PEGGY ANGUS was a painter, a designer, a handworker of the most dedicated kind and a remarkable teacher.
Her radical political ideals were formed in the 1930s when she played an active part in the Artists International Association. Her great respect for vernacular and folk art, together with a passionate belief in art's social purpose, meant that much avant-garde artistic activity was dismissed by her as 'scribbling to let off steam'.
At North London Collegiate School, where she taught from 1947 until 1970, for many years in collaboration with the painter Moy Keightley, she communicated her vision of 'Art for Life'. Pupils learnt in bottega-like teams, starting with primitive pattern-making and graduating to ambitious co-operative mural schemes that emphasised the importance of context and what she called 'creative patronage'. The list of women she inspired as schoolgirls is a long one, and includes the architects Marina Adams, Judith Bottomley and Penny Richards, the painter Carolyn Trant, the potter Alison Britton and the designer Janet Kennedy. The handsome art-department block at North London Collegiate stands as a memorial to Angus's zeal and continues to be staffed only by practising artists. Her former pupils remember it as a separate creative encampment, an autonomous zone in the school's highly academic environment.
Peggy Angus was born in 1904, in Chile, the 11th of 13 children of a Scottish railway engineer. In 1922 she went to the Royal College of Art, starting off in the painting school but switching to the Design School, where her contemporaries and friends included Helen Binyon, Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious. After graduating, in 1926 she took a teaching certificate, as a matter of duty. On passing with distinction she wept, fearing that teaching would frustrate her development as an artist. For that reason she never taught full-time and instituted a part-time system in the art department at North London Collegiate.
In 1933 while teaching at Eastbourne she found and rented Furlongs, a long low shepherd's cottage at the foot of the Sussex Downs. There she created an interior as curious and as beautiful as that of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell's house at Charleston, and filled it with a series of paintings of the Sussex countryside by herself and her contemporaries. Furlongs, she explained, was 'the matrix of much strange and inventive creation' and became the gathering-place of many artists - Eric Ravilious and his wife Tirzah, Edward and Charlotte Bawden, Percy Horton, Maurice de Saumarez, John and Myfanwy Piper, Olive Cook and Edwin Smith, as well as countless former pupils, colleagues and their children and grandchildren.
Every year on Midsummer Eve Angus held a party in the hollow of the dewpond just above Furlongs. Friends of all ages came together under the summer stars and Angus led the singing, revealing her extraordinary memory for arcane folk and revolutionary songs. She was intensely proud of her Scottish ancestry and was liable to break into fiery anti-British ballads at the slightest encouragement. Furlongs became the centre of a Sussex creative community but Angus was also an artistic force on the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, where she had a bothy, and in the litter-strewn streets of Camden, where she latterly rented a studio.
Although Angus was an effective figurative painter, her real genius emerged after the Second World War. With materials in short supply she got her pupils to make potato and lino cuts, inventing a deceptively simple set of design rules. The results were startling and the architect FRS Yorke immediately recognised her gift as a pattern designer. By 1950 she regularly worked with Carter of Poole, designing tiles to humanise the rather cold, unadorned interiors and exteriors of Yorke, Rosenberg & Mardall's commissions throughout the 1950s. These included a striking two-storey wall of tiles for Susan Lawrence Primary School at Poplar, and collaborations at Warren Wood Secondary School for Girls and Merthyr Tydfil College of Further Education.
Teaching developed from a way of earning a living into a positive inspiration. As she used to point out mischievously, she had a large workforce at her disposal. For instance, her 50ft-long mural for the Brussels World Fair in 1958 developed from a large wall decoration which she had carried out with her pupils, to adorn the school dining-room. By the end of the 1950s she invented a form of marblised decoration which was silk-screened on to glass cladding. Produced by the firm TW Ide under the trade-name 'Anguside', it was used and much praised in the first stages of Gatwick Airport (another Yorke, Rosenberg & Mardall project) but swept away by the expansion of the airport in the 1960s.
In 1962 FRS Yorke died and although she remained a consultant designer to Carter Tiles she began to work in a more craft-based fashion. In the later 1950s the painter Kenneth Rowntree had suggested that she adapt some of her designs for use as wallpapers. In 1960 she won the Sanderson centenary competition for wallpaper design and her patterns were used by Cole and by Sanderson. But she designed few machine prints, preferring the less predictable effects of hand-printing, using small lino blocks and household emulsion.
These labour-intensive wallpapers made her belief in creative patronage manifest. Clients were encouraged to have blocks specially cut and to participate in their design. The beauty of her handblock papers has been recognised above all by artists; partly because unlike most wallpapers they form the ideal background to paintings. Over the years Angus invented an extraordinary range of patterns. Many were abstract but others convey a vivid pastoral mood, making subtle use of oak leaves, heraldic dogs and birds, grapes and vines, corn stooks, stylised suns and winds. They seem rooted in the natural world and in the visual arts of the British Isles, from Celtic pattern to heraldry to the art of bargees and gypsies.
Peggy Angus was never materially wealthy and she knew personal disappointments and tragedy. Her relations with her gifted daughter Victoria were complex. But her life's work showed that it was possible to transform environments through colour and pattern and that art need never be confined to galleries and sites of powers. For many young people, her grandchildren, colleagues, pupils, even lodgers, contact with Peggy marked a turning-point, the beginning of a life's dedication to art. She was, above all, a great enabler and inspirer.Reuse content