My favourite story of the year so far began with a tweet to Gorgeous Yorkshire from Chelsea Cefai.
“Take a look at www.sheilabownas.com She was from Yorkshire.” I clicked the link and found these sensational, mid-century prints and the fascinating tale of their creator.
Sheila was an artist who grew up in a small Dales village in the 1930s. Her talent took her to The Slade art school in London and led to a freelance career supplying surface patterns to everyone from Liberty to Marks & Spencer. A shy and modest lady, she ended her days back in the village and when she died few realised how remarkable she was.
Most of her belongings went to auction and Chelsea found Sheila’s work on eBay while searching for inexpensive, original art for her newly-renovated home.
“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. I asked if I could buy them all, not really knowing what I would do with them. I just knew they were the work of a brilliant artist,” she says.
Sheila’s surface patterns for textiles and wallpaper look as fresh and relevant today as they did in the 1950s, 60s and 70s and, together with her story, they sparked a mission to bring her work to a new audience.
The result is Chelsea’s Sheila Bownas collection with the designs revived as giclee prints, cards, cushions, lighting and a sofa, all made in Britain.
Chelsea, who studied photography, is also preparing for an exhibition about Sheila and her work that will launch at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum next year, and which she hopes to bring to Yorkshire.
“She was a hoarder and an archivist’s dream. All the letters of acceptance of her work exist but she sold her designs as a number, they didn’t carry her name,” says Chelsea.
Sheila’s journey started as the only child of Reg and Minnie Bownas, who ran a grocery shop in the village of Linton, near Grassington. She was born in 1925 and loved to draw and paint. Encouraged by her art mistress at Skipton Girls’ High School, she won a county art scholarship to attend The Slade and her proud parents gave her their blessing, even though it meant losing their only child to the capital, which had barely recovered from the ravages of war. She won several prizes at The Slade and later made a living as a freelance designer.
Her collection of letters reveals that she tried for years to secure a permanent position but failed due to the sexism that existed in male-dominated design studios.
One letter sent from Crown wallpaper in 1959 states: “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.”
In the 1970s, she returned to Linton to be with her widowed mother, but continued to build her enormous collection of portraits, landscapes and still life.
Friends and relatives had no idea of the extent of it until she passed away in 2007, aged 82.
Villagers remember her as kind and shy and, as she got older, increasingly reclusive. She would rise late at around noon and work into the night on her paintings. Bedtime was often as late as 4 or 5am.
She never married and never had a TV. Her constant companion was Radio 4, although local children often popped in on Friday, which was her baking day.
Her paintings and collages went to auction at Andrew Hartley’s in Ilkley after her death and although the large oil paintings did quite well, the rest realised very little. But thanks to Chelsea’s chance find on eBay, Sheila’s designs have an appreciative new audience.
“I’ve tried to do what I think she would want,” says Chelsea. “I love her work and it saddens me to think that an artist with such wonderful talent could so easily slip through the net of recognition. That’s what drives me. Sheila Bownas is not just a number in a file now, she’s a name in the limelight.”
*The Sheila Bownas collection is available online at www.sheilabownas.com