Notes: Celia Birtwell, Fabric Designer

Posted: May 5, 2012 in Parameters
Tags: , , , ,

The particulars of place, and the specifics of persons, are the main grid references in the career of Celia Birtwell.

There are many images for characterising her life: she is fireweed, blown seeds fruiting everywhere; she is honeysuckle, weaving and winding through her time and age to blossom with exotic scents; she is… it has to be a floral/faunal image, especially garden variety.

The grid points depict moments of surges of growth; these are interspersed by, at times long periods of quiet, of underground rooting.

Where the grid points of place and person coincide we see the major growth spurts.

The first grid point is Salford, (Manchester, northern England) the year 1941. You will not find her on the electoral register for that year; it was a year without a census.

Where was her schooling, who were her friends? She has learned that private is indeed private, but that a personal life can become public property.

Our next grid point is Salford College of Art, the year 1956. No records exist of her Textile Design course; I have enquired. Who, again, were her friends and colleagues?

Moving in on another trajectory we find Raymond (Ossie) Clark, Warrington (Lancashire, northern England), 1942: “Born in the middle of air raid!” voluble; lively; tyro. The meeting, ‘The Cona Coffee Club’, Tib Lane, Manchester. It was a ‘bring your own record’ place; already we have the ‘bright young things’; an identity of their own; the age of the teenager. This was Manchester waking up and hopping to a new rhythm.

And so they met, one incandescent and fiery, the other grounded, earthed, maybe a little pagan.

Like any wind that could stir in those static post-war years, it blew south. We next plot them separately in Notting Hill, London, 1961; Celia worked in the Wig Department of the Aldwych Theatre. They were provincials, Northern, working class; they had all the credentials for crashing London barriers. But the confidence to hawk designs around those venerable fashion houses came from set designer Anthony Powell, painter Hugh McKinnon. Her designs sold straight away.

The Clark-Birtwell collaboration became a working reality. We hit 1965, they had dedicated outlets: the Quorum Boutique, London, and stars queuing at the door.

Celia designed the fabrics, and Ossie tailored them into outfits, shirts, dresses. They clothed the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pattie Boyd, Marianne Faithful, Twiggy; later Jimi Hendrix, Telitha Getty, Paloma Picasso. From the fashion aristos to the real aristos.

1969 and the relationship became a marriage, with children. But that was not the age of marriage-with-children. Ossie loved the rock star scene, spent most of his time out there; Celia meanwhile hunted out Vita Sackville-West’s wonderful garden at Sissinghurst, and Kew Gardens; taking notes from Bakst’s Ballet Russe costumes; from Picasso, Matisse. The gaps opened up. They were always there. The marriage fell apart in 1973.

A booming business; a van driver who would one day provide live, happening music: Dave Gilmour pre Pink Floyd; Brian Jones camped out in a flat above the shop.

Paris 1969, and the person entering the graph was David Hockney, bronzed from California, suave from success. He produced the wonderful Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, now accorded Greatest British Painting status.  But the painting shows the strain of the relationship: the cat was not Percy but Blanche; the body language is all askew. It was originally read by the hip art establishment as a depiction of modern marriage: new establishment mores, full of alternative interests and directions, yet stable. She looked in that painting, she said, “too bovine”: she was not that placid, so acquiescent.

After the break-up Celia disappeared from the chart. She had regular work with the Radley label, but time was taken bringing up two sons, one needing extra care, and teaching at Art Colleges. This was the 70’s; and very remedial times where a woman’s, not to mention a mother’s, place in industry and fashion was concerned.

It was not until 1984 we see another grid reference, when Hockney encouraged her to launch once more into the marketplace. And the place, Westbourne Grove, her own shop.

Scoot to 2006 and her fabric and clothes designs for Top Shop sold out completely within forty-five minutes of the store opening its doors.

In 2007 we chart the Elle Decoration Design Award for Fashion Contribution to Interiors. Because her work now covers Fashion, Accessories, Furnishings, Wall Papers. With ranges of Classic, Couture, Jacobean fashions in glorious silks, with pink and gold designs, with silk organza, cotton and linen, sometimes flannel, her work continues to grow, expand, gain recognition.

I have given the grid readings but not the topography; privacy became something of a major concern in her life; she saw what happened to Ossie; the publication of the Diaries was one step too close. She shielded the children from the more lurid details.

The grid points can be read also as loom settings: the fabric woven is rich, strangely textured in places, but in the whole exquisitely pleasing and accessible, malleable and delightful.

She now has the stability, and a client-base to die for. She recently celebrated her 71st birthday.

 

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