Marthe Armitage studied painting at Chelsea School of Art just after the war. When marriage and motherhood interrupted she laid down her brush, but then in the 60s she and her architect husband wanted to live with a new more minimal style of decoration, and she began to design wallpaper. ‘I’d done a bit of lino cutting at school’ she remembers. ‘ It struck me you could make wallpaper that way.’ Her first design ‘Angelica’ was based on this vigorous cow parsley-like plant which grew all along the river bank at Chiswick where she pushed a pram.
She cut her design into big blocks and printed it on rolls of lining paper, laid out on the floor.
These blocks ‘last for ever,’ and she is still printing from them today. A hundred year old lithographic proofing press made things easier and the garage at the bottom of the garden became her studio.
Even so, in the eighties and nineties she found herself thinking ‘but nobody wants them.’ Her wallpaper was a fairly exclusive secret. People saw it on other people’s walls, at a neighbour’s or at dinner with the Warden of All Souls College Oxford, and sent her a line. It was only when the design company Hamilton Weston asked to represent her in 2004 that she looked back over her archive and thought (with astonishing modesty), ‘well perhaps they are … something.’
She goes on walking about, looking over walls into other people’s gardens, and dreaming up new patterns. ‘Chesnut’ was made for a friend who wanted to see foliage when she woke in her urban bedroom. With her daughter Joanna Broadhurst she still prints by hand in the colour of your choice, though her own preference is for a palette of greens, blues, dull blacks and ochres. Her papers look good in Victorian houses she says, lending themselves to long drops, but their serendipity is that they will look good anywhere. ‘Manor House’ is a piece of Bawden-inspired Jacobean topography, while ‘Jungle Birds’ is boldly graphic. She designed an ‘Alphabet’ wallpaper for The Woman in Black, (the film adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story), papering the haunted nursery full of automata where Daniel Radcliffe meets his nemesis, and she is always open to ideas for new commissions.
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