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Sheila takes a bow at must-see exhibition in Harrogate

October 6, 2017

My favourite exhibition this year isn’t just a collection of exceptional art, it’s a happy ending to one of my favourite stories.

Gorgeous Yorkshire followers may remember that I have written about Sheila Bownas before.  She was a gifted artist who ended her days in her native Yorkshire Dales. Quiet and reclusive and a victim of blatant sexism, she died never having the recognition she deserved. Now, thanks to a wonderful twist of fate and one woman’s determination, she is the star of an exhibition at Harrogate Council’s Mercer Art Gallery. Sheila Bownas: A Yorkshire Life in Pattern runs until January 7.   If you go (it’s free and the gallery is a lovely, relaxed place to wander) you’ll see that the brilliant mid-century designs still look fresh and modern, even though they were created 60 years ago.

They and Sheila’s genius were spotted by Chelsea Cefai, a gallery professional from the Midlands,  who 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.  She contacted the seller who said he had 210 and had bought them for a song at an auction, where the contents of Sheila’s house were being sold after her death 10 years ago.

“I knew they had to be kept together, so I asked if I could buy them all,” says Chelsea. “I could tell I had found something special – it was so timeless and so vibrant. My instinct told me there was a story behind the pictures that could easily have been lost forever.”

Her detective work revealed 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.

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, though they were happy to use and take credit for her designs.

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.  Chelsea hopes to donate the collection to a museum or gallery ” where it will be looked after and enjoyed for years to come.”

There are also cards, mini prints featuring Sheila’s work

For more information on the Sheila Bownas archive online, visit www.sheilabownas.co.uk

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