In 2008, while looking for artwork to hang in her newly renovated home, Rugby-based gallery professional Chelsea Cefai stumbled across an extensive collection of textile designs at auction. A spur of the moment purchase led to a six year quest to discover more about the artist who created them – Sheila Bownas. The mysteries surrounding the vast body of work discovered after the death of this prolific artist were as much unknown to her family as they were to the art world.
The archive consists of just over 200 hand painted patterns, the earliest dating from the 1950s, the entire collection spanning thirty years. Since first discovering Sheila’s work Chelsea has founded the Sheila Bownas Archive and collaborated with artists and designers across the UK to produce a range of unique products, that bring Sheila’s patterns back to life.
Through making contact with Sheila’s family, Chelsea has pieced together a detailed history of the artist’s life and work, culminating in the first ever exhibition – A Life in Pattern: The Life & Works of Sheila Bownas – which opened at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum in June 2016. Following the success of this show, further exhibtions have been held in Harrogate and Chichester.
Sheila Catherine Bownas was born in 1925, growing up in the small Yorkshire Dales village of Linton. Displaying a natural talent from an early age and with the encouragement of her art mistress at Skipton Girls’ High School, she attended Skipton Art College in the 1940s and secured a scholarship at The Slade, London’s prestigious art school, where she won a number of prizes for her work.
After graduating in 1950, Sheila forged a career as a freelance designer, supplying patterns to the likes of Liberty and Marks and Spencer. She moved between London and Linton for twelve years, before finally settling in her beloved Dales for the rest of her life. She continued selling designs by post for a further twenty years and worked on several portrait commissions. It was only on her death in 2007 her family discovered the sheer scale of her collection of still life, landscape and portrait paintings – alongside the textile designs, which first alerted Chelsea to Sheila’s work.