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Enid Marx: Rebel with a cause

A contemporary of Ravilious and Bawden, Enid Marx’s long and diverse career grew from persistence and a love of colour and pattern

1922 was a particularly good intake for the Royal College of Art. New students included Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden and Enid Marx, part of what tutor Paul Nash described as ‘an outbreak of talent’. While the work of Ravilious and Bawden – currently the subject of an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery – is now well known, rather less celebrated is that of Marx, a formidable character who turned her hand to designing everything from printed and woven textiles to book covers and stamps throughout a career spanning more than half a century.

Her story is told in Enid Marx: Print, Pattern and Popular Art, a highly enjoyable new exhibition at the House of Illustration. Known as Marco to her friends, Marx (1902-98) was born in London to parents from German émigré families. At the RCA her fresh style, which drew on both modern and traditional references, was not always appreciated and she was refused entry to the printing school, although fortunately Ravilious smuggled her in after hours to catch up on what she’d missed. She went on to fail her painting diploma. But she was never someone to be thwarted. Later, when her employers at a furnishings design company refused to give her the dye recipes in case she became a competitor, she simply memorized them and rushed off at lunchtimes to write them down.

Her great talent was her ‘brilliant’ and ‘intuitive’ pattern design, according to exhibition co-curator Alan Powers. The architecture and art historian is also author of the accompanying new book, Enid Marx The Pleasures of Pattern. He describes her as obsessed with pattern and the rhythms it could form.

  • Enid Marx working on a textile design post-1945.
    Enid Marx working on a textile design post-1945.
  • Enid Marx exhibition at House of Illustration.
    Enid Marx exhibition at House of Illustration. Credit: Paul Grover
  • Feline Phantasy linocut in four colours 1948.
    Feline Phantasy linocut in four colours 1948. Credit: Estate of Enid Marx
  • Envelope for Menagerie Cut Out Game, Royle Publications, 1947, 23x30cm.
    Envelope for Menagerie Cut Out Game, Royle Publications, 1947, 23x30cm. Credit: Enid Marx, courtesy of Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections
  • Carried in Comfort linocut in six colours 1955.
    Carried in Comfort linocut in six colours 1955. Credit: Estate of Enid Marx
  • London underground moquette - Study for Chevron moquette.
    London underground moquette - Study for Chevron moquette. Credit: Estate of Enid Marx
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‘She could visualise a pattern unit on its own and in her mind see how it could repeat,’ he says, adding that when multiplied, the design had a dynamism that flowed through the whole.

The exhibition, which conjures up a vivid picture of a redoubtable figure and her highly engaging work, is certainly a feast of pattern, whether for printed or woven textiles or for print, with plenty of examples of her block-printed designs from the 1920s and 1930s. We learn how she ‘wanted to reach out to the whole population to share her own pleasure in pattern, stripe and colours, in animals, birds and plants’. There are examples of work from Marx’s 60-year relationship with publisher Chatto & Windus, for whom she designed many book covers and logos from 1929 onwards. Alongside are some of her illustrations for her own books, including Bulgy the Barrage Balloon (1941) and Slithery Sam (1947), a book about a snail.

  • London underground moquette - Design for Bushey.
    London underground moquette - Design for Bushey. Credit: Estate of Enid Marx
  • Pattern paper for Judd Street Gallery from wood engraving.
    Pattern paper for Judd Street Gallery from wood engraving. Credit: Estate of Enid Marx
  • Cover for Lytton Strachey on Florence Nightengale, Chatto & Windus.
    Cover for Lytton Strachey on Florence Nightengale, Chatto & Windus. Credit: Estate of Enid Marx
  • Pattern papers for Curwen Press 1928.
    Pattern papers for Curwen Press 1928. Credit: Estate of Enid Marx
  • Cover for Some British Moths, King Penguin.
    Cover for Some British Moths, King Penguin. Credit: Estate of Enid Marx
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Her London Underground work in the 1930s is also well documented, with the exhibition showcasing her designs for seating upholstery – her first experience of designing woven patterns. Such a commission was quite challenging, since the upholstery pattern had to be robust enough to camouflage dirt but not too overwhelming for passengers’ eyes. Ever practical, she also worked for the post-war Utility Furniture Scheme on furnishings that could overcome the imperfections of the low-budget materials, advocating cheeringly colourful designs as the most appropriate approach after the blackouts and shortages of the war years. Thirty of her designs went into manufacture.

She taught extensively after the end of the war until the mid 1960s while continuing her diverse design work. The show explores her great passion for English folk art; she wrote two books on the subject with her long time friend the historian Margaret Lambert, and campaigned for a museum dedicated to this homespun art, whose innocence and vitality influenced her own, increasingly decorative designs.

Marx always saw herself as something of rebel, says Powers, adding that while she could be a bit of a troublemaker, it was always in a good cause. Perhaps it was this spirit that helped to keep her working into advanced years long after the decades of her greatest successes.

Nearly a century after Marx began her career in design, this appealing exhibition is a great way to spread the word about a remarkable woman whose work retains a bright appeal today.

Enid Marx: Print, Pattern and Popular Art, until 23 September 2018, House of Illustration, 2 Granary Square, King’s Cross, London N1C 4BH
Enid Marx: The Pleasures of Pattern, by Alan Powers, Lund Humphries, HB, £40