How I met: print legend Peggy Angus
Words David Herbert
As The New Craftsmen commission a new limited edition range of Angus’ wallpaper prints, David Herbert remembers a chance meeting that led to a very peculiar apprenticeship with one of Britain’s greatest print designers…
Twenty-seven years ago, while travelling by train to Lewes in East Sussex, I sat next to an eccentric looking elderly woman dressed in a fantastic patterned smock, bright red stockings and a little purple velvet cap. I was off to visit Charleston farmhouse, the country outpost of the Bloomsbury group and had also made an effort with my dress, naively attempting to appear as bohemian as possible.
I soon discovered that my new-found friend was Peggy Angus (1904-1993), a painter, designer, influential teacher and a highly inventive designer of flat pattern. As a recently arrived Australian on a working holiday in the UK, I was keen to engage with locals, and this unconventional looking lady reading William Morris was a perfect candidate. We must have looked an unlikely pair.
We talked of Furlongs (her country cottage near Glynde), of her visits to Charleston to help Quentin Bell with his sculptures, of her design work, her teaching and her hand-printed wallpaper business. We shared tales of our travels and how we had both, at one time, journeyed to Bali (Angus travelled across Bali by bike in 1960). The idea that I was going to take a taxi from Lewes to Charleston seemed outrageously excessive to Peggy; she was soothed by my offer to drop her off near to Furlongs.
I scribbled her details and the names of some of her artist friends in my notebook. A search at the British Library revealed little of Peggy Angus. Luckily, through a series of synchronistic encounters, I met a curator who knew Peggy and a few weeks later a weekend visit to Furlongs was arranged.
Angus had started renting Furlongs, a pair of farm cottages at the foot of the Sussex Downs, in 1933. There she created an interior as curious and as colourful as that of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell at Charleston. Furlongs, she explained, was ‘the matrix of much strange and inventive creation’. For more than 50 years Furlongs had become the gathering place of many artists – Eric Ravilious and his wife Tirzah, Edward and Charlotte Bawden, Percy Horton, John and Myfanwy Piper, Olive Cook and Edwin Smith, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Serge Chermayeff and Alexander Calder – as well as countless friends, former pupils, colleagues, their children and grandchildren… and an odd Australian tourist that she had met on a train.
I approached Furlongs on foot from Glynde station, through the village, across a main road and then along a chalky track leading on to the secluded cottage.
I was quite unprepared for the intriguing, artistic, creative, chaotic and dilapidated interior of Furlongs; it had a huge impact on me. There was no electricity (light came from paraffin lamps and heat from wood fires), one cold tap in the scullery and a Calor-gas hotplate in the kitchen. An ingenious visitor had devised a Calor-gas heated shower in the scullery. The lavatory was in the garden shed – a tin bucket that sat under a bench with a central hole. There was an amusing hand-shaped loo-roll holder that had been fashioned, by repute, from a wire coat hanger by the artist Alexander Calder. Angus called the way of life at Furlongs ‘a test of friendship’.
The cottage was full of brightly painted furniture, her colourful hand-printed wallpaper, posters, tile designs, party invitations, scary masks, various pots and mosaic stepping-stones. It also revealed how it had been a creative hub for many artists; the walls were full of art by Angus, her friends and students.
Angus was incredibly lively and would not suffer anyone to be idle when there was work to do – mowing, gardening, cutting wood, collecting kindling, cooking or producing elderflower cordial. The evenings were spent singing songs and I spent much time at the harmonium playing Scottish and Australian folk songs.
Although Angus’s early career was in figurative painting (she studied with Ravilious and Bawden at the RCA under Paul Nash in 1920s), she became best known for designing tiles and creating hand-printed wallpaper. She produced extensive decorative tile murals to humanise the unadorned interiors and exteriors of significant post-War buildings, including Gatwick Airport’s original buildings, East London’s Lansbury Lawrence School and Glyndwr University in Wrexham. Due to her success in tile design, she began experimenting with handmade wallpaper design, translating her tile patterns into hand-cut lino blocks to create repeat prints. Over the years, Angus invented an extraordinary range of patterns. Many were abstract, but others made subtle use of Celtic symbols, oak leaves, heraldic dogs and birds, grapes and vines, corn stalks, hedgerow flowers, suns, moons and winds. In 1960, she won the Sanderson centenary competition for wallpaper design and her patterns were used by Cole and by Sanderson. But she preferred the less predictable effects of hand-printing, using small lino blocks and household emulsion.
Having created and collected linocut prints as a student in Australia, it was Angus’s hand-blocked wallpapers that fascinated and excited me. In my thank you letter to her Camden Town studio, I offered my services as an unpaid helper if she needed someone to help her print wallpapers (she was 84 years old at this stage). Anyone who printed wallpaper for Peggy Angus will smile when I tell this story, knowing that she would seize upon the offer without a moment’s hesitation. Two weeks later, I found myself at her Camden Town studio being taught her ‘secret methods’ for printing wallpaper using lining paper and emulsion paints (along with a large bed sheet and blanket). It was back-breaking work but the pain only lasted a day or two, whereas the memories and the thrills of being shown her secret methods have lasted all this time. I have also been lucky to acquire many of her tiles and a few of her paintings over the years.
Angus believed we have a duty to explore our creative side; that potential, once discovered, must not be ignored; that we are all of us artists; that art is not a hierarchy. Who was I to disagree?
Peggy Angus died in London on October 28th, 1993. Remembered mostly for her friendship with the artist Eric Ravilious, she was almost forgotten as an artist until a recent showing of her paintings, stunning tiles, murals and wallpapers at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne revealed her genius. Angus’s art enriches the lives of those who live with it, but perhaps her greatest legacy is the number of artists and craft workers who came to their art through her inspiration.