Celia 1

Celia Birtwell

July 1, 2021

With designs worn by every­one from Jag­ger to Tal­itha Get­ty and Kate Moss, her print­ed gos­samer chif­fons, crepes and cot­tons — once tai­lored and cut into roman­tic dress­es and shirts— defined the ethe­re­al look of the late 1960s and 1970s. When her focus turned to inte­ri­ors in the 1980s, cre­at­ing prints for walls, win­dows and uphol­stery, her dis­tinct motifs were swathed across mid­dle class homes and lux­u­ry hotels alike. Her more recent return to fash­ion, with sell-out col­lec­tions for high-street retail­er Top­shop and col­lab­o­ra­tions with Cacharel and Valenti­no, kept her pat­terns on per­ma­nent repeat. And while her role at the epi­cen­ter of Lon­don’s cre­ative beau monde has been down­played, Birtwell is cel­e­brat­ed the world over for her part in David Hock­ney’s 1971 paint­ing Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy”.

Being back­stage at one of Clark’s shows was like being at the best par­ty in Lon­don with all the most beau­ti­ful peo­ple.” Though per­haps this was a har­bin­ger of events to come”
- Celia Birtwell

On the 50th anniver­sary of that por­trait, one of Tate Britain’s most vis­it­ed works, Birtwell rem­i­nisces on her decades-long friend­ship with Hock­ney, I think he was a lit­tle intrigued by me and found me amus­ing (God knows why!). He has been a mar­velous friend to me since then.” Accord­ing to Hock­ney, Birtwell’s face is a rar­i­ty’, reveal­ing her intu­itive knowl­edge and her kind­ness, which I think is the great­est virtue. To me, she’s such a spe­cial per­son.” As a tes­ta­ment to their rela­tion­ship, Hock­ney has por­trayed Birtwell dozens of times across a vari­ety of media. Giv­en this, and the con­tin­u­ing appeal of Birtwell’s own work, it seems par­tic­u­lar­ly strange she remains bet­ter known as Tate’s Mrs Clark’— ex-wife and muse to the late fash­ion design­er Ossie. Yet it is to Ossie Clark that Birtwell cred­its her beginnings.

The eldest daugh­ter of a cul­ture-lov­ing engi­neer and a seam­stress, Celia Birtwell was born near Man­ches­ter in the north of Eng­land in 1941. She recalls obses­sive­ly draw­ing fig­ures from a very young age and, at 13, was accept­ed into a tech­ni­cal col­lege in Sal­ford. Find­ing her artis­tic voice through pot­tery, paint­ing and tex­tiles, it was dur­ing these for­ma­tive years she met the pre­co­cious­ly tal­ent­ed Ossie at a cof­fee bar in Man­ches­ter. Birtwell says of the occa­sion, When I met him, it all just clicked into place, and I haven’t looked back since.” Fol­low­ing their move to London’s then-Bohemi­an Not­ting Hill and her series of jobs as a wig mak­er, cos­tu­mi­er and design­er of Op Art inspired fab­rics for fur­ni­ture store Heals, it wasn’t until 1965, when Ossie was design­ing fash­ion col­lec­tions for the hip Lon­don bou­tique Quo­rum, that Birtwell joined him in their gen­er­a­tion-defin­ing collaboration.

— How have you man­aged with the effects of the pan­dem­ic in the last year?

Tak­ing her inspi­ra­tion from the Bal­lets Russ­es, botan­i­cal sketch­es and the entire con­tents of the Vic­to­ria and Albert Muse­um, Birtwell designed the prints which Clark would mag­ic into beau­ti­ful cloth­ing. As she says, Ossie was the most amaz­ing pat­tern cut­ter — he could look at a per­son, and then cut the fab­ric free­hand to make a per­fect gar­ment. I have nev­er seen any­thing like that before or since. He used his skill to get the best out of my designs.” Their joint cre­ations were greater than the indi­vid­ual parts; their glam­orous, easy to-wear dress­es antic­i­pat­ed the mood of the hip­pie years and attract­ed a jet-set fol­low­ing. One infa­mous 1970 fash­ion show had throngs of peo­ple bang­ing on the doors, implor­ing access to the high cal­iber deca­dence with­in. In Jack Hazan’s 1974 doc­u­men­tary A Big­ger Splash,” Hock­ney notes Being back­stage at one of Clark’s shows was like being at the best par­ty in Lon­don with all the most beau­ti­ful peo­ple.” Though per­haps this was a har­bin­ger of events to come. 

Tulip Reign

With more celebri­ty fol­low­ers than fash­ion buy­ers, mixed with his increas­ing­ly self-destruc­tive, play­boy lifestyle, Ossie’s bril­liant star was quick to burn out. By 1974, his mar­riage to Birtwell had burned away with it, leav­ing her and their two sons to seek retreat in Los Ange­les with her friend Hock­ney. With his sup­port, Birtwell even­tu­al­ly returned to design­ing and Lon­don — open­ing a small, epony­mous shop in 1984 in her old stomp­ing ground, Not­ting Hill. By then, the once down-at-heel area had begun its march towards gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and Birtwell’s home fur­nish­ing fab­rics were per­fect­ly posi­tioned to cater both to Not­ting Hill’s influx of afflu­ent home ren­o­va­tors and her own desire for a gen­tler, less fran­tic indus­try” than fashion. 

The shop has now mor­phed into an online ven­ture over­seen by her chil­dren, though Birtwell’s print col­lec­tions have con­tin­ued to extend across a vari­ety of brands from high street to high end. In a way, her career has gone full cir­cle, twice. From fur­nish­ing fab­rics for Heals, to clothes with Ossie, back to fur­nish­ing fab­rics (now through Blend­worth Inte­ri­ors) and again to fash­ion. While the next sweep of the cir­cle is still to be decid­ed, time is like­ly to con­tin­ue being kind to Birtwell and her great, cre­ative legacy.

Lib­by Sell­ers is a Lon­don-based writer and cura­tor of design. Her book, Women in Design,” was pub­lished by
Quar­to in 2018.

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