This is an extract of a longer talk I gave at the Steyning Bookshop on the 15th November 2018 to celebrate the launch of the book I co-edited with Michal Silver, ‘Barron & Larcher – textile designers’
Up to last year I was working as a hand printer at Ivo’s screen printing factory in Southall. I wasn’t very good at it but I loved being part of the production process and learned so much about colour, pattern and how to make things commercially.
My job was to help experiment with colour and scale to get the design absolutely right before the client spends squillions and it goes into production. Michal from Christopher Farr Cloth brought some of Barron & Larcher’s designs into the factory for us to sample and even more amazing was that the lovely archivist at the Craft Study Centre Jean Vacher came along with original fabric & I got to see Barron & Larcher’s designs for real. They were different from anything I had ever seen before – delicate, discharged prints onto very fine lawns and silks, so different to the prints we were making – positive pigment prints onto heavy linen. I was captivated by them and asked Jean if I could visit the archive in Farnborough.
And this is the woman I discovered when I got there – Phyllis Barron – here she is in 1961 at Dartington Hall, about to give a speech called ‘My Life as a Block printer’.
She hasn’t printed for 30 years and all her fabrics hang behind her. There’s a wonderful kind of poetic justice to this picture as she is returning to the place where 40 years before Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst had invited her to decorate their home. This is how she began her speech:
We were rich. My father was ‘something in the City’, We had no friends, only relations, who came to lunch on Sundays. They never stopped talking for one minute, comparing the sizes and heights of their children. But their husbands were completely silent.
Well, I found her voice utterly compelling & I went back to Michal at Christopher Cloth and suggested that we do some kind of mongraph – as Barron’s story needed to be heard more widely.
This is Barron describing her first taste of freedom at the same time as beginning to experiment with her first printing blocks.
When I was fifteen my sister took me to France to a sketching and painting class I thought I was in heaven. We stayed in a very primitive little auberge. I really felt I had begun to live, because nobody told me to wash; and we wore overalls all day. One day Fred returned from a sale with a collection of wood blocks he had bought simply for their beauty. “I’ll think they’ll make a fine wall decoration and I’m going to hang them up’, he said. But I was mad to know how they really worked. However, we thought we’d try to get some patterns from them, and of course we started all the wrong way. We tried a few rubbings in pencil, but that wasn’t very satisfactory because all the little pins in the block broke through the paper. So we tried oil paint, which was the only thing we had handy, printing on glass, which was of course far too hard and unyielding. We tried printing with oil on paper, which was softer, but the print was very uneven, and we were very impatient. We left it, put the glass, the oil paint and all into the baby’s bath and went out to paint. When we returned we got into great trouble. Mrs. Mayer had put the baby into the bath on top of the paint. We were told we musn’t do any more experiments.
Of course this didn’t stop Barron, the wonderful thing about her was that she didn’t give up. She was completely self taught – from old 18th century recipe books which she said read like novels. Her first discovery was how to take colour out of indigo and it was her friend, Therese Adeneny who made etchings with nitric acid that gave her a clue by telling her how the acid made little white dots on her indigo apron…This design – Large Feather shows how far Barron had developed from those early experiments of splashing acid onto indigo, allowing the acid to burn holes and destroy her blocks: she has gained complete control over her process.
Barron had several indigo bath disasters. Her first experiment started a house fire when she tried to keep the bath warm with a blanket and it caught fire. For the second one she tried the recipe using urine which she collected from her friends around Hampstead – with disastrous consequences, as she describes:
I had a friend coming to lunch, and I had everything ready when I realized I’d forgotten the bread, and run out to get it. When I came back I found my urine vat flowing down the stairs to meet me – and a very furious friend saying “what a disgusting smell. Whatever have you been doing now?” I hadn’t realized that urine boils at a very low temperature (or high or whatever it is).So my second vat failed, and I was very depressed about it. We had lunch out, and I cleaned up when my friend had gone. Meanwhile the war came. For the first six months of the war I went to a hospital in Belgium, where I had no chance of doing anything at all except cooking and things –I leant a lot about cooking, whereas I could hardly make a cup of coffee when I started; and as I was fairly solid I was sometimes used to sit on the wounded during operations.
This is Barron’s first wood block from 1915, it’s called Log. But her disastrous experiments continued …
I was now beginning to tire of spots, and was getting down to the business of getting a design on to the block. and my first block was wood. It was fire-wood from the mills, and I used the grain of the wood as the pattern. Finally to give it more flow I printed it upside down. It was before I had a steamer, and I washed it before it was ready and the whole design washed out. I sold this design later to the Calico printers’ Association, where my sister worked, and they made it into such a horrible thing, with such dreadful colours, that I can’t bear it now.
But of course she didn’t give up and here are some of her beautiful later blocks.
She sent her fabric to Ethel Mairet, a well-established arts and crafts weaver to ask her advice & Mairet loved her things and encouraged Barron to do more. Barron started selling with Mairet – here is how she describes one sale at Westminster Central hall
A lady next door to me sold brooches made of fishbones, and on the other side decorated jam jars with oil paint. Mrs Mairet was somewhere right across the hall, and I felt very lost, and had to console myself with Guinness.
It’s time, to introduce Dorothy Larcher. Her story reads like something out of Passage to India – at the outbreak of war in 1913 she was helping Lady Heringham make copies of the Ajanta Cave paintings and couldn’t get a passage home (until 1921!) so she stayed for the duration of the war and learned the art of Indian block printing.
Dorothy’s style was quite different to Barron’s – more delicate, floral even and contrasted well with Phyllis’s bolder more graphic designs.
Their block printing business was doing quite well – when they received their biggest commission yet – to design the interiors for the Duke of Westminster’s yacht, The flying Cloud
The yacht had forty cabins, each with divans, bunks and curtains, and an enormous saloon in the middle, and Detmar wanted B&L’s stuffs for all of it.
Of course it was delightful to think about, but until then I had never produced more than about 20 yards of any one thing, and even twenty yards is very heavy when wet, and you have to wash the stuff may times, so it rather took my breath away. But when he added, you have three weeks to do it !!
It was a huge amount of work and they worked day and night to get it done.
Through the Duke they met Chanel, who was his mistress at the time. She (Chanel) thought I was a very queer sort of person – she couldn’t understand why I should want to do this strange thing. I was dressed as usual entirely in my own stuff, all made by myself, and I don’t think she had ever in her life seen so much hand sewing, which she really quite appreciated.