The Sixties survivor

Ossie Clark made the dresses, Celia Birtwell designed the fabrics When their marriage ended so did his career. Hers has thrived.

Ossie Clark was always clear about the date his luck ran out. It was 1974, the year he split up from Celia Birtwell and lost not just a loving wife but his partner in one of the most glamorous and innovative design partnerships of a generation. Ossie's dresses and Celia's fabrics. It was Celia who pushed him in the right direction. "I never knew how lucky I was," Ossie would say wistfully of Celia. She in turn says, "I was so spoilt working with Ossie. I could do what I wished." Their two distinct talents - his for a sexy, body-moulding bias cut, hers for naive hand-drawn patterns and fresh colour - had been a winning combination. While the rest of the little-girl clothes of the Sixties and early Seventies are mere period pieces, looked at with amused nostalgia, Ossie's designs in Celia Birtwell's distinctive cross-hatched and stylised flower prints are remembered as works of art.

It is no coincidence that some of the best documentation of Ossie Clark's creative talent turns out to be immortalised as works of art. Mr and Mrs Clark and their cat Percy, David Hockney's 1972 portrait of the pair that has appeared alongside so many of this week's obituaries of Ossie, is a vivid evocation of a particular time and place, and a very particular talent. Hockney went on to create over 50 drawings, etchings and aquaprints of Celia - Celia Amused, Celia Musing, Celia and Flowers. One is inscribed "For my dear little shepherdess", another to "Dearest Celia. The birds can always sing." Each one captures the twirl of bias crepe, or an assymetric smock, cut by Ossie to complement one of Celia's stylised ribbon borders or fluttery flower prints. He made high waisted dresses with sashes that underlined Celia's rounded bosom. "He always designed for women with big bosoms and teeny waists," she said.

Like Ossie and David Hockney, Celia was part of a wave of talented northerners who came to London in the early Sixties. Born in Bury, brought up in Prestwich, she met Ossie in the Cona Coffee Bar in Manchester, where she was studying at Salford Art School. They were introduced by the painter Mo McDermott. Ossie, with his eye for fashion detail, remembered Celia's striped mini dresses of the time with their pie-crust frills, made by her mother. "Celia was quite the most enchanting creature," he said. When they met later in London, he remembered that Celia was dressed "in jeans and frilly Victorian blouses," sharing a flat with the painter Pauline Boty and working as a waitress in Hades. Then Ossie and Celia lived together for seven years before marrying in 1966. It was Hockney who persuaded them to marry. The odd relationship - seen from the outside as a bizarre menage a trois, with Hockney apparently close to both Ossie and Celia - lasted for seven years before their marriage and five afterwards. "We worked wonderfully in unison, his dresses, my fabrics," Celia says.

When their marriage broke up, Celia gave up her career to bring up the children - Albert, now 26, and a chef at the restaurant, 192, and George, now 24, who trained with interior designer David Mlinaric and now works with his mother in her second, flourishing career, designing furnishing fabrics.

Celia moved tentatively back to work as the boys grew up, designing furnishing fabrics, taking inspiration, as always, from the colours of Matisse and Raoul Dufy's textiles. She also absorbs to good effect the primitive and street art around her in London's Portobello Road. In 1983, she took the plunge and opened a fabric shop at the eastern end of Westbourne Park Road, in what was a former tile shop, and where her unconventional style - gold prints on black silk, white-on-white voiles, setting a trend for stars in furnishings for those jaded by chintz - has found a flourishing market among the haute Bohemianism of that fashionable quarter of west London, romantics like Celia who have never come to terms with the off- white minimalism of today's lifestyle.

Celia still works with the same printers that she used in the Seventies, happily spending every Monday and Thursday in an aircraft hanger at Hayes in Middlesex, supervising the birth of her designs. She insists she has no interest in creating dress materials. A recent Seventies revival she described as "depressing". "We have seen it all. We have developed since then and I am not happy with what I see in fashion today."

As Ossie drifted further into his own rackety lifestyle, sometimes bankrupt, other times attempting a return to the business where he still had a loyal following of friends and admirers, Celia stood apart helpless to devise solutions to Ossie's problems, quietly building her own career. "He should stop exciting himself," she would say, "go to the country, draw for a year. He should disappear where we don't have to suffer for him anymore." Sadly, she could never have foreseen the suffering that would follow the tragic events of this week.

David Hockney remains a close friend, still sketching his favourite muse and "drawing with the camera" (as Hockney calls his photographic collages) her house and her shop. His own Malibu beach house is full of her uninhibited electric colours in silk prints, with names like "Bon-bon" and "Bohemian chintz". "It's like a love affair expressed through work" she has said of Hockney's continuing passion for using her as a model. "I draw what I feel Celia looks like, not what she looks like," Hockney says. "Hers is a marvellous face, very elusive. And so I draw it over and over again. I love her."

Celia Birtwell's designs on linen and silk start at pounds 45.00 per metre. Contact Celia Birtwell, 71 Westbourne Park Road, London W2 5QH. Tel: 0171- 221 0877.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

    £35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

    Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

    Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

    £35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

    Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

    £45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'