Obituary: Marjorie Townley
Saturday 20 February 1993
THE IMAGINATION and energy which were to characterise the life of Marjorie Townley were already at work in 1925 when Paris was preparing for the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts - an intimation of the movement later known as Art Deco. Having studied art at the Academie Colerossi in Paris, she was one of a team of gifted people whose enthusiasm and skill ensured the success of this great exhibition.
Among these was the architect Frank Scarlett who, 50 years on, was to join her in writing the book Arts Decoratifs 1925 - a personal recollection of the Paris Exhibition (1975). She was responsible for setting up the British Textile Section at the Grand Palais, as she recalled with some astonishment her 'youthful audacity and optimism in undertaking the job at all'.
At very short notice she had to execute mural designs by Robert Anning-Bell, and enlisted the help of young art students, including a number of Russian refugees, remembered affectionately as her 'forty thieves'. The textiles on display included her own superb designs for Broche velvet executed by Courtaulds Ltd, one of which was selected by Queen Mary.
After the exhibition, she worked for several years in the design studio of Waring & Gillow. However, few are aware of the influence she was to have on British architecture - albeit indirectly. She commissioned Frank Scarlett to design a house for her parents, while she took on the responsibility for the interior decor - a house which was later noted by Ian Nairn and Nikolaus Pevsner in their Sussex volume of the Buildings of England series: 'Frank Scarlett's Starlock, Rye, designed in 1929, was the first of the white and cubic buildings in Sussex and one of the first in England. Historians ought not to neglect it.'
Marriage to Charles Townley, a King's Messenger, brought her to Fulbourn in Cambridge, where she became actively involved in the life of her community. Local bee-keepers were not the only ones to benefit from her interest in bees. She joined the International Bee Research Association in 1949, providing administrative back-up for the developing organisation and from 1961 to 1986 was a Council Member of the IBRA. In 1974 she contributed to a book published by the IBRA for its 25th anniversary.
Shortly after the Chinese invasion of Tibet, her son, Richard, saw the suffering of the refugees and asked his mother to help. So began a long and happy association with the people of Tibet. Well-intentioned though many existing relief projects were, they tended to lack focus and suffer from administrative problems. Townley and her team of advisers decided to target specific projects and go for simpler, cost-effective administration. So Cambridgeshire Aid to Tibetans (CATA) came into being. It was distinguished by good management and warm understanding.
Marjorie Townley found time to listen, her generosity being the practical, enabling kind. Her artistry reached far beyond her canvasses - unforgettable in its unpretentiousness, and full of shrewd, delightful insight.
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