Muriel Pemberton was a pioneering teacher of fashion and an artist of highly pleasurable figures, flower pieces and abstracts.
Becoming a successful, and worse, a world-famous teacher has often proved the kiss of death to any serious artistic reputation the person may have. Even discounting rivals and enemies who nod sagely and murmur ‘Those who can do; those who can’t, teach’, it is almost inevitable that the calls teaching makes on one’s time and energies, plus the difficulty of keeping one’s end up in a world that, if not hostile, is at the very least totally unconcerned, defeats the best efforts of even the most determined artists. Among all those who have died in their eighties, Muriel Pemberton arguably found the best solution: like Katherine Moore, who published the first of her three brilliant novels in her eighties, once she was safely retired (or sort of), Muriel went back to her original obsessive production of art, painting, like they say, as if there were no tomorrow – because, after all, there might well not be.
By no means all the works in this show were painted in Muriel’s seventies and eighties, but many of them were. She began as an ordinary art student, who just happened to have this particular interest in fashion. This cannot have been so unusual among female art students of the 1920s.
What was unique was how she responded to it. She did not see it as a nice, suitable hobby for young ladies, but a discipline, and a neglected discipline at that. Born in Tunstall, one of the less famous of the Five Towns, she showed artistic talent at an early age, so everyone expected she would do what most artistic young women did around there, get a job decorating pots in one of the many potteries round about. She did not see that in her future, and instead won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, where she entered the School of Painting.
Which was all quite flattering, but not, she rapidly realised, very practical. At home for the holidays, she had a telling experience. Like her mother and her sister, she designed and made her own clothes. One day she found she was being stalked by a stylish looking lady who eventually plucked up the courage to ask her where she had bought the dress she was wearing, because the lady, who turned out to be the wife of a leading local architect, wanted to buy one just like it. This put an idea into her head: when she returned to the Royal College she got herself transferred to the far less prestigious School of Design, with a firm determination to specialise in fashion.
Unfortunately no such course then existed, but undeterred, Muriel bearded the head of the School, Professor Tristram, an expert in medieval wall painting famous enough to be satirised by Osbert Lancaster, in his office, and demanded he do something about this. After careful consideration, he agreed that she could map out her own syllabus and, if he approved it, teach it herself, to herself. Thus she became in 1931 the only student to graduate from the Royal College in Fashion Studies.
As part of the curriculum she had devised for herself, she managed to insert herself into the workshops of the dressmakers by appointment to Queen Mary, to do what she had always wanted to do, draw beautiful people in beautiful clothes. Inevitably, Reville and Rossiter were extremely conservative in their designs, but, designing for the Queen, they also designed for the grandest ladies of the Establishment, their materials were of the richest, and their workmanship was superb.
What she could not learn there, she learned at the Katinka School of Cutting in Knightsbridge, where she negotiated a bargain: she would teach their students design if they would teach her cutting. All the skills so acquired came in handy when she began working for a grand furrier in Carlos Place as a fashion illustrator for their advertisements in Vogue and elsewhere, and then for Vogue directly on the editorial pages.
Of course, none of this would have been possible if Muriel had not had built-in talents as a draughtsman and a watercolorist. It was early agreed that she was the best in her field as a visual journalist, able with unequalled speed and precision to capture the essentials of clothes she might see for a moment on the catwalk during fashion shows by the grandest designers. But as well as loving the specific work she was doing, she was also fanatically dedicated to light and colour, and their vivid rendering in watercolour.
She was fascinated by character, and by capturing the characters she saw around her, which she frequently did in a very personal way, working directly in watercolour without any underlying drawing. This was the technique she encouraged her students to use in fashion drawing, and she did this a lot for her portraits, in odd moments snatched from teaching. During the holidays she took (what holidays?) she loved to paint landscapes from morning to night, and, inevitably for someone so besotted with vibrant colour, she adored painting flowers. But that was only the start of it. During the 1930s, as well as running the school of fashion design and drawing she had invented, which became internationally known and brought in students from all over the world, she continued to widen her sphere of influence by taking up several other regular jobs, though how she found time for them no one could tell.
Among the new jobs she undertook were designing cards for Fortnum’s and fabrics for Liberty. She also, as a longtime theatre lover, could not resist answering an advertisement from the great producer C B Cochran for a costume designer at the Adelphi Theatre. She took along her portfolio and got the job, which entailed having a studio in an old actor’s dressing room at the theatre, so over-lit that eventually it began to harm her eyesight. That particular job ended with the closure of nearly all London theatres at the beginning of the war – shortly after which all her original costume designs, on display in the theatre lobbies, were stolen by some crazed enthusiast and never surfaced again.
Never one to slacken pace for anything, Muriel continued to work flat out until her official retirement in 1975. During that time a number of the most famous younger British designers passed through her classes, including Bill Gibb, Bruce Oldfield, Bernard Nevill and Jorn Langberg. Though sadly her husband died just after she retired, she was able at last to devote more of her time to her first and last love, painting. But only someone who did not know her at all would suppose that the world had seen the last of Muriel the inspired teacher. She could seldom, met with a barrage of requests from schools and colleges along the south coast, restrain the compulsion to pass on what she knew to youngsters eager to drink it all in.
Easy enough in the circumstances to forget or downplay what else she was. But, as Jeffrey Archer says and this catalogue amply demonstrates, ‘She is a courageous painter who uses colour without regard to convention, producing a final result that shows she is amongst the finest exponents in the art of modern watercolours’.
The biography is written by John Russell Taylor, the author of Muriel Pemberton. Art and Fashion (Chris Beetles Limited, 1993)