From London Underground to Tom Thumb
Ididn’t know much about Enid Marx before I visited the House of Illustration’s exhibition of her work, other than that she was the daughter of GermanJewish parents and was a key figure in the 20th century textiles and print-making scene. But I was in for a pleasant surprise. Born in 1902 — Marx’s life and career spanned the 20th century — she was a prolific artist, illustrator and visionary, whose work now seems incredibly contemporary.
Browsing the 150 or so examples of her work on display in this major retrospective of her work, produced at a time when the Tudor era technique of woodblocking had only recently been rediscovered, I was reminded of Miranda Priestley’s monologue in the film, The Devil Wears Prada, explaining the complex fashion origins of Anne Hathaway’s cerulean sweater. Many of Marx’s prints —abstract expressionist textiles, tessellations inspired by the natural world, hypnotic circles placed just so —seem like the forebears of the patterns we wear today on skirts, dresses or shirts, or see from designers like Orla Kiely.
Although Marx started her career producing her prints by hand (a laborious process, judging by her tools on display), she later switched to Enid Marx with (inset) two woodcut engravings for children’s books from 1939
mechanised methods in order to meet customer demand. Her north London studio was clearly a hive of activity; a charming flyer for an exhibition early in her career advertises “handblock
printed stuffs for furnishing and clothes in St. John’s Wood near Marlborough Road Met Station”.
Trained at the Royal College of Art alongside luminaries like Barbara Hepworth, Eric Ravilious and Henry Moore, and later the first female engraver to be named a Royal Designer for Industry, Marx is less well known than her contemporaries. And her start was not promising; she was apparently barred from a woodengraving class because her drawing skills were not impressive enough, only to be snuck in by Ravilious.
Over the years, as the exhibition shows, she contributed her skill and close attention to detail to everything from the jackets of Chatto and Windus or King Penguin books to Red Cross commemorative stamps and children’s picture books (a minuscule edition of Tom Thumb showing the eponymous hero pulled along in his carriage by mice is particularly lovely).
Some visitors may even have sat on her work; Marx designed a pattern for the seats for London Underground trains, turning to reds and greens on realising that this palette better absorbed the dirt of the commuter. And she was behind a tube poster or two, bringing her masterful ability to capture living things in her art to advertisements for London Zoo and Whipsnade.
In the 1950s she even submitted a series of designs for Israeli stamps drawing on biblical imagery; Jonah and the whale, Moses in the bulrushes and so forth. She was clearly a pioneer, and likewise a quirky personality —she devoted much time to collecting commemorative china, some of which is on display in the gallery. While her understated style might not instil awe in every visitor, there is much to admire in the work of a largely overlooked artist.
Enid Marx: Print, Pattern and Popular Art, is at the House of Illustration until September 23 2018