The Girton Curtains
In 1932 Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher, by then well established as innovative hand block textile printers, secured one of their most prestigious commissions, the interior furnishings for a new wing at Girton College, Cambridge. (a)
The three pairs of curtains (which I recently purchased from the Fellows ”Fell “Dining Room at Girton), are I believe, the only known surviving curtains from any of Barron and Larcher’s interior commissions. (b)
The design selected was “Winchester” reminiscent of a sixteenth century flamestitch pattern, which Barron and Larcher hand block printed as a discharge print. (c) The natural linen was washed and submerged into an indigo vat which had ammonium carbonate added, an alkaline which induced the indigo reduction. When removed the cloth appeared dark green but on exposure to the air, quickly turned a rich dark blue. The wood blocks were hand carved and a bleaching agent applied in paste form to the face of the block. The block was manually pressed firmly down on the linen spread on large tables, the bleaching agent removing the dye in the areas printed. William Morris had previously revived the art of indigo discharge dyeing and printing for his chintzes in the 1870’s.
Of the three pairs of curtains one pair is very large at 25 ft wide with a drop of 10 foot 8 inches or 7.65 x 3.25 metres, the two smaller pairs are 18 foot 8 inches wide with a 5 foot 4 inches drop or 5.5 x 1.63 m. All have a herringbone weave tape, normally used for binding carpets,dyed red and applied to the outer edges. The pelmets were designed with the fabric turned 180 degrees, so the pattern appears upside down. The simple red tape applied to the shaped lower edge, is different from the curtain tape.
Girton’s new wing, Woodlands Court, was designed in 1931 by Michael Waterhouse in consultation with Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. Michael was the grandson of the architect Alfred Waterhouse, who had designed the original Old Wing in 1873 in Gothic Revival red brick and terracotta style. This was the first college exclusively for women at Cambridge, set well out of town to avoid distractions! Michael was the third generation of his family to work for the college. His father Paul had been responsible for the design of the extension of 1887, the Tower Wing and Gatehouse. (d)
Woodlands Court comprised a Fellows Dining Room, a ‘Combination’ or Sitting Room and a room for the Mistress. Michael Waterhouse also designed a new library and accommodation for staff and students.
The architect Detmar Blow had given Baron and Larcher a glowing reference for this commission. They had already designed furnishings for Blow’s own house and for his patron, the Duke of Westminster’s yacht and houses. The Fellows of Girton College, in my opinion would never regret the choice of Misses Barron and Larcher to undertake the entire decoration and furnishing of the rooms, with the choice of electric fittings, tables, chairs, carpets etc. Misses Barron and Larcher understand to perfection how to obtain the biggest and simplest results. All the work they have done for me has been entirely satisfactory.1
The Gothic Revival architecture of Waterhouse with its wide stone mullioned windows, and the Arts & Crafts approach of Barron & Larcher, complimented each other well. Barron & Larcher’s revival of hand block printing and their use of natural dyes harmonized with the designer/craftsmen furniture of the Cotswold school, whose principles were based on the Arts and Crafts Movement, and craft revival accessories.
Producing highly original, innovative and unique designs, Phyllis Barron (1890-1964) and Dorothy Larcher (1884-1952) had turned an amateur passion into a professional successful enterprise, at a time when it was unusual for women to run any business.
They were part of a small group of artist/designer/craftsmen of the early twentieth century who produced high quality products using traditional methods and avant garde designs. The potter Bernard Leach. Ethel Mairet the weaver and Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops, were all part of this English craft revival.
On 11 October 1932 a hand written letter to Miss Butler written on Barron and Larcher’s manilla paper in red ink enclosed two schemes for furnishing the Fellows Dining Room and Combination Room and a few sketches and photographs of particular things which we suggest using.2
Michael Waterhouse had designed the light and sunny rooms with large mullioned bay windows, stone fireplaces, unvarnished oak paneling and pinkish beige unpainted plaster walls. (e)
For the Dining Room khelim rugs in shades that harmonised with the walls were proposed. The very striking curtains of indigo blue linen patterned in white with touches of red in the binding of their pelmets, that would give a sense of comfort at night when drawn round the large bay windows.3 “Winchester” adapted from Barron and Larcher’s Winchester Cathedral commission for choir curtains some years earlier. (f)
Barron & Larcher suggested that the Combination Room, or Sitting Room should have curtains of “Carnac” in a prune shade but the committee asked for “Small Feather” to be used instead. They suggested the upholstery should be in shades of pink and beige and to be enlivened by cushions with hand block designs patterned in stronger colours. (g)
For the Mistress’s study they proposed, curtains in a very striking design; horizontally striped in brown and with a little deep blue on a ground of heavy ecru shade.4 Loose covers for the chairs and cushions were in hand prints of quieter colours. I can find no record of the design used, but in the Pattern Books held at Farnham there is a fabric called “Girton” in a blue and white zig-zag which was clearly not curtaining for the Mistress’s study but perhaps used in one of the rooms for cushions or soft furnishings. (h) Barron and Larcher’s proposals had to be considered by three committees. The Furnishing Sub-Committee comprising of Miss Butler, and Fellows, Mrs Holland and the Misses Jones, Robertson, McMorran and Smith who made recommendations to the Curator’s Committee, who advised the College Council.
Estimates and specifications were proposed on 10 October 1932 for the committee’s consideration. Barron & Larcher had prepared two schemes, one exceeded £500, the other less. They proposed that the furniture was made by Cotswold craftsmen Fred Gardiner and Eric Sharpe, who worked in the Gimson and Barnsley’s tradition of good hand workmanship and personal design. The first scheme proposed by the pair, which was eventually to be realized, estimated that their curtains for each room would cost £119.9s. Barron specified Window curtains of our hand printed linen (the largest single item in the price) would, we think, justify their cost, as the large windows in both rooms are a very important decorative feature. The Dining Room was to have three dining tables and a serving table at £15 10s each, together with 20 dining chairs of English oak with drop-in seats at £3 each. (i) For the Combination Room, 4 small round coffee tables at £5 each, and an oval folding table at £9 15s. Electric light fittings have been a great difficulty ….and… in rooms where neither a “Period” chandelier nor an ultra modern affair is needed.. we suggested having temporary vellum paper dish shades specially designed and made by a craftsman and decorated with pierced patterns…. We have provided for well fitting loose covers to be made for the armchairs and sofas (Combination Room). There are two or three designs made in thick, hard-wearing linen with a woven design in beige and white which would look well…We have seen some really lovely Khelim rugs in London and could have some sent to see in the rooms when the furnishing is sufficiently advanced. (j) The prices given in these schemes are trade prices. In the case of all the tables and oak dining chairs, these are special prices made in consideration of the quantity required. It is understood that we do not receive trade discounts. Therefore we propose to charge you 10% on £500. If more money had been available we should have been able to ask less. It is a more difficult and lengthy proceeding to find the right thing at a small cost .5
With three committees and so many people involved it is not suprising that there were disagreements amongst the clients. The Committee did not like the lighting proposed. They felt that the cost of the curtains was out of proportion to the rest of the furnishings and they would prefer antique furniture and curtains of a richer appearance.
On 21 October 1932 there is a letter from Barron We are very sorry to hear of the division of opinion in your committee upon the schemes we submitted for decorating the Fell Dining Room and Combination Room. We thought we had given sufficient indication of the style we should suggest to make so complete a misunderstanding impossible. On hearing that the majority of the committee are in favour of a scheme so completely different in character from that which we have suggested, or could honestly advise, we should prefer to withdraw. The only radical change which we should be prepared to suggest would be genuine antique furniture and real velvet curtains. This would cost vastly more than the sum suggested. If the genuine thing is out of the question we should be the last to offer imitations. We know that everything we suggested would have been of the best materials and workmanship obtainable, and in our opinion of a real and lasting aesthetic value.6
A letter from the tactful Miss Butler states that after all, their scheme was accepted but she regrets that there was a general feeling among the Fellows, that they would in any case prefer the window treatment in the Dining Room to be different from that in the Combination Room.7 The committee suggested the curtains should be of a warmer, darker tone and not necessarily be hand-printed linen. Instead of being made to go round the bow, they should pull straight across and falling to the floor. Samples were requested.
By the 31 October Miss M G Jones and Miss H M Robertson resigned from the committee because we do so because our criticisms of Misses Barron and Larcher’s scheme received no support at the Fellows’ meeting on 18th October. As we are agreed in thinking that the scheme lacks the dignity of treatment we should like to see, and that the estimate submitted is extravagant as a whole and uneven in detail.8
With the two dissenters out of the way, Barron & Larcher’s scheme proceeded, although still not without some difficulties. In the minutes of 4 November 1932 at a joint meeting of the building committee and curators’ committee, other schemes were discussed but no estimates sought. By the 13 November Miss Butler, worried about losing Barron and Larcher’s expertise, told them that the Council had now found £600 for the furnishings. (k) The work continued but when the tables were provided these were not satisfactory in their present condition and they understood that you will undertake to have them made level and the surface sorted…next autumn when there has been full time for shrinkage. The walnut table supplied for the parlour is not liked and it is hoped that you will be able to arrange for this to be changed. The colour was a great disappointment and several members of the committee expressed dissatisfaction with the design.9
Barron’s reply Mr Gardiner made the dining table in the Fellows Room. Best seasoned wood used but wood not what it was before the war. The oval table also possible to change the top.…………….we now feel that it would be a mistake to hang the curtains of the Small Feather design round the bow in the Combination room, as they would be subjected to continuous sunlight. (k) We have the best dyes obtainable for printing but we know that the ground is liable to brown a little when in full sun and that some of the colours may fade slightly. We should therefore suggest that the printed Small Feather design should be hung straight across the window from ceiling to floor. (l) This would mean that the curtains would be drawn off the windows in the daytime and would get very little sun on them. If this is not liked we suggest that another design should be chosen of machine woven line, which the manufacturers would guarantee.10 They would have seen a design which we think would be suitable if enlarged and made in special colours. It is a shaded stripe. The maker would not set up a loom unless the design were ordered but it would be possible for you to see a coloured drawing and similar design in a different size and colour. It is possible for a woven design to have faster colours than a printed one. We have started the feather design, but if you decide against it we shall be able to use it for another purpose. We should not like you to have anything which you might afterward regret. 10 The feather design was accepted on 24 April.
The dissatisfaction continued with the height of the backs of the dining chairs and the lighting. Some members of the committee did not like either the colour or design of an African walnut table which had been supplied. (m) Barron and Larcher quite exasperated by now again threatened to resign. The difference of opinion at Girton about everything we have provided or suggested for the Fellows rooms are too great for us to continue the work there….Our position is an impossible one and we should prefer not to add to the number of things which are not appreciated or understood. We welcome intelligent criticism, but we feel that a great many of the people concerned do not understand the things they have ordered, and they are evidently not willing to put their trust in those who do, or in us. 11
Miss Butler managed to pacify them and Barron wrote to Miss Butler in a confidential letter If we do go on, it will be for your sake – we (shall) never forget the very difficult time you must have had over this business.12There continued weekly correspondence between the two with Barron detailing every aspect of the design.
The commission was one of the broadest they had undertaken as it included designing an entire decorative scheme. By now the Furnishing Sub-Committee had recommended that Barron and Larcher should make the final choice of sofa covers and lamps. Walnut standard lamps were made by Eric Sharpe and the lampshades chosen at Lady Colefax’s shop (later Colefax and Fowler) in Mayfair. Other items were bought from Muriel Rose’s Little Gallery at 3 Ellis St, Sloane Street, London SW1. The gallery sold the work of leading British craftsmen and women of the 20th century as well as antique pieces.. Sun blinds for the Combination Room were purchased in a string colour so as not to darken the room.
By August 1933 the first of the curtaining and upholstery was in place. Barron received complimentary comments from Miss Butler and replied we are so very glad the curtains are liked after all your agitation.13 The following week Miss Butler expressed satisfaction with the loose covers.
|Hand printed linen to cover chair seats||£8|
|Bay window handprinted linen curtains, lined, made and bound. One pair to hang on outside of window; 2 pairs to window seat with pelmet. Curtain under window seat and reversible squab cushion cover.|
|Small window one pair each of long curtains with French headings, made, lined and band|
|156 yds @ 12/6d; 156 yds lining at 2/-||£119.9s.0d|
|Squab cushions for window seat|
|14 ft x 2 ft 4 in filled rigging||£4.0s.6d|
|Window curtains as in the Dining Room||£119.9s.0d|
|Squash cushion for window seat||£4.0s.6d|
|6 cushions with covers 25s each|
|Linen damask to cover sofa and chairs|
A year after starting the commission, in a letter to the Mistress, Barron encloses an account of money spent on furnishing the Fellows rooms to date and have kept to the estimate for the two sets of curtains as we said we would, actually they should have been more, as, in the first estimate, we only provided for short curtains at the small windows.14
Barron continues with mention of Miss Edsall, the loose cover maker’s visits. The first two visits, including wages for her stay of a fortnight at Girton, to cut the sofa and chair covers, are included in their price We have charged for her last two visits, to put on the covers and hang the curtains, and hope you will consider this reasonable.14
There was £40 left over from the £600 allocated for the work. Barron felt that the Combination Room needed a large glass vase and a table to stand it on. The various committee’s requested two coal scuttles and eight cushions. Three of the fellows agreed to give a flower vase each, Barron buying them from the Little Gallery. Fred Gardiner the furniture maker was busy with a large commission, so Eric Sharpe made the oval table in English walnut, similar in style to Gardiner’s African walnut table which the Committees had decided to keep because people had got to like it.15 Sharpe was subsequently asked to make another oak table for ten people for the Dining Room, which he delivered the following March.
By the time of the Girton commisssion Barron and Larcher were living in Painswick, Gloucestershire, an area where there was a community of artists and craftspeople. Until1929 they had lived in Hampstead, but needed larger premises and wanting to move to the country bought Hambutts, a Georgian house. The outbuildings were converted to workshops and a large indigo dye vat was installed, Barron commenting that indigo had been the greatest thrill of her printing life. Barron and Larcher always talked about their printed stuffs. (n)(o)(p)
By the time they moved to Gloucestershire their business was flourishing and although they both continued to design, there now had to be more of a division of work. Barron supervised the dyeing processes and managed business matters, whilst Larcher trained the locally recruited women in printing and sewing.16
From the outbreak of war materials were difficult to obtain and demand ebbed way, causing the business to close in 1940. Larcher concentrated on painting flower studies until her death in 1952. Barron helped Susan Bosence, a young block printer, to launch her career. After Larcher’s death Robin Tanner invited Barron to teach on the art teachers course which he had established at Dartington Hall, the progressive school established by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst. Phyllis Barron died in 1964.
Barron willed her collection to Tanner Robin will know what to do with them17. Robin had been a teacher and then became Inspector of Schools. On his retirement Robin and his wife Heather, both etchers and printmakers, spent many years, cataloguing, researching and cleaning the Barron and Larcher collection and writing their story in two large hand-bound volumes, which contain actual samples of printed and dyed cloths. (q)(r) Tanner thought Barron and Larcher surely the greatest designers and printers of textiles since Morris.18 Tanner gave the large collection of textiles and books to the Craft Study Centre which he established in Bath at The Holbourne of Menstrie Museum. The Centre has since moved to the University of the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey. It has the largest collection of Barron and Larcher’s work.
Robin Tanner ‘s introduction to Barron and Larcher’s memorial exhibition in 1966 at the Royal West of England Academy, beautifully their exceptional partnership:
The thirties were their heydey. Production was lavish. Their garden was packed with treasured plants which often inspired fresh designs. Visitors to the workshops were legion. There were frequent exhibitions. It was indeed a rare blend of the feeling and craftsmanship of two people that produced that great wealth of printed cottons, linens, velvets and silks; and although the peculiar contribution of each is clear yet it is not always easy to distinguish the designs of the one from those of the other. Their work was a revelation at that time and has been a source of wonder ever since; for at its best it has a timeless quality, a peculiar Englishness and rightness exactly fitted for the upholstery, curtains and clothes for which it was designed. Moreover, the stuffs upon which the blocks were printed and the dyes used were so completely and sensitively understood that there was an inevitability about the work: it was like that because it could not have been done in any other way – there was always a perfect harmony between the fibre, the dye and the block. 19
The Combination Room curtains were removed around 1999, their whereabouts unknown and so presumably destroyed. It is not known when the curtains in the Mistress’ room were removed.
In 2009 the Dining Room curtains had begun to show some strains of age, mostly wear and sun damage. I advised Girton to adopt a conservation based scheme but regretably, Miss Butler’s successors decided to move away from the integrity of the 1930s scheme. The reason given was that they were required by law to ensure flame-proofing in these rooms, and that’s not possible following the conservation route. The curtains were replaced with an Enid Marx reproduction linen and the originals sold to me.
The Dining Room curtains remain in a remarkably good state with some damage to the outer edges and some sun damage in the form of vertical stripes They illustrate well the innovative methods of Barron and Larcher and are believed to be the only surviving curtains from their extensive practice, unique survivals of this extraordinary partnership, quintessentially English but also very modern.1 Girton Letters. 19 October 1932 Detmar Blow to Miss K T Butler, Director of Studies in Modern Languages
2 Girton letters 11 October 1932 Barron to Miss K T Butler
5 11 October 1932 from Barron to Miss K T Butler 6 21 October 1932 letter from Barron to Miss K T Butler
7 27 October 1932 letter from MIss K T Butler to Barron
8 31 October 1932 letter from Misses Jones and Robertson to Miss K T Butler
9 November 1932 minutes of meetings
10 25 March 1933 letter to the secretary Miss Clover from Barron
11 27 March letter from Barron to Miss K T Butler
12 2 April 1933 letter from Barron to Miss K T Butler
13 8 August 1933 letter from Barron to Miss K T Butler
14 19 October 1933 Barron to Miss K T Butler
15 23 November 1933 from Miss K T Butler to Barron
16 Orpin Gaylard, Marjorie 1978 The Journal of the Decorative Arts No 3
17 Tanner, Robin
Omega and after. Bloomsbury and the Decorative Arts
1981 Thames & Hudson ISBN 0-500-27362-6
A Woman’s Touch. Women in Design from 1860 to the Present Day
Hand Block Printing & Resist Dyeing
1985 David & Charles ISBN 07153 8524 0
20th century Pattern Design . Textile & Wallpaper Pioneers
2001 Mitchell Beazley ISBN 1 84000 371 5
The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textile Collection. British Textiles from 1900 to 1937 (3)
1992 V & A publications ISBN 185177 114X
Orpin Gaylard, Marjorie
Phylis Barron (1890-1964), Dorothy Larcher (1884-1952). Textile Designers and Printers
1978 The Journal of The Decorative Arts Society 1890-1940, number 3,
Modern Block Printed Textiles
1992 The Decorative Arts Library. Walker Books. ISBN 0-7445-1891-1
The Biggest and Simplest Results
article in Crafts, no 144. Jan/Feb 1997
Bold Impressions. Block Printing 1910-1950
1995 Central St Martins
The Studio Yearbook of Decorative Art 1928, p 185
Double HarnessAn autobiography
1987. Impact Books. ISBN 0 245 60136 8
If you have enjoyed reading about Dorothy Barron and Phyllis Larcher and would like to know more about their lives and projects do look at The Craft Study Centre, Farnham, Surrey have the largest collection of Barron & Larcher’s hand block printed textiles, blocks and pattern books. Donated by Robin Tanner, executor of Barron’s will. For extensive information on Barron and Larcher see: www.csc.urcreative.ac.uk
The Victoria and Albert Museum have Barron and Larcher fabrics on view in their 20th Century gallery.
The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester have Barron and Larcher fabrics in their collection.
Walking the Block for a unique poetic biography of Barron and Larcher. www.janeweir.co.uk
My thanks to Frances Gandy, Librarian, Curator and Graduate Tutor for Sciences for making the Barron and Larcher archive available to me.
© 2010 Meg Andrews.