Title: London paper, Barra stone
Author: Alastair Best
Text: London paper, Barra stone
Papers are punted from small blocks which gives them interesting unevenness and "grain" unlike the blander mass-produced papers. Many designs for instance the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden below, were originally silk-screened onto tiles
London paper, Barra stone
In London Peggy Angus makes hand-blocked wallpaper; on the island of Barra she is reviving interest in Celtic art. Alastair Best reports; photographs by Richard Davies
Peggy Angus divides her time between three homes: a cottage in the heart of "off-shore Bloomsbury" under the Sussex Downs (Bells and Grants are near neighbours); a neatly cluttered studio in NW1; and a converted cowshed on the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. When not in Sussex, she is in her half-up, half-down council studio in Camden, making hand-blocked wallpapers; or on Barra, teaching underemployed crofters to paint Celtic and Pictish designs onto Atlantic smoothed pebbles gathered from the beach.
The hand-painted pebble industry is still at an "experimental" stage; but she has been doing the wallpapers for ten years or so, using methods and tools which have remained defiantly simple, almost archaic. A roll of paper is unfurled onto two narrow tables and a solid background colour laid on with a broad brush. When this has dried out on a set of cardboard rollers, the paper is laid out again, and the pattern blocked in, usually in a darker shade of the background colour.
Peggy Angus blocks are small snug linocuts, which fit easily and comfortably into the hand. "If you make the blocks too big," she explains, "you can't apply an even pressure on the paper. At the same time you lose a great deal of textural quality. The so-called hand-blocked papers put out by the big manufacturers are made from blocks 20 times the size of mine." To prove this point, she gets out two versions of the same design, made by herself and Sanderson's. Hers is rough and vigorous- like brickwork; theirs, turned out on a giant 21 in x 21 in block, is bland and boring. There is no doubt which is the more professional job; just as there is not much doubt which paper one would prefer to hang in one's own home.
The main interest of Angus wallpapers- in fact, lies not so much in their design or colour (the customer is encouraged to have a say in the design and pick his own colour) as in its rough, easy-going texture. Machine made papers tend to overwhelm pictures; the more sympathetic Angus
Gentle irregularities and muted tones of Angus wallpapers blend sympathetically with pictures and other bric-a-brac, above and below. Standard 21in x 21in roil made from existing linocuts costs £5, but customers are encouraged to have a say in their own designs
Like many Outer Elebridean islands Barra has little local industry and its chief export is able bodied men. From her cottage there, Peggy Angus is stirring up interest in Pictish and Celtic art fame and encouraging local crofters to adapt the long-ignored designs to smooth grey pebbles gathered from the beaches. Pebbles are painted with watercolour inside and a thin black outline, then wax polished over a clear varnish
papers actually enhance them. In the Camden studio a patchwork of papers stuck or pinned to the wall fits in amicably with a host of objects - Eric Ravilious water colours, Javanese dolls, string pictures, books, bric-abrac, musical instruments - all of which would have been crushed by a regular patterned background.
Peggy Angus will make up wallpapers from a fount of blocks in stock, or cut a block specially for you. The minimum price for a standard 11yd X 21in roll is £5, and might seem expensive until you realise that it's taken most of a morning to make.
She confesses that painting 22yd of blue background can become a bit boring, and remarks cheerfully that she could do with a scientific consultant to iron out some of her production problems. But she has difficulty with machines and prefers to do everything - even sewing - by hand. To keep her spirits up and maintain concentration she and her assistant work to music (anything from Mozart to Paraguayan nose flutes) and down mugs of coffee.
Once the rhythm is going they reckon to manage a working speed of around 5yd an hour.
All this is a far cry from her earlier career as a leading design consultant to the tile industry - but the wallpapers are a direct development from the tiles, and to some extent a reaction against them. After the Royal College of Art (Henry Moore and Edward Bawden were fellow students) she began teaching and got as involved as her pupils in lino and potato cuts - a marvellous medium for children. but even then dismissed by the art teaching establishment as hopelessly out of date. This led to class experiments in wall patterns, and. in 1951, a visit to the fledgling ColD to ask whether it could recommend a tile manufacturer who might be interested in carrying out her designs. "They in their innocence, suggested Doulton, a firm then in financial straits," she recalls. "But from there I went to Carter's who were at that time turning out decorative handpainted tiles at 7s 6d each - a lot of money in those days. I was sure that my designs could be printed at far less cost. So I went on a crash course in lithographic transferring at Stoke-on-Trent, and rushed back to Carter's convinced that my linocut patterns could be transferred, mechanically. Carter's chemists got to work on my designs and decided to use silk screen, for the first time on tiles."
This was the beginning of a flood of architectural commissions, culminating in a giant mosaic for the British exhibit at the Brussels Expo. Angus tiles had a habit of being more memorable than the buildings they adorned - in a period of architectural mediocrity culminating in the Suez of the Shell Building this wasn't difficult- but Peggy Angus chafed under the constraints of working for industry. "They would insist on using white backgrounds," she complains now, and "manufacturers wince if one tile isn't exactly like the next." In 1964 Carter's were absorbed by Pilkington's, and. although nominally she remains their tile consultant- and draws a fixed œ200 royalty from them - she is never "consulted" and probably doesn't want to be. But she still gets annoyed when she sees tiles badly used. "I try to avoid travelling on the Victoria Line," she grumbles.
Now it's the wallpapers - she has retained all the original tile patterns and prints up many of them for customers - and, increasingly, Barra. Handpainted stones, particularly the larger and more complicated designs, can cost as much as a roll of Angus wallpaper. But it's local produce, using local, long neglected art forms. The main thing, says Peggy Angus, is to get back to your roots. She seems to have found hers.