Sheila take a bow
Now interest in her mid-century art work is to be boosted further with the release of “West Riding”, which will feature on everything from furniture and textiles to pottery and prints.
Sheila grew up in the Dales village of Linton in the 1930s. Her talent, encouraged by her loving parents, took her to The Slade in London and led to a freelance career supplying designs to everyone from Liberty to Marks & Spencer. A shy and modest lady, she ended her days back in the village and few outside her close family and friends realised just how gifted she was.
Most of her belongings went to auction when she died eight years ago, after which some found their way onto eBay. That is where Chelsea Cefai discovered them as she was searching for inexpensive, original art for her newly-renovated home.
“I was struck by the designs, which were listed as ‘two prints by Sheila Bownas’. I asked the seller if he had any more and he said he had 210. I asked if I could buy them all, not really knowing what I would do with them. I just knew they were the work of a brilliant artist,” she says.
Sheila’s surface patterns for textiles and wallpaper look as fresh and contemporary today as they did in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and last year Chelsea launched them as prints and homeware products.
Her mission to put Sheila in the limelight started after she turned detective to discover more about her life.
Born in 1925, Sheila was the only child of Reg and Minnie Bownas, who ran a grocery shop. Championed by her art mistress at Skipton Girls’ High School, she won a county art scholarship to attend The Slade, where she won several prizes. She later made a living as a freelance designer after efforts to secure a position in male-dominated design studios failed due to overt sexism.
Her work was bought and used by the biggest and most prestigious brands, though none bore her name. In the 1970s, she returned to Linton to be with her widowed mother. Increasingly reclusive, she continued to build her enormous collection of portraits, landscapes and still life. Few knew the extent of it until she passed away, aged 82.
Thanks to Chelsea’s chance find on eBay, Sheila’s designs have an appreciative new audience. “I love her work and it saddens me to think that an artist with such wonderful talent could so easily slip through the net of recognition. That’s what drives me,” she says.
The West Riding print was designed in the mid 1950s. It is thought to have been inspired by the architecture of Linton and the surrounding villages.
The new West Riding collection includes fabric by Sheffield-based textile artist Sarah Waterhouse; porcelain, with the pattern hand-drawn on the surface, by Elisabeth Barry; furniture by Parlour and lighting by Zoe Darlington.
*The Sheila Bownas collection is available online at www.sheilabownas.com
*A Sheila Bownas exhibition is to debut next summer in Chelsea’s home county of Warwickshire. She is also keen to find a Yorkshire venue for it.
It will include Sheila’s work along with the new products and some of her letters. “She was a hoarder and an archivist’s dream. All the letters of acceptance of her work still exist but she sold her designs as a number, so I have been gradually tracking them down,” says Chelsea. “M&S is looking in its archive and I have found illustrations she did for the Natural History Museum.”