Artists | A Love Affair with British Botanics

It’s been almost a decade since printmaker Angie Lewin and her graphic designer husband Simon, left hectic north London life behind for the bracing bliss of the Norfolk coast. Although after setting up a new business, renovating their 17th Century cottage and branching into home wares during this time, life has been anything but leisurely.

Known for her retro botanical prints strongly reminiscent of the 1950s, Angie Lewin’s work is inspired by 1930s – 1950s designs with keen reference to the Festival of Britain in 1951. With mid-century design back on trend, her work has become almost unattainable, selling out in Liberty as soon as it hits the shelves. From her beautiful countryside home in Norfolk, Angie produces her instantly recognisable hand crafted prints for fabrics, ceramics and stationery using traditional and extensive printing methods.

Labelled by print and interiors writers as Britain’s best printmaker since Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious (two 1930s designers who are very close to her heart), Angie is a front runner in the current retro and craft revival. Using soft, muted, tonal colour palettes in all of her prints, she is extremely selective saying, “I’m used to working with a limited number of colours,” but for “fabrics, as with prints, often the fewer colours the more successful the design.” After graduating in printmaking from Central St. Martins and Camberwell School of Art & Design in the 1980s, Angie worked for nearly twenty years as an illustrator in London and later trained as a garden designer, which undoubtedly triggered her interest in all things flora and fauna.

Working out of her studio based in the garden of her hamlet home near Aylsham, Norfolk, Angie takes inspiration directly from her surroundings; using flowers and plants from her garden and the unruly meadow beyond as the basis for her intricate designs. “My limited edition prints are based on plant forms, especially seed heads, seen against [the] sea and sky on my walks on the north Norfolk coast,” says Angie. “I’m also influenced by the contrasting landscape and native plants of the Scottish Highlands and more recently the west coast of Scotland.” The couple often spend their summers in Scotland, avoiding the tourist trap of ‘staycations’ in Norfolk altogether.  Using traditional techniques, Angie prints with a mixed media of wood cuts, engravings, lithographs, screen prints and lino cuts. “I generally work up my idea as a drawing with watercolour, gouache, pencil crayon and inks,” she says, then “from this I can work out how many colours will be in the finished print, as each colour will be cut as a separate block.” After making a tracing of the drawing in reverse, Angie develops it on the block or lino and cuts the designs using gouges. “The cut block is then inked up using a roller and a print is taken. Each colour is then cut until the image is complete.” Angie herself is often surprised with the end result, as “each successive colour affects what happens next, so a print can develop in a different direction to my initial drawing.”

After renovating their sprawling cottage (originally three separate dwellings) into a habitable condition, the Lewins went about styling it into a haven of mid-century British design. With original 1950s Ercol chairs, curved Formica kitchen surfaces and a range of 1920s-1960s decorative prints and posters throughout, their interest in design of this particular period is obvious, both at work and at home. “I think an artist or designer’s environment and style are very closely linked to their work. I collect objects and artwork that inspire me,” says Angie, who has numerous pots of dried seed heads and plants scattered around. Realising the potential for transferring her stylised prints onto textiles, Angie and Simon decided to combine their expertise and set up St. Judes, a company that collaborates with artists to create hand crafted prints for fabrics, stationery and ceramics. Based near their home, the Lewins opened a shop-come-gallery with an in house studio space for artists involved in their projects. “By producing the fabrics ourselves we had control over the type and scale of repeat and colourways,” says Angie. “We decided that we didn’t want to produce 1000’s of metres but to make relatively short runs of each design to sell through smaller outlets and on the internet.” One such ‘small’ outlet is the famous Liberty of London, who stocks their patterns under the house name ‘Tana Lawn Liberty Fabric’ and with great success; one of Angie’s A/W 2010 designs ‘Winter Thistle’ in colourway ‘A’ has already sold out, just a week after going on sale. Despite her prints going unaccredited, they are so distinctive with their abstract plants and reference to Lucienne Day style colours, offering a genuine 1951 ‘Festival of Britain’ flavour.

So what is it about Angie’s designs that have made them so popular? “People instinctively relate and feel comfortable with natural colours and floral and fauna,” says Angie who features such elements in her prints. Although “applied art has always been popular,” she says, “now new artists and designers are basing designs on natural forms in more contemporary ways, as opposed to recreating traditional florals.”

Such consistent interest and support of her designs and of the St. Judes collective by the likes of Elle Decoration, Design Week and The World of Interiors, has allowed Angie and Simon to consider delving further into home wares with wallpaper. Intending to produce a collection at some point in the future, Angie is careful not to diminish her standing as a print designer foremost, saying, “I’ve avoided simply applying existing prints or fabric designs onto [St. Judes] stationery and produced specific designs for each project. As I produce limited edition prints, I don’t want to overuse the images.” And she means it! Once Angie has produced a small batch of prints, often as little as forty per design, she completely destroys the wood block, lino cut or lithograph plate, making them unusable in order to start afresh with new ideas. However she does admit to keeping a few of her favourites as mementos. Having worked with traditional printmaking methods for most of her career, Angie isn’t about to switch to digital design, saying “these qualities just can’t be achieved with digital methods as they are intrinsic to the printing process.” So if you want a hand crafted, genuinely limited edition print before they all go, you’re going to have to be quick about it.

Check out Cristian Barnett‘s short film below showing Angie Lewin’s printing process.

Angie Lewin: Plants and Places by Leslie Geddes Brown, RRP £25 is available from the 1st October and her collection at Liberty of London is on sale now. For prices, stockists and exhibition information, visit Angie Lewin or St. Judes.

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