Words Mark Hooper
Photographs Alan Clarke
After retiring as head of the Royal College of Art’s knitwear department 20 years ago, the godfather of British knitting has started a second career – at the age of 81. Now John Allen is enjoying a new lease of life, thanks to an unlikely pairing with the fashion designer Jonathan Anderson…
‘I’m a bit of a rarity,’ says John Allen, with more than a small degree of understatement. The former head of the Royal College of Art’s knitwear department supposedly retired in 1995, but, having turned 81 this year, he’s now into his 20th year as the designer of – in his words – ‘carpets for walls’. While his fellow octogenarians might be excused for slowing down, Allen is, if anything, accelerating – his recent collection of designs inspired by the British landscape culminating in a new collaboration with Jonathan Anderson for Loewe.
‘As you get older, your mind does get set,’ Allen says. ‘But mine never has. I sit at home with my sister in Derbyshire and she’ll say, “But you can’t say that. You sat here last month and you said exactly the opposite.” And I’ll say, “But Jean, that was a month ago!” And that’s how it is with me. I think that’s important.’
Allen is sparkling company. Sitting in his home in the north-east suburbs of London, amid an incredible collection of art, books and ephemera, he delivers his monologues on life, education and everything in a gentle, clear Derbyshire burr, full of asides and interjections that could have been scripted by Alan Bennett (playing the part of a favourite aunt perhaps). He is also fabulously indiscreet. Here are a few token remarks that will have to remain on the cutting-room floor: ‘He was a brilliant designer, but the biggest bastard ever’; ‘I actually think she’s probably a little bit mad. Seriously’; ‘He’s quite well known – you’ll be able to find him on the internet’; ‘I’m sorry about that fly’… But enough of the things we can’t tell you about. We have one man’s lifetime at the pinnacle of British printing, weaving and knitting to catch up on.
It could have been so different. A career as a dental technician in his hometown of Matlock beckoned, until Allen came to a moment of clarity: ‘When I went round town at the end of my apprenticeship and saw the stuff I’d made grinning back at me, I thought, “Oh this is awful!” When that happens, it’s time to get out!’
Allen knew that he didn’t fit the life laid out for him in Matlock. ‘I was so naïve. I really thought I was the only gay man there and that I was really odd and peculiar. I couldn’t talk about it with anybody. And it was illegal then anyway. I wouldn’t accept it, so it was quite traumatic. I had girlfriends – hundreds of them – for some odd reason I was very attractive to girls. If I was a straight guy I would have had an absolute ball!’
Medical Corps that he came to terms with his sexuality; a critical moment in his life in which he not only came out but also took up the correspondence courses that eventually saw him accepted into further education. ‘I only took them to get out of night duty,’ he recalls. ‘I was told I was a late developer – which is another way of saying you’re a bit dim – but then I discovered that I was slightly dyslexic.’
The night courses weren’t an unqualified success: he eventually passed one O level out of eight taken (albeit in English grammar, a small triumph in itself, given his dyslexia). Anyone else might have seen this as an obstacle to an academic career, but not Allen. Instead, he took five A levels – and passed four. ‘You’re allowed to have opinions about things at A level,’ Allen reasons. ‘At O level you’re not, you have to be a parrot. My teachers said, “You can’t learn to be a parrot, John. That may be an advantage, we don’t know.” For the first few years I had to take these bloody certificates with me, because no one would believe I had four A levels and only one O level!’
‘ I never dreamt I’d be offered a job at the Royal College, because I was always considered a middle of-the-road designer’
Such a healthy disregard for the way things ought to be done extended into his teaching career. ‘I never got a teaching diploma,’ Allen admits. ‘Nowadays you can’t teach without one, but I think if you ask my students, they’d say I was one of the best tutors they ever had. What’s all that about?’
That’s what we’re here to find out. Allen appears to be something of a Brian Clough figure in the world of arts education: his people skills and sheer force of character outweighing the demands of orthodoxy. ‘When I left college I went straight into the fashion industry, creating ideas for fabrics,’ he recounts. ‘Print, weave and knit. Because I’m a rarity, I got a degree in all three. I did a dual degree in Camberwell and a dual degree at the Royal College of Art. And then I designed couture fabrics. It was a gift for a young designer. Money! Colours! Yarn! I could use whatever I wanted. The company certainly wanted blood for what I did, but it was like being at college, I generated hundreds of designs. My name was never on them but I could see them in the press. I did that for six years.’
Allen finally made his name with a co-ordinated range for his employers – a radical idea at the time (‘Think about it, a woman could actually buy a blouse, a skirt, a jacket, a coat, all from one place!’). But his request for a pay rise was rejected. ‘I thought if they’re not going to give me a rise now, they never will. I mean, I was flavour of the month. It was in all the papers and everything.’
It was then that Roger Nicholson, professor of textile design at the Royal College of Art, offered Allen a job in its research department, selecting his pick of the student’s work to go into production. ‘Well, at that time, double jersey was the in thing,’ says Allen. ‘It was all Crimplene; it was horrible.’ After four and a half years, he’d earned enough to buy the house he still lives in today. But then the bottom dropped out of the double jersey market overnight. ‘It was as though one day, everybody looked at themselves and thought, “Why are we wearing this hideous yarn?” When you perspired, it ran down your body because the fabric couldn’t absorb anything. It was obscene!’
The college’s lucrative contract was cancelled without notice, leaving Allen the prospect of being out of a job within the month. But Nicholson instead suggested he set up a knitting department within the RCA’s textile department. ‘I never dreamt I’d be offered a job at the Royal College, because I was always considered a middle-of-the road designer,’ Allen says. ‘I wasn’t cutting edge. I got a 2:1, not a First – but I never cared what anyone thought, so I said yes.’ That was in the early 1980s.
Over the next 12 years, Allen’s course earned itself quite a reputation. ‘We only had the high-flyers,’ he explains. ‘The people who were going to make a name for themselves. We weren’t producing people for ICI and Courtaulds.’
In modern management speak, Allen’s modus operandi was one of empowerment, encouraging his students to question the status quo. ‘There was one woman, Caroline McKinty – she was one of the best students I ever had,’ he says. ‘She’s incredible. She used to ask me, “Do you think these machines will knit wire?” And I’d say, “Well try it”. It used to drive the technicians mad. And of course she made wire knitting. Two years later everybody was doing it, but she was the first.
Allen’s approach to teaching isn’t the sort aimed at winning friends with middle management, but Nicholson recognised his genius. ‘He said, “I knew you’d be tricky to work with John, and I knew we’d probably have a hell of a row, but I knew you’d be worth it”. That’s probably the most flattering remark that I will ever get.’
Asked to identify what makes his teaching style so admired, he ums and ahhs, apologises for another fly (‘There’s two flies now! Oh God, I’m really sorry’) and finally proffers: ‘I think it’s teaching each student as an individual. And getting into their psyche. I really do like people, and I observe them very closely.’
But by 1995, Nicholson had moved on and Allen found himself at loggerheads with the increasingly commercialised world of fashion education. And so, at retirement age, he sought a new challenge. ‘It was only when I left – and now – that I’m coming into my own,’ he remarks. ‘At the age of 81!’ He continues to teach privately part-time – mainly for female mature students who, he finds, are enormously responsive and keen to further their skills, regardless of ability. (‘Because every student is so different, it really keeps you on your toes. It keeps your mind active. I think it’s part of my lifeblood in a way.’)
While he was deciding what else to do with himself, The Knitting & Stitching Show at London’s Alexandra Palace asked him to put on an exhibition. ‘I was asked to do a retrospective but I couldn’t, because I didn’t ever save any work,’ he says. ‘I’m only interested in what I’m doing now; in moving forward.’
Instead, inspired by a trip to Nepal and a determination to get back to basics; he decided to explore the origins of his craft. ‘So I said, “I could do you a show but it would be new stuff .” And they said, “Oh great.” And I said, “It’s carpets for the wall.” “…are you sure? But why not the floor?” So I said, “Listen, they’re tapestries.” “Oh, tapestries!” Well it’s not, but if that’s what they understand, that’s what they’re going to be like.’
It proved to be an inspired move. His work was a hit with the ‘middle-class, well-heeled ladies’ who attended the show, and his carpets were soon flying off the walls. (‘All my snotty artist friends said to me, “Don’t show at Knitting & Stitching – all those bloody awful women! Patchworkers, embroiderers…” And I said, “But they may be my customers!”’).
‘I’m trying to do what the British artists did with those Shell posters – I’m trying to do that with carpets’
Allen hit on a method of production that suited his advancing years, allowing his creativity to remain undiminished without adding physical strain. ‘The big problem as you get older is that you haven’t got the energy,’ he says, ‘so you’re moving forward at a slower pace, and that can be very irritating. Unfortunately, your physical self… curtails slightly.’ His solution was to outsource the production to Nepalese weavers. Allen’s translates his original artwork into outlines on graph paper. He uses his own “colour by numbers” system for the colourways – using the weavers’ palette of 364 colours – sometimes referring to swatches that he’s painted.
Every carpet is in an edition of three. ‘I keep one of each design as an artist’s proof, and that’s how I keep my exhibitions going,’ explains Allen. Clients order an edition from the designs they see at the exhibition and then normally have to wait three months for their bespoke carpet to arrive. ‘But you can’t guarantee it,’ he stresses. ‘Because three months is just my judgment. For the Nepalese weavers, it could be two months or three and a half months. Time doesn’t really matter to them. But surprisingly enough I haven’t lost one sale.’
His first two collections were inspired by Aboriginal “Dream Time” art and Nepalese wall hangings, but his latest collection returned to a theme closer to his heart: British landscapes. ‘British landscapes are part of my DNA really,’ says Allen. One only needs to glance over the walls of his home for confirmation of this. Every available space is covered in treasures – with an emphasis on 20th century British paintings and pottery – a Paul Nash here, a Duncan Grant there, Clarice Cliff on one shelf, Staff ordshire figures on the next. Even his collection of books is chosen for the illustrations on their dust jackets. ‘The landscapes collection was much more emotional,’ he says, ‘because I was brought up in the country in Derbyshire, and I pulled on a lot of my love of the countryside, and I think that resonated with a lot of people. And it sold very well. And then Jonathan got involved and it sold extremely well!’
As Allen tells it, the collaboration with Jonathan Anderson for Loewe came about through pure happenstance. ‘He’s probably the most original and creative young male designer around at the moment,’ enthuses Allen. ‘And he selects me! By luck, because he went to the Millennium Gallery and saw one of my carpets lying around on the floor that they’d forgotten to put away. That’s how all this started with Loewe.’ Effusive about his collaboration with Anderson, Allen can’t emphasise enough how generous the young designer has been: even to the point of ensuring the collection was called “John Allen for Loewe Collection” – but adds, ‘He was quite shrewd, too, because if it bombed, it just says John Allen! – I’m joking of course!’
‘I know sometimes I appear to think I’m God, but I do know I’m not. When I move a hillside there’s a great deal of thought’
Together, Allen and Anderson have come up with their own co-ordinated range. So women – and men – can have a matching set of beach towels, wallets, espadrilles and scarves, each bearing Allen’s vibrant landscape scenes. Just think: thanks to this collection, there will be some corners of the most exclusive foreign fields that will be forever England – albeit an idealised one.
‘Jonathan picked up something – he’s quite astute about it. He said, “You play with the landscapes.” He’d noticed that I’d moved hills. Some of them are a conglomeration, a collage of three or four photographs or drawings. I’m not really interested in the accuracy, I’m much more interested in the technical effect of where I’m putting colour down. I’m trying to do what the famous British artists of the 20th century did with those Shell posters, where you block in the colour. I’m trying to do that with carpets.’
Allen is at pains to say that he doesn’t move mountains on a mere whim. ‘When I teach I say, “I know sometimes I appear to think I’m God, but I do know I’m not.” ‘When I move a hillside, there’s a great deal of thought. So there’s a feeling of – “How dare you do this?”, but also of – “You’re a designer, you’re creative. But just be careful.” All that goes on in your head. But we don’t ever talk about it because it sounds a bit crazy!’ Let’s keep it that way, then.