From trenches to tablecloths

Former Sheffield archivist Ruth Harman

Former Sheffield archivist Ruth Harman

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The First World War left thousands of men with horrific injuries. Those life-changing disabilities also gave rise to a Sheffield company selling fabrics to the royals. Stephen McClarence reports.

Princess Turns Shopgirl for a Day... it was a good story, it involved “sob stuff and snob appeal”, and it began in the mud-filled trenches of the First World War. The Princess was Princess Mary, better known as the Princess Royal and Countess of Harewood. As a patron of Painted Fabrics, an enlightened Yorkshire company providing work for disabled ex-servicemen, she agreed to be a stallholder at a 1932 sale of their work at Claridges in London.

Hannah Brignell, curator of Visual Art and Social History at Sheffield Museums, looking through a silk scarf.

Hannah Brignell, curator of Visual Art and Social History at Sheffield Museums, looking through a silk scarf.

The Sheffield Daily Telegraph was thrilled, in a deferential way. “Princess Mary, who looked cool and charming in a summer dress,” it reported, “dealt with orders so expeditiously that she might have been used to selling goods behind the counter all her life.”

Royalty lurked around every corner at the regular sales showcasing the fashions and furnishings that Painted Fabrics exported across the world from old army huts in a Sheffield suburb. This “new and interesting English peasant industry”, as one of its founders called it, turned out tablecloths, evening dresses, cushion covers, scarves, table mats, tea cosies, curtains, ties, bedspreads, shawls... upmarket stuff, all stencilled, screen-printed or block-printed with bold, vividly coloured designs.

The Prince of Wales – later the Duke of Windsor – visited one of the sales, dapper in two-tone shoes with a carnation in his buttonhole; onlookers recalled that he appeared to be wearing make-up. At another, the Queen herself – later the Queen Mother – bought two dresses for her young daughter Princess Elizabeth.

It was all a long way from the fields of Flanders, where most of the employees of this philanthropic company (motto “Work Not Charity”) had sustained often horrific injuries. A publicity leaflet spelled out the extent of those injuries unflinchingly: “47 men with only 56 undamaged arms and 50 undamaged legs between them.”

Painted Fabrics, whose supporters included duchesses, marchionesses and dowager countesses, closed in the late 1950s and was gradually forgotten until one afternoon more than 20 years ago when archivist Ruth Harman started opening cardboard boxes in a storeroom.

“They were labelled ‘Painted Fabrics’, but no-one had ever asked to look at them,” she says. “The name was so intriguing. Painted Fabrics doesn’t immediately signify anything, and curiosity got the better of me. I opened one of the boxes and instead of folders, papers, account books and company records, there was a gold curtain. There were other boxes with lovely dresses, handkerchiefs and shawls. I thought: ‘What on earth is all this?’ So I researched it and soon realised that this company was out of the ordinary.”

She unearthed a fascinating story, the basis of two subsequent exhibitions and a permanent display in Sheffield’s Weston Park Museum. The inspiration for the venture, she found, dated back to 1915 when Annie Bindon Carter, a feisty trained artist and Sheffield industrialist’s wife, joined forces with her sister Dorothy and friends to launch painting classes as occupational therapy to help rehabilitate wounded and demoralised servicemen. Some of the men, however, were too disabled – lacking hands or arms – to paint or draw; Mrs Carter was undaunted.

“She devised a system for tying brushes to their stumps,” Irene Clegg, a Painted Fabrics secretary during the 1930s, later recalled. “She cut stencils for them, they filled them in on pieces of cloth and the cloth was sold. It cheered the men up considerably. They felt they weren’t useless.”

In a 2003 BBC radio feature about the company, Valerie Reid, daughter of one of the co-founders, testified to the instant effect on one of the soldiers, Corporal Wallwork. “He had been blown up and had no hands; he was very depressed and didn’t want to live,” she said. “But Annie came in one day and told my mother to get the simplest stencil she could find. They tied a brush to his arm and guided it over the stencil. His face lit up and by the time he’d done it all he was like a different person.”

In 1923, Annie Bindon Carter (ABC as everyone called her) set up a factory estate in the Norton area of Sheffield, a sort of model village with allotments, Brownie packs and vegetable shows. The men settled with their families, 60 of them at the firm’s peak, sometimes working on specially commissioned altar cloths and theatre curtains and backdrops. They sang old army songs as they worked and called the place Eden.

Archive pictures show some of them lined up in their working smocks. “Each man has lost an arm and a leg,” the caption points out, “and is still smiling.” Another group photograph is captioned: “Broken in war – now expert peace-time craftsmen”. One soldier, Arthur Fisher, had had both legs amputated; in the picture, he balances on his stumps with the help of a stick.

The company’s designs reflected Mrs Carter’s artistic training with their eclectic mix of Bohemian sophistication, East European peasant art, Jazz Age gaiety and Arts and Crafts pageantry, with the odd chintzy hint of Merrie England and the sort of filmy textures favoured by Matisse and his fellow Fauvist artists. People didn’t just buy these products out of sympathy; they bought them because most were – still are – strikingly beautiful with their unexpected colour combinations and emblematic designs – lilies, hollyhocks, sleek angels, pseudo-heraldry, pensive knights, abstract dogs.

Some of them survive in Museums Sheffield’s storerooms. The labels on the boxes list the contents: pink slip, bedspread, green belt, shawl, priest’s stole, stencilling brush. Ruth Harman carefully opens one box to pore over things she hasn’t seen for almost 20 years, some donated by members of the public. She unwraps the tissue paper to reveal a silk scarf: “Look at that, the colours are so vibrant.” And another scarf: “Oh gosh, I haven’t seen that before.”

The clothes – including chiffon and crepe de Chine dresses and oriental parasols –were sold at outlets in Sheffield, Harrogate and Southport and at the Liberty store in London. They were also sold in Spain, Italy, Belgium, Greece, India, Canada, the West Indies and New York. They were shrewdly marketed. “Sob stuff and snob appeal” was Mrs Carter’s crisp summary of her approach as she organised sales in both public halls (for cheaper items) and at upmarket hotels and country-house “at homes” (for more upmarket and expensive things, with a silk dressing gown priced, perhaps, at three guineas, more than a secretary’s weekly wage).

“She used every tactic she could to get people to buy things,” says Harman. “She appealed to both people’s sense of pity and their sense of snobbery. If they could wangle an invitation to one of the ‘at homes’ at, say, Wentworth Woodhouse near Rotherham, one of the grandest stately homes in the country, they’d be getting in somewhere they wouldn’t get into in a million years.” As Mrs Carter frankly pointed out, the sales offered “Mrs Smith a chance of visiting Lady Whatnot in her own home”.

Irene Clegg remembered those Wentworth Woodhouse sales. “At one end of the ballroom there was a long table with a white damask cloth and parlour maids serving afternoon tea – lovely sandwiches and beautiful little scones, done in the kitchen. We used to take some of the men to sell the goods and they were always treated well. Some of them wanted their food cutting up, because they only had one arm.”

The grandest sales were staged in London. “Mrs Carter used all the contacts she could,” says Harman. “The Queen regularly went to the sales. It was what you did during the summer season: you went to Henley, you went to Wimbledon and you went to Painted Fabrics sales.”

You particularly went if you had a title. Setting aside royalty (Prince and Princess Melikoff) the guest list at one 1932 sale included the Marchioness of Linlithgow, the Viscountess Plumer , the Duchess of Buccleuch, Priscilla Countess Annesley, Lady Harriot Bunbury, Lady Grizel Boyle and the Hon Mrs D’Arcy Hart. Posh young women stepped out of the pages of Debrett’s in their hundreds to model clothes for the catalogues (“Weather permitting, Lady Donatia intends wearing her gown at Ascot”).

Society came no higher. “Lady Plumer bought some gay silk parasols,” trilled the Daily News’ diarist. “Lady Alexander hesitated between two parasols and Princess Ottoboni chose a black scarf.” Amy Johnson (“the celebrated flyer”) was a guest at one show; Jack Buchanan, the debonair film star, bought a dressing gown at another. The Daily Mail nominated one Claridges sale as “The Event of the Season” after 2,500 people turned up.

In all this hob-nobbing, Mrs Carter had a useful ally in Captain Lionel Scott, Painted Fabric’s finance chief. “He knew the right people,” said Clegg. “And if he didn’t know them, he knew how to get to know them.” The royal dimension was paramount, as the Princess Royal’s shopgirl session testified. After buying a set of boudoir curtains at a Claridges sale, she was persuaded to help out. “She was painfully shy,” said Clegg. “But she agreed to sell on one of the stalls. We put her on the men’s ties stall. People were only too anxious to say: ‘I bought this from the Princess Royal’.”

The Prince of Wales’ appearance at a 1933 Christmas sale in Sheffield was a particular coup. “One of the first stalls to catch the prince’s eye was the silk handkerchief stall,” reported the Sheffield Daily Telegraph. “His interest in this was naturally an exceptional one, for His Royal Highness is a regular purchaser of the silk handkerchiefs made at Painted Fabrics.

“During his stay he picked up one or two check handbags, purses and diaries to admire. Immediately after he had left the stall there was a rush for the articles, which were sold immediately.”

He also visited the Painted Fabrics estate. Photographs in the company albums (now in Sheffield Archives) show the men raising their sticks and crutches in salute. Three cheers for His Royal Highness! Three more for his two-tone shoes!

Despite all the socialising, Annie Bindon Carter never lost sight of her prime motive: to keep the men employed. Bleak winter weather hit the turn-out for the 1937 Christmas show at the Queens Hotel in Leeds. “If these men had not gone to fight for us during the war, we should probably not be sitting in this beautiful and comfortable hotel today,” she told guests. “It is no excuse for people to say they cannot come here because of the weather. Those men who are now disabled went over the top in all sorts of weather.”

But for all the idealism, hard financial facts had often to be faced. “It wasn’t viable as a commercial business,” says Harman. “There was regularly a financial crisis at the end of the week when the men had to be paid. I think Mrs Carter’s husband bailed them out. The company was subsidised for years and years.”

Painted Fabrics was suspended during the Second World War and its workshops were turned over to aircraft parts. It was revived after the war but on a smaller scale and finally closed in 1959; Annie Bindon Carter died ten years later. One of the archive pictures shows an old man with a trim military moustache posing with the workers on a factory visit. It was Earl Haig, British commander in the First World War. Without some of his controversial front-line decisions, Painted Fabrics might never have started. Or have been necessary.

With thanks to Sheffield Archives and Museums Sheffield. As well as its permanent Painted Fabrics display, Sheffield’s Weston Park Museum (0114 278 2600; www.museums-sheffield.org.uk) features the company in its 
Sheffield & the First World War exhibition, which runs until March 1, 2015.

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