Celia Birtwell’s discreet yet substantial contribution to British fashion, interiors and art has been overlooked for decades. This autumn’s publication of a book penned by the designer with Dominic Lutyens is a welcome addition to THE LOOK library, writes Mrs G.
Best known as Ossie Clark’s wife and collaborator, Birtwell’s triumph in that partnership was in the application of highly imaginative patterns onto the female form. By distilling art references with daring colours and intriguing motifs, Birtwell’s supremely confident textiles animated Clark’s audacious creations.
Loaded with illustrations, sketches and photographs, Birtwell’s book is presented in four sections; the first setting the scene by charting Birtwell’s early life, entry to Salford Art School at the age 13 and subsequent move to the heart of London’s bohemian Notting Hill (including the pop-art moment when she became the subject of Pauline Boty’s Celia And Her Idols).
Birtwell’s life in fashion, with Clark and as a designer in her own right; her relationship with David Hockney as muse and friend; and her more recent incarnation as a designer for interiors and homewares – all are captured by Lutyens, whose airy text enables his subject to finally step from the shadows.
This is not a dense 60s memoir or tell-all. Appropriately the pages brim with pattern, colour and a lightness of touch. Meanwhile, tantalising glimpses are offered of such fascinating figures as Pauline Boty, Alice Pollock and Mo McDermott (each of whom deserve greater recognition and, in my opinion, books dedicated to their achievements).
But this is Birtwell’s time, and quite right too. Ossie Clark’s star shone fast, bright and high, but the measured nature of his partner’s creative arc has, as it turns out, been all the more satisfying. My advice: skip the aprons and watering cans and acquire a copy of this excellent book.