Marthe Armitage, the celebrated maker of hand-crafted wallpapers who lives at Strand on the Green, has brought out a book which illustrates her development as an artist-craftswoman over some 60 years.
She studied at Chelsea Art College, but her talent wasn’t fully recognised until quite late in life when she decided to sell her designs commercially.
She now runs the business, which sells fabrics as well as papers, with her daughter Jo.
“Strand on the Green is a hard place to move away from”. Marthe came here as a child, when her parents moved across the river from Kew, and she has never left, apart from a period spent as a wartime evacuee in Oxfordshire, a spell at boarding school in her teens and a couple of years in India as a young woman when her husband was there working on an engineering project. “The river is so amazing, nobody can build on it, the tide goes up and down, there are the boats, the bird life, it’s endlessly fascinating” she told me. The river is a source of inspiration for an artist and many of her motifs include plants, birds and animals.
As a nine year old she saw houses four and five Strand on the Green being built and as a young mother she walked her three children to school At Strand on the Green school. She now lives in a modern house designed by her architect son Jeremy and his wife, and the old family house is her workshop, where she designs and produces her prints with her daughter Jo. In her book The Making of Marthe Armitage Artist and Patternmaker there is a chapter devoted to life by the river. “Strand on the Green is an oasis within the bustle of London” writes
Arts & Crafts influence
“I left a very expensive school with nothing” says Marthe, nothing that is except her School Certificate and “vague artistic leanings”. Fortunately the family’s neighbour at number five was the headmaster of the Chelsea School of Art, who encouraged her to pursue those vague artistic leanings. She studied at Chelsea but always considered herself somehow less of an artist than others she studied with. “The people I’ve always admired could only draw; that’s what they wanted to be doing all the time. I wasn’t like that”. She counts herself very lucky to have studied there and says it was “an exciting time”, but as was the custom of the era she married and wasn’t expected to pursue her own career.
As a young mother at home, with no money to spend on luxuries, she designed her first wallpaper for her own house, then some for an acquaintance and gradually built up a small but faithful clientele. Her her first design, Angelica, was produced as a simple floor print. Having observed Indian printers using block prints in the early 1950s, she experimented with her own. Inspired by the pattern making of William Morris and CFA Voysey, she found that linoleum was the perfect material for creating her printing blocks. She still uses lino in preference over other materials developed later, and still follows the same process of drawing, tracing, cutting out the pattern, inking and printing that she has all through her development as a pattern maker.
The way she works is to start with a grid of four boxes and draw her design in each, building it up bit by bit. I watched as she sketched out first a flower in each quadrant, then a swirl. Essential to do it that way, she explained, to see how the pattern flows across to borders of the grid. The drawing is key and though for a long time she undervalued herself as an artist, it is her talent at drawing, honed at Chelsea Art School, which enables her to be such a good patternmaker.
After the drawing, the print-making: ‘Then the real stuff began’ writes Jo, ‘with the smell of the turps, the stickiness of the ink and the magic of the impression left behind when the block was pulled away from the paper’.
“Drawing is very different from print” says Marthe. “The first time you take a print off it’s such a shock because you can’t tell what it will look like. Usually I think it’s a failure and put it away. But then I get it out again and I show it to someone else and I think maybe it’s alright”. The whole process from initial sketch to printing takes about two months and about one in seven designs she abandons.
Her success has come slowly, partly because she had so little faith in herself, but also because she says it’s only recently that hand crafted designs have become fashionable again. “I took one or two of my designs to interior designers in Fulham Rd but my designs weren’t fashionable”. Fortunately Hamilton Weston took an interest in her work in 2004. The showed it in their showroom and the features editor from World of Interiors wrote a feature about it. Hamilton Weston sell her wallpapers while Marthe and Jo’s own company handles the sales of fabrics.
“Pattern is not talked about enough”
“Would you prefer to be described as an artist or as a craftswoman?” I asked her “I’m an artist – patternmaker” she says. She quoted me the English philosopher RG Collingwood: “the difference between craft and art is that a craftsman knows what he’s aiming at. Artists don’t know where it’s going to end”. She first did lino cuts at school, but at art school she learned drawing and painting. “Pattern is not talked about enough” she told me. “The composition is all-important – the satisfactory balance of things”.
“Abstract art has a pattern. Music has a pattern. It’s the abstract part of figurative work. With abstract art you start from balance and rhythm and composition. There are some lovely paintings which have been very badly composed”.
Marthe is a member of the Art Workers Guild, ‘a body of more than 350 artists, craftspeople and architects working at the highest levels of excellence in their professions’. You have to be elected as a member by your peers. She is one of only four female past presidents.
She is also a born again Christian. She worships at Christ Church on Turnham Green, where you can see one of her designs etched into the glass doors of the church. One of her pieces is also permanently on show on the Chiswick Timeline mural, on the railway bridge over Turnham Green terrace.
Her book The Making of Marthe Armitage Artist and Pattenmaker is absolutely gorgeous, with far more pictures than writing, which is important in an art book. The publishers Graphical House haven’t stinted on full page, beautifully printed, very detailed designs as well as old family photographs and images of her studio. It’s available in a variety of covers – all hand blocked prints in her trademark muted colours. She would be pleased to think of it being used in art schools and hopes it might give some inspiration to young artists just starting out.