obituaries: Susan Bosence

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The Independent Online
Susan Bosence, the textile blockprinter, dyer and teacher, quietly worked at her craft in Devon for 40 years. For those who came under her powerful spell, colour was never quite the same again.

The daughter of a Quaker straw-hat maker, she was born Susie Payne in 1913, and brought up in Luton, Bedfordshire. She started her working life at the New Education Fellowship in London, moving in 1939 to the post of secretary to W.B. Curry, the headmaster at Dartington Hall School, part of the estate in Devon owned by the enlightened Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst. Here she turned heads with her amazing, long, auburn hair.

In 1942 she married Wilfred ("Bo") Bosence, a teacher in the junior school at Dartington. She began to experiment with textiles, conscious of Dartington friends in the crafts like the potters Marianne de Trey and Bernard Forrester, and encouraged by Bernard Leach, and Muriel Rose, of the British Council. Her introduction to blockprinted textiles came through examples from the inter-war years by the team of Barron and Larcher, which she saw in the Elmhirsts' home.

Bosence's earliest experiments were centred on resist-dyeing, combining patterns made by wax, stitch- and paste-resists on white cotton with indigo blue dye. Her interest in ethnic textile techniques was several decades ahead of fashion. Her printed patterns were made with lino-blocks, often using two simple but opposed geometric motifs.

Her first exhibition came in 1961, at the Ceylon Tea Centre in London. Among her casual helpers were Dorothy Marshall, later the dyer for the wardrobe at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford, and Heather Williams, now a jeweller. The many printed lengths of "natural" coloured furnishing and dress fabrics in wool, silk, linen and cotton were displayed with pebbles, huge pots of flowers and foliage and woven baskets; this caused comment in itself - reviews were favourable and sales brisk.

In the 1960s, Bosence planned and opened a dyehouse and printing classroom for the new Adult Education Centre at Dartington. Here she ran classes, cut blocks, tested dyes and carried out her own production in collaboration with Annette Kok, previously a theatrical costumier.

The Bosences left Dartington in 1966, moving to a small farm at Sigford, on the edge of Dartmoor. The house was full of good things: books, furniture, textiles, ceramic jelly moulds and other interesting artefacts. In an adjoining stable block was Bosence's workshop, containing print tables, four sinks, a water boiler, a stove to boil dyes and heat the room, a dye gully in the floor with hanging lines above. Cool in summer and freezing in winter, it had windows looking out through a tangle of climbing roses to a garden on one side and, on the other, to a farmyard where hens scavenged in a compost heap. Beyond were stone walls harbouring lichen, an orchard, a river, a large sky - all the colours and textures found in Bosence's printed cloth.

During the late Sixties and Seventies, she taught part-time at Camberwell and Farnham art schools. Susan Bosence liked "being bound up with other artists". She was a gifted teacher, an appreciative listener, and a perceptive critic of people and places. Second only to her life at Sigford, she loved France and departed each summer to the family cottage in the Pyrenees. A lucid letter-writer, Bosence turned to the difficult task of writing a book and published Handblock Printing and Resist-dyeing in 1985.

Exhibitions took place frequently up to the early 1990s, in Bristol, Dartington, London, Plymouth and Bath; the last - "Colour into Cloth" at the Crafts Council in London - was a group show in 1994.

Although Susan Bosence had taught hundreds of students, hers was one of less than half a dozen handblock-printing workshops for textiles at work in England by the late 1980s. Her craft has lost its sweetest champion.

Margot Coatts

Thelma Susie Payne, textile craftswoman and teacher: born Luton, Bedfordshire 18 April 1913; MBE 1986; married 1942 Wilfred Bosence (two sons, one daughter); died Sigford, Devon 16 February 1996.

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