The very first fabric I ever bought was from Celia Birtwell, I vaguely appreciated it was Celia I had the long chat with – as I mooned over fabled creatures, princesses, stars and stripes whilst upending the entire basket of remnants. The upshot was my kitchen chairs had tobacco-striped silk seats with gold animals (yes it was impractical), my entrance hall’s ‘remember me’ notice board was covered in a gilt trellis design and that my bedroom still has a magical lampshade in Celia’s coral silk, with prancing unicorns.
So I was rather sad when I received ‘A little Bird’s‘ email about her closing down sale (her business is going on-line-only), it’s the end of an era. Celia has been part of Notting Hill since her fashion print’s were the 60’s signature and her Notting Hill shop is a charming reminder of when Bohemia, rather than bankers, ruled the Grove. Intrigued I bought her book, A Life in Print, which is a visual feast and read her journey from Salford to British Institution, complete with CBE.
Clockwise from top left: The lampshade in my bedroom, Celia is her cuter-than-cute shop, the ‘jacobean collection’, a chair developed with an American partner Suzan Fellman, fabric samples including Orphee, the trellis design botton left, also on chair and lampshades.
Witty, charming, girlish but never sugary, pretty but never twee – it’s quite a feat to walk that design tightrope and Celia specialises in it.
Celia started her home collection in the early 80’s, she felt “the fashion prints were all transience and change, whereas home fabrics evolve more gradually.” Alot of fashion women make this shift, as – just like Celia, they realise the slower pace and enduring nature of home products is more conducive to family life. It’s interesting how a different lens is required: “I could visualise how a fashion fabric would look when I drew it on a figure, but it somehow wasn’t possible to convey how a home fabric would look by drawing it, say, on a sofa”.
Like many of the best british designers the V and A is a huge source of inspiration: Jacobean embroidery, Medieval tapestries, Victorian excess – each analysed, spawning families of designs – I love the name “Beasties” for a Jacobean-inspired animal design, other family members include the ‘Birds and the Bees’ and ‘Little Animals’.
Reading the book you can see her interests soaked up into the design process, the very English nature of these, creates that highly prized: ‘British-with-a-twist’ her love of animals, scented gardens, cottage flowers, regency stripes, Victoriana – even the local notting hill carnival have all been worked into her designs. Her femininity is also strongly reflected: Snow White is re-cast as ‘Mademoiselle’, scattered classical stars, overflowing baskets of flowers. She creates prints which feel nostalgic and warm the soul.
Her latest prints include Birdsong, Gloriana and Bric a Brac – Inspired by a piece of 18th century needlework vigorously re-awakened.
Many have a complicated genus: reflecting her broad knowedge of and passion for the decorative arts. My favourite is her 1997 collection ‘Imagine’. Orphée below is inspired by neo-classical motifs: laurel leaves, lyres, horses heads but seen through the 20th C sur-realist eye, particularly Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film of this name, a re-interpretation of the greek legend of Orpheus.
This layering within the design process is what produces a unique final product. Designer Philip Prowse observes that designers usually reference one inspirational source, to aid the customer. Celia “is interested in history but takes it through her own visual grid…her designs are not literal. Take Orphée”. This is what makes Celia stand out, Manolo Blahnik describes her as the best print designer of her generation.
This partly explains her extra-ordinary friendship with David Hockney, she is often cast as his muse. He says: “She’s good to go round galleries with, she really looks at pictures, she’s got a very good eye”. Fitting then that the Tate’s best-selling post card, and one the nation’s ’10 favourite paintings’ is Hockney’s ‘Mr and and Mrs Clark and Percy” (real name Blanche).
I was fascinated to read that Hockney painted them virtually life-size, to give them a real presence, and challenged himself by making the light source central to the painting. Critics have decided it reflects the gender shift of the 1970’s, Celia standing in an assertive pose, to her husbands seated figure. Hockney explains he was looking to do a series of modern van Eyck or Hogarth type paintings of couples he knew, and that in the Clark house: Celia was the one always up on her feet. Hockney had moved past gender stereo-typing to looking firmly into the individuals themselves. He set the space up to reflect their interests, note the Victoriana lamp amidst the modern boho-grooviness, Celia’s childhood obsession with Victoriana has never left her.
clockwise from top right: Celia is re-drawn for Hockney’s Paris Vogue, Celia and Hockney in Paris, sketches of Celia.
Hockney’s story of how and why they became so close is a testament to true friendship: the ties of a shared youth, lost loves, long lunches and consuming passions. Hockney brought Celia to California for several years after Osssie imploded and shared his life.
Celia is clearly an enchanting woman, she is gloriously soft and sexy below (gotta love a girl on a swing – right?) Her youth was part of a brave new bo-ho world. Cecil Beaton was so taken with the bright young things, he invited them too Reddish House, they were fashionably late – centre right sees them strolling along, Hockney and Ossie to the rear. Elderly Cecil was peeved, but still took the charming picture, bottom right.
clockwise from left: Celia holidaying in St Tropez, a long lunch in France, with Cecil and arriving, and finally a teenage sketch she did of her with her sisters.
Like Cecil’s own era, there were victims when the lights finally came on and Ossie Clark’s descent was absolute. Celia threw her lot in with him, against friends advise, superlative highs and extreme lows followed. Celia says that she helped curate a 1999 show about her late husband’s work to enables her sons to be proud of him, if it didn’t – then one hopes that the 2003 retrospective at the V and A achieved this. Not many Dad’s get that honour. Ossie created the trouser suit pre YSL, Galliano’s 30’s bias cutting before Galliano, he was a master of fabric and femininity. Celia and Ossie were the 60’s dream team and their work is still in high demand, from cult vintage pieces to the mainstream – via Topshop and now John Lewis.
Clockwise from top left: Bianca’s white trouser suit and evening dress were by Ossie, a fashion show invite, Patti Boyd, Kate Moss in Topshop’s Celia Collection 2006, Jane Birkin in the iconic Mystic Daisy (also shown separately) fluid, floral and geometric – a perfect hit.
It seems fitting to end where it all began, Celia’s fashion prints, where she could imagine every drape and curve were famously sketched from the face down: if she was happy with her muses face – she would draw the dress. There’s a real journey in this exquisite body of work from Leon Bakst, via Poinitillism to Tulip-mania, all seen through the Celia’s kaleidoscopic lens.
top row: fashion sketches, bottom row: a sketch with indicative figures for scaling up, a fashion sketch laid over her fabric design and the final print, flowers fluttering on chiffon.
Reviewing Celia’s life and work, I fell in love with her prints all over again. Her designs are so charming, her vision transportive: I want to curl up in her sur-realist rose garden where the mythical creatures roam and the classical stars shine up above, preferably in floaty chiffon, glass in hand, birds singing.