Obituary: Enid Marx

Fay Sweet
Monday 18 May 1998 23:02

THE designer and artist Enid Marx had a passion for patterns. It was an enduring love affair which led her to amass, from early childhood, an important collection of decorative objects from fabrics, cigarette cards and inn signs to ceramics, corn dollies and even gingerbread moulds.

But it was the creation of new patterns for which Marx was celebrated. During her long career - spanning over 70 years - this distinguished designer produced a kaleidoscope of work including stamps, seating fabric and posters for London Transport, books and book-jackets, wrapping paper, logos, laminates for the wartime Utility Furniture Panel (she was awarded the coveted title Royal Designer for Industry in 1944), packaging labels, rugs and menu cards. "Pattern- making comes as second nature," she once said.

Marx, second cousin thrice removed of Karl, was petite and charming, industrious and a perfectionist, outspoken and campaigning. Indeed outspokenness and wilfulness occasionally landed her in trouble; a secret government job during the Second World War was short-lived - she was requested to leave after asking for extra paper to doodle on.

Her refusal to toe the line also meant she failed to achieve her diploma from the Royal College of Art, where she studied in the 1920s. The thought of producing the required "washed-out William Morris stuff" was untenable - she had just discovered the excitement of Picasso and Braque.

Sir Frank Short refused to allow her into his wood-engraving class; he said she drew so badly she wasn't worth teaching. But her fellow-student Eric Ravilious sneaked her in after hours and taught her what he had learned that day. Marx failed to get a diploma because she insisted on drawing in an abstract manner. It was at this time that she first thought of becoming a textile designer.

However, the seeds of her interest in textiles had been sown in childhood when an employee in the local draper's gave her a collection of ribbon samples:

I was aged about four, and to my mother's consternation, invited the whole department to tea, telling them to bring their own cups! I remember the ribbons well; they were pasted on cards with loose ends for feeling. I was especially pleased

when he gave me wide samples of fancy ribbons, with plaids or flowers and deckle edges. The narrow baby ribbons were of no interest to me, but I took them out of fear I'd not get the wider ones. I never did anything with them except hoard them.

She also collected French poetry books covered in pattern papers, children's books and toy theatre sheets - she and Eric Ravilious used to visit Pollock's shop in Hoxton where they watched women employees hand-colour the pattern sheets.

Her first encouragement to draw had come at Roedean School where the enlightened Head of Art, Dorothy Martin, let her young pupils draw from nudes. "Roedean practically let me do drawing full-time in my last year." The pupils learned carpentry too - "so I got a grounding in the use of tools. I also did a lot of cookery there during the war because it was a way to get more to eat. I used to hide jam tarts up my knicker legs."

After Roedean, Marx attended the Central School of Art and then the RCA. Her first work was for the renowned textile design team Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher. The potter Norah Braden had introduced Marx to them and their textiles and in 1925 she joined their Hampstead studio as an apprentice.

A year later she started her own workshop - in a cowshed on Hampstead Hill - designing and making hand-blockprinted textiles. The work was sold through the Little Gallery, off Sloane Street, and later at Dunbar Hay, a gallery in Albemarle Street opened in 1936 to show the work of young designers.

Marx's designs, usually abstract and geometric, soon became extremely fashionable and sought-after - customers included Gerald du Maurier and Gertrude Lawrence. Publishers recognised that the designs would work well on book jackets. The first, in 1929, was a book on the work of the engraver Albrecht Durer. Then came jackets for Chatto and Windus where a commission for two designs prompted Marx to produce 15, of which the publisher bought 12. And, for Curwen Press, Marx completed her first range of patterned papers.

In the late 1930s Marx and her long-time friend Margaret Lambert teamed up for their first folk art project and began collecting print ephemera, scrapbooks, valentines, paper peepshows, children's books and toys for a book entitled When Victoria began to Reign, published by Faber & Faber in 1937.

Immediately before the Second World War she designed imprinted PVC and rayon linings for Whatajoy Luggage. The patterns included propeller-driven planes - "much later I had to take the propellers off to modernise the designs".

Marx was then spotted by Christian Barman and Frank Pick and was asked by the London Passenger Transport Board to design the hard-wearing, cotton- velvet seating fabric, known as moquette, for use on London bus and Tube seats. It remained among the work of which she was most proud:

The project was great fun because there was a very strict brief. The seating needed to look fresh at all times, even after bricklayers had sat on it, so there was a camouflage problem. The design, therefore, had to be bold but, because it was for a moving vehicle, should not be dazzling to passengers. In order to achieve the right effect strong contrasting tones had to be used, combined with changes of texture, from cut to uncut moquette. The scale of the repeat

was governed by the economy of cutting up upholstery for seats of divergent sizes.

The results are the strong and timeless geometric designs still in use today.

Marx always embraced the challenge offered up by tackling many different types of work and during the war years began writing and illustrating her own children's books - one, Bulgy the Barrage Balloon, could only be completed after the Ministry of Defence gave Marx permission to depict a barrage balloon. They were very small format books printed on off-cuts.

Marx's skills as a watercolourist were also drawn upon when the Pilgrim Trust commissioned 14 watercolours to record notable British buildings under threat from German bombing.

Towards the end of the war, in 1943, the furniture designer Gordon Russell invited Enid Marx to be a member of the Board of Trade Utility Furniture team. The furniture was turned out cheaply and in large quantities for people who had suffered bomb damage. Marx was responsible for textiles. Her task was to create as great a variety as possible from a very limited supply of yarns and range of colours.

After the war she began working again for publishers and formed a strong bond with Penguin. There was a prestigious commission from Morton Sundour for a collection of printed furnishing fabrics, and in 1947, with Margaret Lambert, Marx published the scholarly English Popular and Traditional Art. Her seminal book English Popular Art (1951), again written with Lambert, was republished in 1989 by Merlin Press.

The Queen's Coronation in 1953 gave Marx the chance to explore yet another design medium - postage stamps. It was a commission she relished:

One of my greatest pleasures has been to work on stamps. The design is a sort of puzzle. Into this tiny national visiting card has to be fitted the Sovereign's head, the value and the given subject, commemorative or otherwise. For the Coronation definitives the four flower emblems of the kingdom had to be exactly the same size, in order that there shouldn't be any "feeling".

More than 20 years later, in 1976, she designed a set of beautiful Christmas stamps based on the Opus Anglicanum embroideries.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, commissions continued to flood in for woodcuts, engravings and linocuts, packaging, calendars for Shell Oil, London Transport posters, greetings cards, bookjackets and laminates. Then, at the age of 63, when most people are considering retirement, Enid Marx became Head of Department of Dress, Textiles and Ceramics at Croydon College of Art in 1965. She stayed for five years, and then left to pursue her own work which she continued until her death.

Marx's work won the admiration of critics and fellow designers alike. "Enid was a brilliant pattern-maker with an eye for crisp design, a natural feel for and understanding of the importance of scale and a tremendous knowledge of many different printing techniques," said Alan Powers, the painter and architectural historian whose Judd Street Gallery in London hosted an exhibition in December 1990 of a series of her dazzling linocut prints featuring her favourite subjects - animals.

"Her early work as a hand-block textile printer is particularly fine," he stated. "She used simple units spaced in such a way that the patterns leapt to life on the cloth. The method of printing was very laborious and it is a great sadness to know that, because of that, we are unlikely to see the fabrics produced again in sufficient quantities for them to be widely appreciated."

Marx, affectionately known as Marco, never shirked from fighting the good fight and tackled with equal enthusiasm the right of her local grocer, when facing eviction, to find new premises before leaving the old, and her own right to insist on having as much control as possible over the printing processes used to reproduce her work.

Enid Marx battled in the late Seventies to save from demolition the Agricultural Hall, now the Business Design Centre, close to her home and studio in Islington in London, acted as a catalyst and contributed to animated debate about the role of RDIs. She also fought unsuccessfully for many years for a national museum for English folk art. However, Marx and Margaret Lambert's collection is due to be displayed at the newly opened museum and arts centre at Compton Verney, near Stratford-upon-Avon.

Enid Crystal Dorothy Marx, painter and designer: born London 20 October 1902; RDI 1944; died London 18 May 1998.

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