The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Alastair Morton and Edinburgh Weavers: Visionary Textiles and Modern Art

Lesley Jackson (V&A Publishing, 352pp, £45)

Reviewed by Penny Laughton

Covering a key episode in mid twentieth century design history, this splendid book is an engaging story of a talented man as well as a valuable work of reference.  In 1931, at the age of just 21, Alastair Morton started work at Edinburgh Weavers, a branch of his family’s firm Morton Sundour Fabrics, where he swiftly gained a technical knowledge of weaving and printing processes.  A talented painter and pattern designer, Morton also took on the role of creative impresario, commissioning many artists and textile designers both before and after the war, until his death in 1963.

The artists Ben Nicholson and Arthur Jackson worked for the company in the 1930s, as well as established designers such as Marion Dorn, often with Morton in effect  joint designer.  Its jacquard woven textiles are never simple reproductions of surface designs, and the book’s images of fabric details show the complexity and creativity of the translation process.   Indeed, the mix of yarns and structure of weaves are sometimes as striking as those seen in the Bauhaus exhibition at the Barbican earlier this year.

For C20 members, Morton’s association with Leslie Martin and Sadie Speight is of particular interest.  The pair designed Morton’s house ‘Brackenfell’, completed in 1938, and after the war Edinburgh Weavers produced the geometric red and white fabric that lined the auditorium of the Royal Festival Hall, designed by Martin and his team.  During the post-war period a number of the artists designing for Edinburgh Weavers were at the same time working on large-scale projects, perhaps contributing to the boldness and ambition of many of the textiles produced in these years.

Much of the research is based on the company’s substantial archives, with Illustrations of interiors contemporaneous with production. The book is a reminder that textiles are often the most vulnerable of interior elements;  there are tantalising references to settings for Edinburgh Weaver fabrics, for example William Scott’s ‘Whithorn’ design, produced for Yorke Rosenberg Mardall’s Altnagelvin hospital, Londonderry (1960).  Scott’s large painting for the building apparently survives (though not in its original setting), but it is not clear whether any furnishing fabrics remain. On future visits to C20 buildings I, for one, shall keep a look out for original textiles.

Lesley Jackson’s previous research in twentieth century design makes her the ideal choice to write on this subject. Not only does she deal with the firm’s output from a technical and visual point of view, she also covers the changing business climate and key decisions made under Morton’s stewardship.  Marketing activities (such as trade shows, the London showroom and print publicity) are a key part of her story, as are insights into the importance of larger commercial projects (including ocean liners and hotels), and the post-war push to make Edinburgh Weaver fabrics more readily available to the public.  This context gives a depth not always found in books on design subjects.  From the striking Kenneth Rowntree design on the front cover to the extensive notes and appendices, this book is a fitting testament to a remarkable man and the company that flourished under his leadership.

Published February 2013