Look up textile designer Cressida Bell’s Instagram feed, and you’ll see just how much she loves colour and pattern. Alongside images of her hand-printed furnishing fabrics, tablecloths and lampshades, are close-ups of her purple tartan tights, her antique Chinese pleated skirt–and even her nails, painted with crosshatch designs in red and white. Personal adornment is important to her. And no surface is too small, or insignificant, for decoration: ‘I do always tend towards the slightly more formal, geometric designs.’
Image: Cressida in her studio. All images © Cressida Bell.
For all her artistic heritage–she is the granddaughter of Bloomsbury painter Vanessa Bell, and great-niece of writer Virginia Woolf–Bell is a modernist. Her collection includes ties, wash bags and face maskss. For the past thirty-five years, Bell has been a one-woman hive of creativity. And she has certainly kept busy during the pandemic. She worked in her red and white Hackney mews studio every day. ‘Thank goodness for online shopping. We’ve had a massive year for lamps and lampshades because people are doing up their homes.’ And mindful of our need to look stylish during the inevitable Zoom meetings, she has designed a range of colourful hand-printed silk blouses, each decorated with a cross-hatch, tree or curlicue print. She used the ‘mysterious process’ known as discharge printing, ‘whereby you print colours onto a black ground, adding a chemical that destroys the black dye.’
A Zoom tour of her studio is an explosion of shapes and colours. Her vibrant scarf fabrics are hand-dyed and screen-printed on the ten-metre table that stretches the length of the studio, before being steamed and washed. Joanna Lumley is a fan and has worn scarves in Bell’s Mexican Tulips, Indian Stripe, Harlequin, Bouquet and Tropical Spot designs on recent television shows. She shares: ‘Harlequin, a 100% silk crepe georgette, was specially created for Joanna. She wanted something more geometric and came here to watch it be printed.’
Image: Cressida Bell, Charleston Pond designs
While incorporating some influences from her Bloomsbury Group background, Bell’s work is highly individual. Repeat patterns fascinate her: oak leaves, swirling clouds, soaring birds, urban skyscrapers, parasols. Her influences include Turkish pottery and textiles, African prints, Spanish tiles and Czech Deco glass. Her Indian Stripe print was inspired by a trip to India where, instead of falling in love with embroidery, she bought up striped fabrics. ‘Everything I bought was stripy, because I didn’t care for the prints.’ Meanwhile her Cityscape print was inspired by black and white tiles designed by artist Peggy Angus. ‘After she died, I went to a show of her work, and saw she’d done an installation of painted tiles–and they looked like a city.’ She had met Angus when the family lived in Sussex. ‘She always had the hots for my dad,’ Bell laughs. ‘She’d have these big parties on the Sussex Downs and send invitations to Quentin Bell and his children, and never invite my mother!’
Bell was brought up in Leeds and when she was eight, the family moved to Sussex, quite close to Charleston Farmhouse–part-owned by her grandmother Vanessa, and frequented by members of the Bloomsbury Group, where her father made pottery. Vanessa died when Bell was one, but she would often accompany her father to lunch there with Duncan Grant–Vanessa Bell’s lover and collaborator–who became a surrogate grandfather.
Image: Paw print Lampshade with Yellow Paw Print Vase Lamp
She is slightly irritated by people who assume the highly painted Bloomsbury style is slapdash. ‘There is a slapdash element, but with talent and training behind it. When they did circles, they’re not wobbly, they’re beautiful round circles. And when they did cross-hatching, it’s beautifully done. So many people doing a Bloomsbury pastiche today think it’s a matter of doing something in a slapdash way.’...
Extract from the article Squaring the Circle: Cressida Bell's Colourful Life, written by Liz Hoggard in the latest issue of Selvedge, Issue 105 Checks & Stripes. Find out how to read the rest of the article here.
Image: a selection of Cressida Bell lamps
We're delighted that Cressida has kindly offered one of her beautiful lamps for the Issue 105 Checks & Stripes prize draw. Find out more here: