Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Kowhai chintz

It’s a tale often told by New Zealand ex-patriots like myself who are living in London: A thousand miles from home, in a city more than double the size of the homeland, crossing Oxford street/entering a pub/walking into Sainsburys, you see a familiar face...

 ‘Cheryl?!  Aunty Jo didn’t tell me you were over here; haven’t seen you since Uncle Trevor’s 60th’.
‘ Keith, maaate, It’s Sarah remember? Standard 4 class at Titirangi Primary!’

Some days, London doesn’t seem so far away from a lot of kiwi towns or cities. Recently, as I searched a box of 1930s dress fabric designs (the sort sold to retailers like Liberty's), I spotted this familiar sight: 

Design for a dress print in watercolour, Silver Studio, 1930s [SD14350, Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture]
Kowhai? What is a kowhai flower doing in amongst the daisies and roses of the Silver Studio chintzes? Kowhai (latin: Sophora) is a native tree of New Zealand rarely seen outside of the country whose flower is commonly used by local artists and the national postal service. Artists tasked with making a distinctly New Zealand piece will often use kowhai and other native flora in their work (for example this Jardinere commissioned as a gift for Elizabeth II on her wedding day by the New Zealand branch of the Royal Empire Society)

This design along with an attached pencil sketch (below) is attributed to Madeleine C Lawrence who was one of several women employed by the Silver Studio in the 1920s and 1930s. Lawrence produced excellent chinoiserie and Modernist designs  for the Studio and was responsible for many floral patterns for Liberty dress fabrics in the 1930s. The work of Lawrence and other female designers is the subject of MoDA's exhibition and publication Petal Power. You can see some other examples of Lawrence's designs on MoDA's website here.

Design for a dress print in pencil, Silver Studio, 1930s [SD14349, MoDA]
I'm sure Lawrence would have found my enthusiasm for this piece amusing as she was most likely just trying to find fresh source material beyond traditional flowers. The design is all the more interesting because we recently found what could be her working notes for the pattern. 

Rex Silver kept a reference library of books, pamphlets, scrapbooks and portfolios for his artists, many of which show signs of use including notes pinned to margins and paint splatters on pages. On one scrapbook cover, we found working notes and sketches about a kowhai flower.

Notes attached to the front cover of a scrapbook in the Silver Studio collection [SR261,  MoDA)

We don't know if this design for a dress print with a particular native flower was ever purchased. I can only speculate that in the 1930s, ladies walked the streets of London in dresses of kowhai chintz. The kiwi-connections aside, this design is a special example in MoDA's collection. Along with the working notes, it gives us an insight into the working process of a Silver Studio designer: how she researched, referenced and tested out a new subject matter for a floral dress fabric. 

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