Hands on: Enid Marx, constructing block prints & concocting vegetable dies

She is best-known for her patterns for mass-produced woven fabrics: from 1937 she designed patterns for tube seat textiles that were used on London Passenger Transport Board stock and busses until the 1960s. As a member of the Board of trade Utility Furniture Design Advisory Panel she designed over thirty textiles during wartime rationing and austerity. She was a versatile designer, who also worked on numerous children’s books and stamps. Yet, before her involvement with industrial production, Marx was a leading light in the emergent generation of professional craftswomen of the inter-war period. During the course of my research I have sought to tease out the connections between craft, design and artistic networks that she engaged with. 

Whilst rummaging through an archival box of her artists collections held in the V&A’s Blythe House, a slip of paper dropped out. Scrawled in a combination of biro and pencil it reads: ‘in 1922 The Tango was all the rage’. Every now and then little fragments of reminiscence and unpublished autobiographical details emerge. Mostly they are factual but sometimes inflected with a wry sense of wit. This anecdote gave a little flavour of the fun and frivolity she experienced as a young woman, (and led me to question who she was tangoing with?) 

By 1922, Marx was studying painting at the Royal College of Art alongside Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. She preferred to pass her time with the student designers, including Eric Ravilous and Barnett Friedman. She was influenced by the tutelage of Paul Nash and especially by his beleif ‘that all artists and designers could, and should design in all media and for all purposes’ which she applied to her own practice. In the absence of any formal training in textiles she underwent an apprenticeship with the block printing pioneers Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher before becoming an independent designer of fabric and illustrations from 1927 to the outbreak of the Second World War. 

Enid Marx, Fishnet, c.1920s, brown and cream block printed galled cotton sample dyed with iron and printed with muriate of tin to discharge the design, mounted on card. 37.2 x 25.4 centimetres.

Marx developed her own distinctive approach to the creation of textiles and the construction of pattern. Her fabrics – hand blocked geometric repeats and coloured with vegetable dies – reveal hybridised artistic practices which were applied to make furnishing cloths for the home.  She applied painterly techniques to the surface of the cloth, design aesthesis to the form and stylisation of pattern, and traditional craft knowledge in the concoction of natural dies. Her geometric motifs, such as ‘Fishnet’ and ‘Box, Spot and Fish’ ‘borrowed’ (as she put it) from current forms of continental abstraction (Le Purism), and historic non-western patterns from Ethnographic collections in the British Museum as well as global popular art. In addition, she enjoyed working with limited colour palates and experimenting with the textural affects of wood and fabrics. Writing on her process, she described how:

‘every material has its own particular limitations and its own individual qualities. Wood, whether end grain or plank, when cut, with engraver or chisel, gives a crisp line, which cannot be obtained by pencil, pen, or brush. With hand-block printing, keeping the block, to a size that is physical manageable, is what governs the scale of the repeat. By printing from wood blocks, one can get a very slight variation of texture, which gives a kind of resonance to the reception unobtainable by other methods. Furthermore, if the designer does the printing himself [as Enid Marx did], he is in complete control of the end product. The texture of the cloth to be printed will influence the design. Fine cutting would be lost on course cloth. The preparation of my cloth before printing is also very important.’

Enid Marx, Box, Spot and Fish, c.1930s, block printed galled organdie sample, positive print box spot printed in brown overprinted with ‘Fish’ in iron, 37.2 x 25.4 centimetres.

The total process of printing a length of cloth was highly technical and somewhat domestic in terms of physical labour which included dying, steaming and drying. In  The Evening News in 1930, the journalist Sylvia Ouston found Marx ‘clad in rubber boots and a fisherman’s jersey’ she described the synthesis of the chemical precision of the dyeing and the tough, domestic physical process of blocking at work: 

‘The dies, which Miss Marx blends herself, come from trees and flowers. One shade of yellow is given by the juice of Persian berries; others by English broom and privet. Krottle- that orange lichen found on Scottish and Cornish moors- dyes reddish-brown; blackberries, damsons, elderberries and deadly nightshade yield different kinds of black. Wortle-berries de a rich purple; bracken, walnuts and ivy, delicate greens’. Then the material was ‘washed, put into a bath of the chemical “mordant”- which will unite the fabric and the dye. It is dyed in a vat for two or three hours, washed again, ‘mordanted’ again,- perhaps for a whole day- then rinsed  for an hour before it is ready to print’.

These lengths of cloth were displayed and sold in a new generation of design shop/ galleries which supported modern crafts cultures. The spaces provided essential support for craftswomen to sell their work and were pivotal in enabling women designers to continue to develop their practice. To take the most prominent example for Marx- Muriel Rose’s Little Gallery- showed her work amongst objects made by leading artisans of the day: the weaver Ethel Mairet, and potters Norah Braden, Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew.

Marx’s politics may be described as conservative (with a small c), yet she strongly believed in the dictum ‘design for all’. Following the handmade upholstery textiles she became a designer for industry, relishing the challenge and limitations associated with creating mass-produced woven fabrics. In designing patterned moquette fabrics to cover the tube seats perhaps the most radical aspect of the new total design for the London Underground, led by Frank Pick as well as the chief designer Christian Barman and architect Charles Holden, was that the tube carriages were modern classless spaces that were accessible for all. Indeed, Marx described how: ‘it didn’t occur to [the engineers] that the dustman, the builder the city accountant, the lady […] and the char, would all be sitting in the same carriage’. Her stylish geometrical designs added colour and style to the newly developing subterranean environment. In her role as a textile adviser and designer of Utility fabrics from 1943-1949, she produced cloths thatused mass-produced for British homes during wartime. The Utility Panel was responsible for the manufacture of all furniture and textiles for homes affected by bomb damage as well as new furniture.

Motivated by a fascination with materials, texture and pattern, Marx’s interdisciplinary grounding in craft and design aided her transition into industrial design. ‘Looking Back’ recollected Enid Marx ‘I realise just how lucky we were to have been working in that halcyon period between the wars, when all the arts flowered in such profusion’.

Words: Lotte Crawford. Lotte is researching Enid Marx’s inter-war textiles for her PhD at Coventry University and in association with the Warwickshire gallery Compton Verney. She studied illustration at Kingston University (2007-2011) and gained an MA in the History of Art at UCL (2014-2015). Her focus of historical enquiry is concerned with the significance and legacy of women artist designs within emergent British modernist cultures. 

Illustration: Josie Staveley-Taylor, second-year illustration student at Falmouth University. Commission her here.

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