive artwork.

These form part of the exhibition at the Mercer Gallery, along with 100 Bownas originals and other pieces of her artwork borrowed from her family and friends. A highlight of the show will be the unveiling of eight previously unseen designs recently brought forward by a private collector.

To secure Sheila’s place in the annals of history, Chelsea has compiled a catalogue. Sheila Bownas – The Art of Pattern forms the first comprehensive record of her textile designs.

The Fountaine Inn in Linton is also planning a tribute to the artist. Her old studio, which is now a bedroom for guests, is to be renamed “Sheila’s Studio” with wallpaper featuring her designs.

Rugby-based Chelsea describes it as a touching tribute” and adds that she is thrilled with the Mercer Gallery exhibition.

“I am so pleased that Sheila’s work is going home to Yorkshire. It’s everything I’ve worked for. I did a show in Rugby and next year a smaller show will be held at Pallant House in Chichester. After that I want the whole collection to go to a museum or gallery where it will be looked after and enjoyed for years to come.”

Sheila Bownas: A Yorkshire Life in Pattern runs at the Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate from today until January 7. Entry is free. For more information on the Sheila Bownas archive online, visit www.sheilabownas.co.uk