LONDON — For decades, passengers on London’s underground tube trains sat on moquette seats designed by her, unaware of the person behind the pattern.
British textile designer, printmaker and illustrator, Enid Marx was first invited to submit design ideas for seating in new train carriages in 1937. Her patterns utilizing the moquette — a rugged, thick pile fabric used to carpets and upholstery — would be produced and used until 1960s.
“The project was great fun because there was a very strict brief,” Marx once said. “The seating needed to look fresh at all times, even after bricklayers had sat on it, so there was a camouflage problem. The design, therefore, had to be bold but, because it was for a moving vehicle, should not be dazzling to passengers.”
It was Marx’s first foray into designing woven patterns, and she learned that brighter colored seats would not only wear better, but would also not show signs of dirt.
“She was a brilliant pattern maker with an eye for crisp design… and a tremendous knowledge of many different printing techniques,” says Dr. Alan Powers.
Powers is an art and architectural historian, author of a new book about Marx’s life and work, and co-curator of the exhibition “Enid Marx: Print, Pattern and Popular Art,” currently showing at London’s House of Illustration.
Approximately 150 examples of Marx’s work, including her use of the ancient skill of wood block printing, form part of the comprehensive retrospective. It is the first such look at her art in 40 years, and coincides with the 20th anniversary of Marx’s death in 1998 at the age of 95.
Packed into three rooms, the vibrant exhibition demonstrates Marx’s versatility and vast contribution and influence on mid-century British design.
The exhibition also explores the personal side of Marx — a woman known to speak her mind. In addition to her unusual living situation — she had a 50-year intimate relationship with historian Margaret Lambert — her work was considered so “modern” she was only granted her degree from art school 60 years later.
A woman called ‘Marco’
Born in London to German Jewish parents, Enid Marx, known as “Marco,” grew up in a secular north London home, the youngest of three children. Her surname helped spawn the myth that she is a descendant of Karl Marx, says Powers.
“There is no obvious link [between the family and Karl Marx.] It seems to be a family rumor that developed,” Powers says.
Her name did not affect her politics, he adds with a wry smile, adding that she was “a touch right wing and delighted in shocking people that she was keen on Margaret Thatcher.”
In the 1920s, Marx studied painting at the Royal College of Art, alongside designers and artists such as Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. She was known to speak her mind, says Powers, and her inability to conform — her work was deemed to be too modern — caused her to finish without a diploma. However, nearly 60 years later, the college awarded her an honorary degree.
Marx’s interest in modernism is reflected in her striking abstract geometric designs produced on textiles, wrapping paper and book jackets. Although she gained an international reputation for these repeating patterns, she said rather modestly that her career “had always just happened.”
But the exhibition’s co-curator Olivia Ahmad describes Marx as a “pioneering designer whose broad interests in abstract modernism and popular art inspired remarkable achievements in textile design, book illustration and printmaking.”
Ahmad says that Marx’s trailblazing work makes her just as worthy of recognition as her male contemporaries.
Powers acknowledges that being a female designer, especially during her early years, would have been “every bit more difficult” for Marx. But, he says, women designers were expected to go into textiles or book illustration, and so the fact that she did was not surprising. Nor was working as a freelancer, which was perceived as entirely normal.
But there were challenges for Marx because of her gender. Powers came across some letters that Marx had written circa 1937 to the painter, designer and book illustrator Barnett Freedman. The letters say that she was applying for a job at the Royal College of Art but expected not to be considered because she was a woman.
Powers is unaware whether or not she got the job, but explains that although she did do quite a bit of teaching, she never seemed to get the jobs that were “level with her reputation.”
Powers knew Marx in the last 10 years of her life, after he had approached her with a request to use one of her patterns.
“She was great,” he says. “Very brisk, didn’t want to waste time, funny and very concerned about what was going on in the world and other people.”
It was not until Powers dug into her archives that he realized quite how far that went.
“It wasn’t everybody in her life, but there were certain people that she felt nobody else would look out for and she needed to write them a letter every week,” he says.
In 1931, Marx met historian Margaret Lambert, also known as “Lamb,” who Marx described as “wearing a red suit and matching toque hat, looking so well-bred and absolutely vague.”
They spent the next 50 years living and working together, sharing an interest in folk and popular art and collecting and gathering a selection of works — some of which are on display in the exhibition.
They were certainly more than just collaborators, says Powers, but “family and friends are quite touchy about it. Marco was, herself. [And they] say, on Marco’s behalf, that it wasn’t a physical relationship. If anyone hinted that she was gay, they got an earful.”
Putting her stamp on British and Israeli postal services
In 1953, Marx was asked to design commemorative stamps for the Queen’s coronation. This gave her the opportunity to work in a different medium, which Marx described as being one of her greatest pleasures.
“Our stamps,” she said, “are, or should be regarded as, our Queen and country’s visiting card.”
The exhibition shows that in the 1950s she submitted designs for stamps to the Israeli Postal Company using biblical imagery: Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the whale, and Moses among the reeds.
But Powers is unsure how this commission came about, suggesting that it may have come via the British Post Office.
“There must have been some sort of trawl for designers. The fact that it was Israel is slightly coincidental,” he believes.
Marx’s posters for the London Zoo are also on display, as are her children’s book illustrations. Her paintings of animals have a naïve quality about them and exude character and charm.
Marx’s work has received less exposure since her death, but as this timely exhibition shows, her prints and patterns feel as fresh and contemporary as they did when she first produced them.
“Enid Marx: Print, Pattern and Popular Art” runs at the House of Illustration in London until September 23, 2018.