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Sheila Bownas: A Life in Pattern

[ Exhibition )

Design by Sheila Bownas of children wearing blue and red and playing in circles on a yellow background.

Sheila Bownas, SB 159, circa 1950-59, Private Collection – Rachel Elsworth © Sheila Bownas Archive

An exhibition of original designs by the mid-century textile designer Sheila Bownas (1925—2007), a supplier to Liberty London and Marks & Spencer who remained relatively unknown until an archive of her work surfaced recently at auction.

Her colourful patterns featuring playful scenes, floral and geometric motifs, capturing the optimism of the post-war era. This exhibition was curated in association with Chelsea Cefai, who first discovered Bownas’ work at auction in 2008.

The quality and scale of Bownas’s output indicates that she was a talented and prolific designer, yet she received little credit for her designs during her lifetime. Her designs were issued by various textile and wallpaper manufacturers under their name – a practice that was (and still is) the norm in the commercial world of textiles. Bownas’s career was typical of what was on the whole a low-profile, low-paid and largely female profession, which remains invisible to the public eye to this day.

Born in 1925, Bownas grew up in the small Yorkshire Dales village of Linton. She displayed a natural talent for painting at a young age, attending Skipton Art College in the 1940s before securing a scholarship at the Slade School of Art in London. During her time at the Slade, she won a number of prizes for her work and had nine paintings accepted for the Royal Academy summer exhibitions.

Bownas’ bright and bold designs reflect the changing mood of consumers during the early 1950s. After years of post-war austerity, British households eagerly welcomed the new designs that appeared on wallpaper and home furnishings as manufacturers capitalised on a new feeling of optimism that swept the country. It was in this climate that Bownas forged a career as a freelance designer, supplying patterns to the likes of Liberty London, Crown Wallpapers and Marks and Spencer. Whether her clients were looking for bold abstract designs such as SB 1471, or figurative patterns such as SB 159, which depicts children playing together, the standard of Bownas’s work remained consistently high.

What the press said

…the work sparkles, making you wonder why both it and her name have been missing from design histories.

Jane Audas, Selvedge Magazine

This exhibition was made possible by a number of generous organisations and individuals

Want to know more?

If you’re conducting research into this artist or another aspect of Modern British art and would like to use our library and archive, please contact Sarah Norris, Collections Manager on

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