James Russell examines the career and influence of Peggy Angus
The name of Peggy Angus may not be immediately familiar, yet the influence of this Scottish artist, teacher and designer, who died in 1993 at the age of 89, continues to grow. To people who knew her or have seen her work this comes as no surprise, since Peggy was both an inspired teacher and a gifted flat pattern designer. This summer she is set to receive wider public recognition, thanks to a new book and exhibition at Towner Gallery, Eastbourne.
Born in Chile to expatriate parents in 1904, Peggy was raised in Muswell Hill and educated at North London Collegiate School (NLCS) an institution that was to play a central role in her career. Her family were not wealthy, and after two brothers died in World War One she was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, on the understanding that she would take the college’s teaching diploma and provide for her family. At the RCA she studied alongside Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Enid Marx, Helen Binyon and others under the tutelage of Paul Nash, who taught his students to ignore traditional boundaries between fine art and design.
On graduating many of her friends launched dual careers in art and design, but Peggy instead reluctantly left London in 1926 for her first teaching post in the Midlands, painting when she could in a realistic, somewhat naïve style. For the next 20 years she juggled teaching and painting, a performance that became increasingly difficult after her marriage in 1936 to architectural writer J M (Jim) Richards and the birth of her children, Victoria and Angus.
Indeed, Peggy had to battle for her right to continue teaching after her children were born. Known as the Red Angus for her fierce left-wing views, she had travelled to the Soviet Union in 1932
with a group of teachers and had been impressed with the far greater gender equality she saw there. For years she argued in vain that the British state should provide maternity leave and childcare as the Communist regime did; and in a similar vein she refused to work full-time, even when, in 1947, she was appointed Head of Art at NLCS by the farsighted Headmistress Dr Kitty Anderson.
Now forty-three, Peggy found herself at a crossroads. Her marriage had fallen apart under the strain of war, and, though compelling, her paintings were not commercially successful. On the other hand, she possessed boundless energy and a wide network of friends made over the previous decades, many of them well-known architects, artists and writers who had stayed at Furlongs, her cottage in the Sussex Downs. These visitors had included not only her good friend Eric Ravilious, with whom she explored the local countryside, and John and Myfanwy Piper, but also distinguished modern architects like Serge Chermayev and F R S Yorke.
After the war the latter was busily involved in a range of reconstruction projects, particularly new schools, and it was in this context that Peggy’s career as a designer took off. It happened in an unusual way. In the late 1940s art materials were, like everything else, in short supply, so Peggy had her younger students at NLCS making potato prints with poster paints. They worked on squares of thin paper, repeating the most successful patterns so that the squares could be pasted onto backing paper and used to decorate the art room and adjoining corridor.
Inspired by William Morris, Peggy believed that schools should be decorated and that the art department of a school should carry out the work, Pho
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