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Enid Marx: A Design Legacy
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Jennie Fisher, Joint Head of Picture Department; Modern and Contemporary Art at Dreweatts auctioneers, reveals why she believes the design legacy of Enid Marx (1902-1998) is important to the story of Modern British art.
My first visit to Pallant House Gallery since lockdown was a rare treat. The three key exhibitions Barnett Freedman: Designs for Modern Britain, Drawn to Nature: Gilbert White and the Artists and An Outbreak of Talent: Bawden, Marx, Ravilious and their Contemporaries not only all focussed on an area of art history in which I have personal interest but highlighted the eclecticism of art production in pre- and post-war Britain, a tradition arguably somewhat lost in the contemporary art world.
The idea of artist not only as painter or sculptor but printmaker, textile designer, book illustrator and ceramicist is one that was at its height in the early to mid-20th century. The advent of new technologies meant that the line between fine and commercial art was irrevocably blurred and not at the expense of creativity.
Instead, the period between 1920 and 1950 saw Britain at its most artistically inventive with artwork permeating every area of life from posters for Lyons tea houses and Shell to textile designs for London Underground and book jackets for Faber & Faber, all produced concurrently with more traditional paintings and works on paper. Design was an integral part of the artistic language and artists such as Bawden, Ravilious, Freedman and Nash all made significant contributions to the cultural landscape.
An equally significant but less commonly known contribution to that landscape was also made by Enid Marx (1902-1998). Working alongside her predominately male counterparts, her understated designs quietly permeated everyday life leaving a lasting legacy of vivid modernist designs which embodied the spirit of the age.
Born in London, Marx, or ‘Marco’, as she was affectionately known, had a passion for pattern from an early age. Travels with her family in Europe before the First World War fostered an interest in the avant-garde which would influence her later work.
Marx studied firstly at the Central School of Arts and Crafts before moving, in 1922, to the Royal College of Art. During this brief but significant period, Marx studied alongside Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden and Barnett Freedman under the tutelage of Paul Nash who encouraged her avant-garde inclinations. However, despite such support, perhaps it is telling that Marx failed her final diploma assessment with her work judged to be too “vulgar”, an indictment of her love of abstraction at a time when the RCA valued naturalism and her rejection of formalised art practice.
As with many other female practitioners of the period, Marx therefore found herself working on the margins of traditional art production. As was often the case, women were encouraged into more ‘craft-based’ activities such as weaving, textile design and printmaking.
Here, she, like many others, excelled but their legacy is not so commonly documented or celebrated. Other examples include Anni Albers, Bauhaus trained weaver and pioneer of abstract design. For all its progressiveness, the Bauhaus discouraged her from pursuing her first choice of painting and forbade women entry into the glass workshop where she had wanted a place. Her marriage to fellow painter, Josef Albers, sadly only cemented her legacy as his wife, rather than a ground-breaking innovator in her own right.
Marx went to work for renowned textile designers and entrepreneurs Phyllis Barron (1890-1964) and Dorothy Larcher (1884-1952) before setting up her own studio in Hampstead. She became known for her block-printed fabric designs and in 1937 she was commissioned by the London Passenger Transport Board to design a range of upholstered seating designs for the London buses and underground. Further success followed and during the war, she was an integral member of the Utility Furniture Advisory Committee tasked with addressing the furniture shortage caused by the Blitz. She was appointed a Royal Designer for Industry in 1944.
Marx had a career that spanned more than seventy years traversing the boundaries between functional design and fine art and encompassing print-making, painting, textile design and illustration. She was a designer of trademarks, wrapping paper, cards, book jackets and postage stamps and although she has never achieved the same fame as some of her male counterparts, her work had a lasting impression on the lives of everyday people. In 1982, nearly six decades on, the Royal College of Art awarded her an honorary degree.
Jennie Fisher is Joint Head of Picture Department; Modern and Contemporary Art at Dreweatts, one of the UK’s leading auctioneers. Jennie studied History and French at UCL and the Sorbonne followed by a Masters in History of Art at Trinity College, Oxford. She worked at Sotheby’s for 10 years, ultimately as a Director and Head of the Prints Department, followed by at Bonhams before joining Dreweatts in 2016.
Dreweatts’ Modern and Contemporary Art sale takes place on 22 October. Find out more here.
You can see more of Enid Marx’s works in our exhibition An Outbreak of Talent: Bawden, Marx, Ravilious and their Contemporaries.