Material Textile: Nicola Wood speaks to Ashley Gray


Armada, 1965

 

The conversation below between Nicola Wood and Ashley Gray took place on 31 March 2020

Ashley Gray:
Thank you so much for talking to us and I am delighted that your textiles are included in this important exhibition, Material Textile: Modern British Female Designers with Vibration from 1964, April Showers from 1965 and from the same year Armada in fiery reds and oranges.

Can I take you back to early days as your journey as a designer and artist has been quite unique. It was your very earliest drawings that were spotted by one of your teachers that set you on your life’s journey?

Nicola Wood:
Yes, absolutely, Mr Aspdidge at Forefield Lane school in Crosby. I didn’t know that he thought I was a good artist. I lived near to the school. I could see the school yard from my bedroom window. In the summer holidays I would take a tennis racket and play against the wall in the school yard. He encouraged my mother to send me to Southport School of Art. I was 15.

AG:
How did you find Southport?

NW:
I worked at the cinema in Southport when I was at the Art School there in the early 50s. I used to sell the ice creams in the interval. The films were mostly American, and they shone with resplendent landscapes of sun, beaches, swimming pools, palm trees, and chrome-laden automobiles; nothing was rationed; all was colour ‘opulence’. I loved them. At Southport, the training was strictly ‘classical’, life drawing and anatomy, attention to ‘the line’ was embedded in my classes: lines of the human body, the cut of clothing, the contours of landscape, and the lines of architecture.

AG:
Were you able to specialise on the course?

NW:
Yes, I was told to do Fashion and Textiles. I wanted to be in the Painting School but was told – “no, no, no, Fashion and Textiles, you’re a girl, you should do Fashion and Textiles.” I was young, I did not object of course. I couldn’t, I had always been told what to do and I did it. I did not like cutting patterns. I saw the Textile department were splashing paint around so I transferred to Textiles so I too could splash paint around.

April Showers, 1965

AG:
That was a good move. When I think of your later textiles for Heals – Vibration and April Showers – it is their wonderful painterly quality that gives them their vitality. So painting was freedom for you?

NW:
Absolutely, yes, yes. I can remember one thing that I did there, looking through a microscope at a cut-up bumble bee – all the colours and abstractions in that inspired me. You can imagine a bumble bee just the wings – extraordinary abstract shapes. I would just look in the microscope and do a painting.

AG:
It was around this time that you first visited the Royal College of Art in London?

NW:
Yes, I had heard about the Royal College, that it was the tops, the place to aim for. I had heard about London and I was curious. When I passed my intermediate exam at Southport, I don’t know how I did this! I went to London for the first time on the charabanc. A 9-hour journey, to see if I could get into the Royal College of Art. Not knowing you had to apply formally. I found myself on Tottenham Court road not knowing where I was going to live and I just asked people and finally a policeman’s wife took me in. I must have been about 17.

AG:
Did you get to the Royal College?

NW:
Yes, indeed. Textile Professor Robert Nicholson took me into his office one day and the only sentence I remember him saying to me was: “It’s pointless teaching women art, all they do is get married and have children”. I get goose bumps thinking of that moment.

AG:
Yet in this exhibition we see living proof that it was women designers who changed the cultural face of Britain. Bringing your designs into people’s homes that radically changed the way that people felt about their, and lived, their lives.

NW:
Right! But I still got First-Class Honours from the Royal College. During the period I was at the Royal College I designed a lot, I was very inspired by the Thames & Hudson book published in the late 1950s or early ‘60s, Art since 1945, which covered Abstract Expressionist paintings from America and I got involved with Abstract Expressionism and really went to town on it. It was wonderful. I made a lot of designs and sold a lot that had this abstract feeling. It was the key inspiration of this period of my life. I was discovering texture and abstract shapes as opposed to conventional flowers that had always been very popular. We did I now realise change the course of design history. Tom Worthington of Heal’s who bought these and produced them to begin with was the instigator of all of this.

AG:
Your work at the RCA was recognised by the visionary Sir Robin Darwin, one of the most revered figures in the RCA’s history?

NW:
Yes, prior to graduation, Sir Robin introduced me in the Senior Common Room, announcing that I was to be a Fulbright Scholar to the Parsons School of Design in New York. I was only 21 and had never been to New York.

AG:
How did it contrast to your experience in London?

NW:
Oh, it was contrasting. I showed up to class wearing trousers and was told to go home and change into a skirt. The world was behind London when it came to the 1960s and the mini skirt. Everything was changing, fashion changed, textile design changed, painting changed, everything was in change. It was exciting. When I got to Parsons School, they put up a big exhibition of my abstract textile designs in the lobby of the Art School, which was very nice. I had a wonderful teacher called Emil Antonucci a graphic designer, a magnificent creative man and he believed in me. He taught me how to do book jacket design and how to set type.

AG:
You won commissions in New York?

NW:
Yes, I had more work than I could handle, and I was supposed to be only studying. Endless book jackets like the 1st edition of Tennessee Williams Night of the Iguana. Full page advertisement artwork for CBS TV. It never occurred to me that I might be a graphic designer.

AG:
So, when the scholarship was completed, how did you feel about having to return home to London from New York after having achieved so much?

NW:
I did not want to go back; I was not finished. I was living in Greenwich Village on Bleeker Street, which was the hub of whatever was happening with the youth in New York. All the artists hung out down there. I had the most wonderful time and I did not want to go back to England. But I had to go. I was dating a man who I had fallen in love with. He came back with me on the Queen Mary. We were married at the Registrar’s Office in Chelsea on the Kings Road. He got work as a copy writer at an advertising agency. I still have the trunk that we used for the crossing with the Cunard Line stickers all over it.

AG:
What of your fellow Royal College classmates?

NW:
Dereck Boshier, Pauline Boty destined to be icons of the Pop Art movement, Patrick Caulfield, David Hockney and Jane Percival, Zandra Rhodes were classmates and friends. We all saw ourselves as ‘one and the same: artists’. We all lived in Notting Hill Gate – Zandra, Hockney, Ossie Clarke who lived a couple of doors down from me. Michael Hastings the playwright lived upstairs.

AG:
Where you conscious of it being such a unique time?

NW:
No, no. It was just life. If I had been conscious of it, I would have respected it more. I would never have guessed that the people I was at college with would become so famous. We were just all so involved in our own work.

AG:
So, the commissions started to come in from Heal’s, Liberty’s, John Lewis and Barbara Hulanicki’s Biba.

Vibration, 1964

NW:
Oh yes, but Heal’s had already discovered me while I was at the Royal College. They bought work from my diploma show. I remember later walking back to my studio on Blenheim crescent and seeing to my surprise and delight my designs on the curtains in a window of a big house. Vibration, the one in the exhibition, was an early one from 1964, Tom Worthington, the Heals buyer and later Managing Director, even sent staff to New York to try and get me to give them more designs.

AG:
Who else commissioned your designs?

NW:
I had a runaway hit with Rasch in Germany. I did not realise how successful it was until I got a cheque in the mail. I didn’t know if it was for £1 or £100. I took it to Barclays and asked them to deposit it and the lady said, “Oh it’s for £1,000!” My designs had sold so well for them that they put me on a royalty agreement. I was exclusive with them so I couldn’t design for any one in England any more. They advertised me and the work all over Germany.

I am still in touch with the family, we talk as if I was family. After all they commissioned me for over 25 years. I only stopped when I started painting my oil paintings in L.A. I still visited Germany twice a year.

AG:
So, in 1978 you flew across the Atlantic and settled in Southern California?

NW:
I was invited to LA for a while and I liked it so much that I kept putting off going back and I stayed. I continued sending designs to Germany, I had wanted to become a poster designer. Then in 1984 in the middle of painting, I glanced out a window of my apartment in Hollywood, and caught a glint of sunlight reflected off the chrome of a car parked on the street below. The car was a 1959 Cadillac. I grabbed my camera and raced downstairs to photograph the car feeling as if its gleaming chrome and swoopy contours were magnetic forces pulling me. I knew I had to paint the car and that I would no longer be a textile designer. That was my artistic epiphany. From that moment everything changed.

AG:
25 years as the only woman member of the Automotive Fine Arts Society in the United States?

NW:
Yes, the renowned Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles exhibited a selection of my paintings in which the actual automobile featured in each painting was staged with my painting of the car. That exhibition was sponsored by Cadillac. I was commissioned by other automobile manufacturers to create paintings of their cars; Aston Martin being one of those firms. So, all those American Movies, featuring American cars and American landscapes, the films I used to watch in Southport, they never went away.

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