Obituary: Gwen Mullins

Jeff Lowe
Tuesday 11 February 1997 01:02

Gwen Mullins was one of the leading figures in the modern British crafts movement, both as a weaver and a patron.

She grew up in a very different environment. Her father was of Russian- German origin and the senior partner in a family merchant bank, Wm Brandt and Sons. Her mother was an American, from Georgia, who insisted on ignoring the English climate by dressing her daughter - Southern style - all in white. Thanks to the mud of a Surrey garden, the child's clothes would be changed three times a day by her personal maid. From the London house in Kensington, Gwen was driven to school each day in a pony-trap. At weekends the first family car would stop on Putney Hill on the drive home from London to Bletchingley so that the chauffeur could light the headlamps.

From this rich and somewhat stifling world she escaped to Italy after leaving school, an experience which aroused in her a passionate love of art and a deep and lasting response to the romance of ancient places. On her return to England she began to paint and draw, withdrawing as much as possible from the intensive social life which was a feature of the family home, and occasionally keeping her parents on their toes by threatening to join the family bank.

Though she continued to paint for much of her life, it was a course at the London School of Weaving which awakened a lifelong involvement with the crafts. Meanwhile, at the age of 21, she had married Claud Mullins, then a barrister, and soon to become an outspoken London magistrate and distinguished writer on prison reform.

Preoccupation with a husband and three children checked her activities as a weaver for a number of years. Then, with the onset of the Second World War, she undertook voluntary work in the occupational therapy unit of Horton Hospital, near the Mullins home in Epsom; here she set up looms for the soldiers and put to use some discarded bookbinding equipment. As a result, she began to develop a further crafts skill, aided by a professional bookbinder who was teaching at Epsom School of Art.

In 1948, after Claud retired from the bench, Gwen and her family moved to the village of Graffham in West Sussex, where she established a bookbinding group for local people. Out of this enterprise emerged the more ambitious project for a village crafts workshop, set up in disused farm buildings at the end of her garden, and offering opportunities for basket- making and woodwork as well as spinning, dyeing and weaving. Together with her younger daughter Barbara, she also organised Saturday morning sessions for children in pottery and weaving, the success of which led Barbara to set up week-long summer camps.

Gwen Mullins's own interests became increasingly focused on weaving, including spinning and dyeing, with special emphasis on vegetable dyes made from local plants. The immediate outcome was Graffham Weavers, which developed into a flourishing cottage industry, with several local women becoming highly skilled weavers, and training opportunities being offered to students from art colleges in Britain as well as from Norway, Sweden and Germany. The output of Graffham Weavers burgeoned, with exhibitions of rugs, blankets and clothing held twice yearly (the most recent was two months ago) and an ever-widening clientele from both home and abroad. Commissions included woven hangings for the choir and altar of Worcester Cathedral, a cope and mitre for the then Bishop of Ripon, and rugs for student rooms in Exeter College, Oxford.

As a weaver, Mullins found the greatest pleasure in making knotted pile rugs in richly coloured wools, their designs frequently based on landscape and architectural forms which she had sketched on her walks and travels. These rugs were her most personal achievement as a craftswoman, and were widely exhibited in London, Paris and Edinburgh.

Being privileged herself, Mullins was acutely aware that most craftspeople, particularly the young, enjoyed few such advantages. Materials were expensive, and could be hard to come by. She set up Craftsman's Mark, an organisation aimed at helping hand-weavers who were keen to use natural, undyed wools. Selected fleeces from different varieties of sheep would be bought direct from wool staplers and then spun to her specifications before being kept in store until weavers wished to purchase them, often by mail order.

She established, too, the Gwen Mullins Trust, to finance training and apprenticeship schemes for young craftspeople, and give them grants to buy equipment to set up their own studios and workshops; in the early 1960s there was no public money available for the crafts. Among those who benefited were the now-celebrated weaver Peter Collingwood, the potter Janice Tchalenko, the jeweller Gillian Packard and the weaver Mary Farmer, who now teaches at the Royal College of Art.

It was this selfless display of private patronage which helped stir demand for a government-funded body which would do for the crafts in Britain what the Arts Council had long been doing for the visual arts. The first result was the establishment of a Crafts Advisory Committee in 1971, with which Gwen Mullins was closely involved. Then in 1977 this developed into a fully blown Crafts Council, with exhibition space in central London and a card-index and photo library of living craftsmen's work.

Mullins by this time had retired from all public activities to concentrate on her own work and on the running of Graffham Weavers with her daughter Barbara. But in 1975 her contribution to the crafts was officially recognised with her appointment as OBE - to her modest embarrassment.

She continued to weave well into her eighties, until arthritis and failing eyesight made this impossible. Only her garden remained accessible to her, and she would sit out in it even in midwinter, dressed like an eskimo.

Elizabeth Gwendolen Brandt, weaver: born London 10 April 1904; OBE 1975; married 1925 Claud Mullins (died 1968; one son, two daughters); died Midhurst, Sussex 20 January 1997.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments