Marion Best Fabrics: artist designed textiles
The notions that art could be integrated into everyday life and that general wellbeing might be improved through good design of everyday objects were derived from the English Arts & Crafts Movement. In the early 20th century, Roger Fry and Clive Bell, members of the Bloomsbury group, stressed the contribution that artists could make to all the arts and crafts. Whereas designer William Morris and his colleagues advocated the essential role of the craftsman, Bell asserted, in his influential book Art (1914), that an artist’s ‘inspiration’ was required over a craftsman’s ‘honest labour’.2 Thea Proctor and a number of other Australian modernist artists were strongly influenced by the writings of the Bloomsbury group. When Proctor returned to Australia in 1921 after living in England for much of the previous two decades, she in turn instilled many of Fry and Bell’s ideas into the next generation of young artists and designers, including Marion Hall Best, who attended Proctor’s art and design classes in 1926.
- 2. Clive Bell, Art, Chatto and Windus, London, 1928 (first issued 1914), p287.
Australian modernist artists of the 1920s and 30s did not generally differentiate between the various arts and design – Proctor, Hera Roberts and Roy de Maistre all moved easily between fine art, commercial art and design, interior decoration and furniture design. These artists were promoted by publications like The Home and Art in Australia, which emphasised that each had the right taste and sensibility to improve the standard of design in Australia. Best reached her formative years in this milieu. With these influences, it is unsurprising that when Best established Marion Best Fabrics she turned to local artists who worked across various areas of the art world to design her textiles.
During the 1940s, Marion Best registered with the Australian government (under the Designs Act) 17 unique designs for textiles by at least nine different artists. The artists Best commissioned included Thea Proctor, Ailsa Allan, Elaine Haxton, Amie Kingston, Isabel Anderson Stuart, Ann Gillmore Rees, Douglas Annand, Alice Danciger and Best’s sister Dora Sweetapple. Best paid the artists five guineas for each design. The designs were screen-printed in small print runs, which allowed Best and her designers to specify the exact colours required. The fabrics also filled a gap in supply due to shortages during World War II.
Marion Best Fabrics were printed by Gilkes & Co, whose works was located in the Sydney suburb of Camperdown. Gilkes & Co, founded by Arthur Gilkes in 1905, was a small firm associated with woodblock printing and stencilling of wallpapers for many decades. Arthur’s sons, Harry and Alan, started their own business in 1933 called Gilkes Bros (and then Gilkes Bros & Hoskins), one of the first screen printers in Australia. At first they printed textiles mainly for clothing and accessories but later expanded into furnishing fabrics. Screen-printing was easier and less expensive than hand-printing using woodblocks, and it was more flexible for small print runs compared to larger rotary machines. Another screen printer, Frances Burke’s Melbourne-based Burway Prints, began operation in 1937 (becoming Frances Burke Fabrics in 1942), and supplied Marion Best with textiles in the late 1930s. Burke is often incorrectly cited as establishing Australia's first screen-printery. However, by 1940 Best was seeking more control over the design and colour of textiles she used in her design schemes and those she sold through her recently opened Queen Street shop. She turned to Gilkes & Co, with the Gilkes brothers now working for their father’s business, to print textiles for her new venture, Marion Best Fabrics.
Marion Best Fabrics first appeared in two Marion Best-designed display rooms for An Englishman’s Home 1700–1941, a Red Cross fundraising exhibition held at the David Jones department store in May 1941. Curtains with a design by Thea Proctor appeared in the ‘Classic Modern Room’, while the ‘Young Modern Room’ included curtains made from a design by Dora Sweetapple. In late 1941 and 1942, Marion Best also used her artist-designed fabrics to furnish the Rachel Forster Hospital in Redfern, Sydney, and Berida Convalescent Home in Bowral. The escalation of World War II, however, curtailed further interior design jobs and limited the printing activities of Gilkes & Co.
In July 1946 a new set of Marion Best Fabrics appeared, advertised in Australia: National Journal. In the same year, Silk and Textile Printers (STP), founded in 1939 by Italian immigrants Paul Sonnino and brothers Claudio and Orlando Alcorso, released a small range of artist-designed fabrics, followed in 1947 by a much larger collection of fabrics designed by over 30 artists. This range, known as ‘Modernage’, has become more celebrated than Marion Best Fabrics probably because of the large numbers of artists involved and the contemporary publication of the Sydney Ure Smith book A new approach to textile designing, which promoted ‘Modernage’. Marion Best also sold some of the ‘Modernage’ range in her shops from the late 1940s, at around the time Marion Best Fabrics came to an end due to a fire.
When recounting her career late in life, Best wrote: 'Gilkes' firm was burnt to the ground. We lost all of our screens and original drawings. Gilkes didn’t have any money either so that had to be the end of Marion Best Fabrics’.3 Although the exact location and extent of this fire is unknown, it is clear that it left Best with little remaining stock, since print runs were small. Few examples of Marion Best Fabrics now survive to help tell the story of what Best claimed had been a successful venture.
Later in her career, Best became renowned for her use of international modernist furniture and furnishings. However, she always encouraged local Australian artists and designers, and Marion Best Fabrics was an early example of this support. After Marion Best Fabrics ended, Best made her first overseas business trip, in 1949, and discovered a world of wonderful textiles, first in France and later in many other parts of globe. Yet throughout her life, Best continued to draw on her formative years and her faith in the role that artists could play in improving design and interiors, particularly in relation to colour.
Michael Lech, ‘The Gilkes family, Marion Best Fabrics, and early fabric printing in Australia’, in Australiana, August 2005, pp. 6-11.
- 3. Letter from Marion Best to Glenn Cooke, 20 August 1981, Marion Best Pty Ltd scrapbooks 1955–81, Marion Hall Best Collection, Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums. MHB/C/8-10, item no 184.