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Art review: Double Weave: Bourne and Allen’s Modernist Textiles at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

13 October 2023

Susan Gray sees work by textile designers of the mid-20th century

Tessa Hallman Collection Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

Ben-Hur costume for Charlton Heston, in the title role (1959). More photos in the gallery

Ben-Hur costume for Charlton Heston, in the title role (1959). More photos in the gallery

SMOOTHING the full pleats of the grey woollen curtains at the west door of St Margaret’s, Ditchling, reveals the bold woven inscription “In memory of Hilda Bourne for forty-six years member of this Church who lived to be almost 100. From wool of Sussex flock by her daughter Hilary Bourne.”

In an undated notebook, the artist recorded the curtains’ construction: “Warp Brora wool, dyed with crottle [lichen] from Scotland; weft hand spun by Tree Weavers, from local sheep’s fleeces; occasional black slub and silk weft threads. Curtains had woven letters in black fleece.” The same horizontal striped, ridged weave can be seen in lighter cream shades on the side altar’s reredos and frontal, where a label on the base reads “In memory of Joanna Bourne 1906-1991”. The name is embroidered in black cross-stitch, with J and B in Gothic capitals, and details highlighted in the same green as the rest of the dedication.

Aged 76 and 78 respectively, the sisters Hilary and Joanna Bourne bought the village school next to St Margaret’s in 1985, and opened the Ditchling Museum to exhibit the craft and art traditions of their childhood East Sussex village. The sisters grew up in the bohemian community of artists and craftspeople surrounding the village. Eric Gill’s Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic was based two miles north at Ditchling Common.

Hilary learned to spin, aged 13, at the textile pioneer Ethel Mairet’s Gospels workshop at the foot of Ditchling Beacon, where Petra Gill was an apprentice. After training as a domestic-science teacher, Bourne went to Palestine to help her sister Marjorie with her baby. Here, she learned to weave, and first encountered indigo dyeing. The exhibition “Double Weave” is dotted with textiles collected on travels. A grey and gold robe is labelled by Bourne “Palastine [sic]. Grey/ blue silk Kibere with pattern; modern. Worn over long gown. Decorative pattern, woven in silk thread.”

The tunic was probably made in Syria, well known for its silk production. A strip of grey and beige textured cloth from Thailand, labelled “Sample wild silk fabric from Thailand, natural colour. Used for chair covering”, resembles the texture of the commemorative hangings in St Margaret’s. Bourne’s “Bible for Dyes” is on display, together with cards of natural yarns from different breeds of sheep, including the greys and creams used in the church.

Bourne returned to Ditchling in 1972 after the death of her partner, Barbara Allen, in a hotel fire. Bourne and Allen were pioneers of British modernism, creating textiles for the Royal Festival Hall, Swansea University, and Heathrow, and costumes for Ben-Hur.

The Festival of Britain in 1951 was a turning point, as they were invited to create fabrics by their client Sadie Speight, an interior designer and the wife of Leslie Martin. Martin was the architect responsible for Festival Hall’s “egg-in-a-box” design. The enormous, red and cream curtains, two metres by two metres, that Bourne and Allen made to hang behind the boxes in the auditorium tempered the acoustics. The Festival had an enduring influence on the interiors of post-war homes and the visual language of public spaces.

Although Bourne and Allen were named as “Designers: fabrics” in the contemporary Architectural Review for the Festival Hall, in subsequent years the Martins were credited with the innovative designs. The neglect of women’s contribution to modernism, as well as the influence of non-figurative art from cultures outside Europe, is an imbalance that “Double Weave” seeks to correct.

A co-curator, Jane Hattrick, says that the part that textiles played in enlivening post-war modernist buildings has been overlooked. “Double Weave is double cloth, a reversible textile, that can divide a space, and work as a room divider. It is strong and great for big, brutalist spaces. Why were handwoven textiles so much a part of dressing modern buildings? Because the structure was design and fitted the modernist ethos. The ornamentation is in the structure.”

“Double Weave: Bourne and Allen’s Modernist Textiles” is at the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, Lodge Hill Lane, Ditchling, East Sussex, until 14 April. Phone 01273 844744. ditchlingmuseumartcraft.org.uk

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