Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne is currently celebrating the life and work of designer Peggy Angus with an inspirational exhibition of painting, design and ideas
Yet the extraordinary woman behind this little cottage in the Sussex Downs has until recently remained a footnote, known only to a few in the male dominated history of painting and design in the pre and post war periods.
Now an exhibition at Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne and a fine accompanying book by James Russell are reminding us of her remarkable life and work.
And it's the spirit of Furlongs that sits at the heart of this beautifully curated show filled with paintings, prints, wallpapers, friezes, tiles, beliefs, conversations and the minutiae of a life well lived.
Born in Chile in 1914 Peggy Angus spent the first few years of her life in a house above a Chilean railway station and a love for travel and unusual locations were passions she pursued for the rest of her life.
After the family moved to Muswell Hill in London her talent for sketching eventually secured her a bursary to attend the Royal College of Art where her peers included Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and - as tutor - Paul Nash.
But unlike these famous names, her promising career as a painter and muralist stalled when the deaths of her father and brothers meant she had to switch to a teaching diploma. This seemingly catastrophic event eventually led to a teaching post in Eastbourne and the discovery of a rundown shepherd's cottage in Beddingham on the Sussex Downs, which she identified as a perfect place to create art.
There were other hardships, including a divorce from the architectural writer Jim Richards, the pressure of bringing up two children during the war, the loss of her son Angus when he was aged 21 and a general struggle to make ends meet and produce art.
But in all of its fifty-odd years as Angus’s country residence Furlongs, a basic place without running water or electricity like some evocation of how life had once been lived,
It was a journey made by countless artists and students - from the 1930s through to the 1980s - when according to James Russell, Angus “was a cult figure among art students in London and Brighton.” Russell says he is “reliably informed” that even Grayson Perry made the pilgrimage to Furlongs.
Swales recalls “people making music, drawing and being together”. Everything, she says, was painted – “diamonds painted on the foot treads of the stairs, every surface covered. Paintings hung on beautifully designed wallpapers.”
And this is how Towner has hung them - on the same wallpapers Angus designed. In a corner there’s a rustic kitchen table and fireplace, with porcelain plates, per-requisite Staffordshire spaniel, a paraffin lamp (a junk shop gift from Ravilious) and of course more paintings hung on patterned wallpaper.
Sitting amidst these objects and artworks, listening to the voices recalling Furlongs' darkly-lit world of lanterns, conversations and wood smoke, you can almost smell the aroma of paraffin, printing inks, elderflowers and cow pats.
Angus emerges from this creative fug an imposing and craggy figure, deeply artistic and irreverent with a mischievous sense of fun and adventure.
Her strident tones drift through the galleries via a looping film of interviews; talking about her life and work as she pulls prints and wallpapers from drawers in her chaotic Camden studio or sips tea from a Ravilious alphabet cup in the garden at Furlongs.
Click below to launch a gallery of images featured in the exhibition.
a photo of a cluttered interior with harmonium yellow wallpaper and paintings
a painting of a man in chair with a cat on his lap
a photo of an elderly woman gesticulating and talking at a kitchen table
a photograph of a staircase with yellow tile walls
a photo of a person wearing a beret in front of a large abstract tile mural
A photograph of a tile mural
a photo of a printed wallpaper design
For fans of Ravilious there are several artworks that recall his time in Sussex before his death in a plane off the coast of Iceland in 1942.
The lad from Eastbourne loved his visits to Furlongs; scrawled letters reveal his attachment to the reclusive cottage from which the pair would go on painting expeditions to places that fired their imaginations, like the Asham Cement Works.
Angus’s paintings of this unlikely spot are more realistic and in tune with the Soviet idea of man and machine (she had visited the Soviet Union in the 1920s) than the carefree cross hatching of Ravilious.
"Peggy had the potential to be a very good painter but was stymied by the circumstances of her life, whereas Ravilious had both ability and opportunity," says Russell, who despite being a Ravilious expert, admits to preferring her paintings of the Asham Cement Works (all done in 1934).
"They are earthy and defined by the swooping curves you see in her design work," he adds, "but by the time he painted Interior at Furlongs (1939) Ravilious had found his vision. Her paintings of the interior have charm and sadness, but his has the elusive quality of mystery.”
An Angus sketch of Ravilious drawing, with characteristic cigarette in hand, is probably one of the best representations of the elusive artist we have. “The sketch suggests something of his intensity and seriousness as an artist” says Russell, “which doesn't come through in his rather jocular letters.”
Similarly Angus's painting of Ravilious, leaning against the stairwell at Furlongs as Helen Binyon gazes across the kitchen table, is rich with narrative - and the back story of their affair.
"The lack of boundaries and conventions made it, as Tirzah Ravilious wrote, ‘a good place to fall in love’," says Russell, "but with Peggy in residence the cottage was most important as a place where people felt inspired to create whatever they were capable of creating - from drawings and paintings to wallpaper and painted stones.”
It's these ideals, together with Angus's interest in a wide range of things from folk art to socialist politics that informs her print designs.
“Peggy was an admirer of William Morris, both artistically and in terms of politics and views on the purpose and value of art,” says Russell. “She was part of a broad 20th century tradition of artist-designers, which has its roots in the economically challenging 1920s. Edward Bawden was block-printing wallpaper in the 1920s and 1930s, and Tirzah Ravilious decorated Furlongs with hand-made marbled papers in the 1930s.
“We should remember the impact of her trip to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s - simple, dynamic repeat patterns were vital to early Soviet design, and Peggy strongly approved of artist-designers working for the state in this way."
Tile murals for Glyndwr University in Wrexham; Lansbury Lawrence School in Wimbledon and Southlands College in Wimbledon reveal how, during the heyday of decorative murals, Angus’s pioneering tile murals for municipal buildings were among the best.
The teaching may have been borne out of necessity, but in typical Angus style it inspired her and propelled her in new directions.
“Peggy cried when she was offered her first teaching position, thinking that her career as an artist was over before it had begun,” says Russell. “She continued to see teaching as an impediment from the mid-1920s until the war, but then experienced a revelation, partly I think from reading William Morris”.
And once she was at her alma mater, North London Collegiate School, she began, says Russell, “to treat her work as an artist and as a teacher as part of the same thing. She used classroom design work as the basis for commercial tile designs and she also worked with the children to decorate the school. So the teaching was the route into her career as a designer.”
You can see this in the simple geometric patterns fashioned for airports and the folk designs that appeared on the kitchen and bathroom tiles of well-to-do “patrons”, but there is something else - that Angus sense of adventure - at the heart of the work.
“I had little idea of what I was letting myself in for when I started work on this project,” admits Russell. “I knew Peggy Angus through Ravilious but was astounded to discover how much she had achieved, and to find so many people who knew her or her work.
“Uncovering the story was an adventure that took (Towner Curator) Sara Cooper and I from Shetland to rural Dorset and from north Wales to east London.
"Every person we spoke to had a list of five more we HAD to see, and without a deadline I'm sure I'd still be travelling around the country, discovering more tile murals, wallpapers and paintings, and meeting more extraordinary people.”
It was a fruitful journey; Towner’s beautiful exhibition is inspirational, both in terms of the artwork and the unfolding story of a life lived to the full. It’s hard not to be won over by the eccentric charm and art of Peggy Angus.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Peggy Angus: Designer, Teacher Painter runs at Towner Eastbourne until September 21.
The accompanying book by James Russell is published by the Antiques Collector's Club. Visit his blog at jamesrussellontheweb.blogspot.co.uk
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