Cliff Holden, original photograph by Bryan Long

Cliff Holden

Documents: 1999


Chapter 4 - Marstrand Designers

In 1956 I had an exhibition in Gothenburg which was a success but, after expenses, there was not enough money to cover my debts. With no money, no job and nowhere to live, I was rescued by my friend Torsten Renquist who had become the head of the Valand School of Art. He invited me to give a critique to the students and to lecture and demonstrate screen printing at the Valand School of Art. They couldn't afford to pay me any fee but I was given a free lunch and it was warm and I was allowed to sleep on the floor in my sleeping bag.

I met Lisa Grönwall, who subsequently became both my partner and my wife. She painted but she was also trained and earned a living of sorts as a textile designer. She shared a studio in Västergatan, Gothenburg, together with a colleague Maj Nilsson, who was also a trained textile designer. They were mostly doing weavings. During my frequent visits to their studio, I began to see the possibility of earning a living by design. Our economic situation was similar - both Lisa and Maj lived at home and their earnings amounted to nothing more than pocket money. I myself had no money at all and was badly in debt. We had no capital but we had a studio and so we decided to collaborate and I would bring my expertise to the job. I was by then a master printer, using silk screen printing. I felt there must be a market out there in the commercial world; there must be a need for design. Rather naively I felt that good design would sell the best. It was a year or two later that I realized that bad designs sell the most!

Being married with two children forced me, for the first time in my life, to be responsible for others other than myself. It was one thing to virtually starve alone and eke out a day to day existence while at the same time painting and putting all one's resources into the activity of painting - it was another thing to provide for a family. I was therefore forced to produce something that had a chance of selling on an international market. The difficulty was that when I was young I had always reacted negatively to design and decoration. I could not see the point of it. I preferred nature. My grandfather on my mother's side was, I thought, a rather boring academic painter. He also made a living as a textile designer. According to my Mother he was very lazy and during the last twenty years of his life he was content to continue selling his old design collections without bothering to produce anything new. This was possible given the kind of design that he excelled in, old English roses, many of which are still being used on chintzes today. His activity (or non-activity) was in marked contrast to my lifestyle. Apart from my grandfather, my mother also continued the aesthetic tradition by designing hats for Paris collections. I therefore had a background but it was a background of which I did not approve and so, in entering the design field, I had to make something of which I did approve and which related to and came out of my activity as a painter. When I finally started to design I produced two designs per day, complete with repeat and colourways, continuously for several months before going on tour for a selling trip.

We began our collaboration with very few assets. We had the small studio in Västergatan in Gothenburg and we had a table which was about one metre square. We needed a light-box for copying purposes and for inspecting screens - a tea chest lined with silver paper and a couple of ordinary light bulbs sufficed. Much later in Marstrand we had a light box built which was bigger than any we encountered in factories. So we began to print in a somewhat

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revolutionary manner by drawing directly on the screens and, at the same time, we freed the screens from the static print which enabled us not only to compose a design but to work out the repeat and colourways.

I have no means of telling whether Bomberg would have approved of this activity either in the painting or the design or the decorative field. I know it approximates to his idea that all art is design, but design in itself has a different orientation with different kinds of composition. That is to say, the way the marks are organized can be either a form of titivation as in simple design or more complicated in the case of decorative marks or, when they become sophisticated, it leads to a meaningful idea which is a painting. I had to be sure of the different approach and the different strategies to be used and to differentiate between the purpose and function of 'painting proper' as against our work in design and the large scale murals were made to be used for public places. Bomberg thought that artists should be capable of emulating Michelangelo and be able to turn their hand to anything - to design, to architecture, as well as to sculpture and painting - and he always insisted that the basis of everything was drawing. Sadly Bomberg never had the chance to put these ideas into practice. In 1936 he offered to make decorations for the 'Queen Elizabeth,' which he envisaged as a set of panels depicting the Ancient Monuments of Britain, but his offer was never taken up. However he did some work with book illustration and he remained proud of the fact that he was a card carrying member of a graphic trade union. In 1945, Dorothy Mead and I assisted him in making a theatre decor at the City Literary Institute where he then taught.

My belief was that, as Bomberg had taught, drawing was fundamental to both painting and design. Drawing was all important in our work and it was for this reason that we were able to make a unique contribution to textile design, both in Sweden and England. As most textile design and wallpapers were printed in the factories with the silk screen printing methods, it was logical to think in terms of drawing directly on the screens and evolving both the design concept and the repeat and the colourways through these screens. This to me was very basic, but we were astonished to find within a couple of years we had revolutionized the attitude to design in Sweden, away from a geometric oriented concept towards more organic forms.

What we had not realized was that it was almost impossible for a freelance designer to exist by selling designs in one country, as we were trying to do in Sweden. In England there were 150 possibilities for selling flat surface design but, of those, only about thirty would accept modern designs. In Sweden there were only five or ten factories dealing with flat surface design and they mostly had their own resident designers. These resident designers used our designs for their own purpose; they adapted them and made numerous variations on the same theme. Their names appeared on the salvage and they had the advantage of the factories' promotion and publicity capacity. That is why we never became really famous as we were never quoted or given due credit for our innovations in the various publications dealing with the development and history of Swedish flat surface design. Our production was so prodigious that we made at least two designs complete with repeats and colourways per day. But the problem for us how to sell and where to sell. We had to sell not only in Sweden and England but also in Denmark, Finland, Norway, Germany, Holland, France and America (we even sold one or two in Australia).

As our production increased, the studio was becoming too small for our requirements and as Lisa and I, by that time, were married and had a baby, our living conditions had to be improved as well as a larger studio being necessary. Our living conditions were so basic that, at first, we had only one room with an outside toilet with no central heating and one small stove

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for cooking. But when we increased this to two rooms even this was totally inadequate and so we decided to move out to the island of Marstrand. In the fifties Marstrand was an impoverished run-down small town which only came to life during six weeks in the summer, when it was filled with tourists. Here we found both a modern flat and an adequate studio and so, in 1959, we moved.

Our studio became known as Marstrand Designers, specializing in flat surface design and wall paintings and decorations for public buildings. We had a motto on the wall taken from Ruskin which went: "Industry without Art is Brutality." Another motto was: "Work is Love made Visible."

We gradually raised our selling to 20% of our production, which was extremely high. This was mostly in factories in Sweden and England. With the 80% we had left over we used to go to Holland and Germany where prices were much cheaper - around 10 at that time compared with 70 or 80 in England - and we would sell off quite a number of designs to the worst end of the trade.

Around 1961-62, we were awarded a Cotton Board prize and later a Design Centre Award for the best design of the year, which was presented to me by Prince Philip. In the same year we gained an award for a wallpaper printed by Lightbown Aspinall of Stockport. This was the second award which we had won in America; the first being for a graphic silk screen print in 1959. In total, Lisa, Maj and I won over a dozen design awards and prizes from competitions in the industry between 1956 and 1963.

My reputation as a designer was supported during the 1950's by a series of international exhibitions which demonstrated the way I was using silk-screen printing in my graphic art. The serigraphs which I began to make in 1952 were shown in London as early as 1954 and, in 1956, I contributed to an exhibition called 'British Serigraphs' at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Between 1956 and 1958 my work was included in the 17th, 18th and 19th 'Annual International Exhibition' which was organised by the National Serigraph Society in America. These exhibitions were held at the Meltzer Gallery, New York, and my work was awarded 3rd Honourable Mention in 1956 and Ist Honourable mention in 1958.

In 1957 fourteen of my prints were included in 'British Abstract, Tachiste and Metaphysical Painters' at the Redfern Gallery, 20 Cork Street, London (4th April - 4th May). In the same year my graphic art was shown in two other mixed exhibitions, one in Munich and the other at the Shipley Art Gallery in Yorkshire.

In 1958 I had one work in a print exhibition at the A.I.A. Gallery, on Lisle Street off Leicester Square, which was run by the Artists International Association. Also in that year I had a number of prints in a travelling exhibition, called 'British Graphic Art,' which I organised in Sweden for the St. George's Gallery (7 Cork Street, London). This was followed by another exhibition in 1959 called '13 Brittiska Grafiker' (which was organised in the same way).

In 1959 my work was included in a mixed exhibition called 'The Graven Image' at the Whitechapel Gallery in London and, at the same time, some of my watercolours were included in a travelling exhibition in America called 'British Aquarelles.' Of course, in listing my activities as an exhibiting printmaker over this period, I have not mentioned my involvement in many other exhibitions where I showed my paintings.

Apart from these exhibitions of my graphic work, in 1959, I had some success with a large painting called 'Entombment' which was selected for The John Moores Exhibition in Liverpool. This painting was chosen as one of twenty five which were submitted to a second jury to compete for the main prize. The Observer's art critic, Neville Wallace, gave my painting a favourable review and suggested that it should have been awarded the prize.

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In 1955 I exhibited at the Public Library in Manchester and in 1959 I had another exhibition there, which included silk screen prints as well as my paintings. It was reviewed by Brian Bradshaw for the Bolton Evening News (Saturday, 30th May, 1959).

'Paintings and Silk Screen prints on View'

An exhibition of paintings and silk screen prints by Cliff Holden is being shown in the lounge of the Library Theatre, Manchester, until June 19th.

Mr. Holden is a reputable artist who worked with the late David Bomberg. He now lives in Sweden. In recent years he has exploited the potential of silk screen printing as a fine art form and he is one of the innovators in producing from this commercial process fine colour prints.

Those who heard his broadcast talk on David Bomberg some months ago will recollect a forthright personality, who expressed his ideas with convincing clarity. He often writes articles and criticism for several Swedish publications and has exhibited many times in England, America and Sweden. He was born in Manchester and occasionally comes to visit his mother, who lives in Wilmslow - hence this exhibition which has been arranged in passing.

Manchester is a city well known for a good orchestra and bad painters. Its liberal tradition rarely extends to the recognition and support of good visual art. So it is easier to understand why Cliff Holden's exhibition should have escaped the advertisement and publicity it deserves. Even the Avant-garde-critic is slow to notice that there are some new "abstracts" in town! However, the interested persons will search them out, and behind hidden doors will find paintings and prints all concerned with a theme which has to do with the voluminous disposal of the human figure and the atmosphere containing it. They are not only the best "abstract" expressions that Manchester has seen for some time - but also very reasonably priced.

Scandinavian design has for years been regarded by the world as a 'style,' but what is this style? What are its essential characteristics? The answer is, of course, that there are none. Impulses in design are taken and interpreted from everywhere. Originally, however, the intention was quite different to the manipulation of style. It was a sensible, rational approach; a cultivated way of solving problems of the environment.

The Swedes and Scandinavians generally regard art as a medium for educating the senses - all five of them - a nourishment for the soul, just as essential as vitamins for the body. For them it is not a luxury for the few but a vital necessity for all people. By contrast, in England, people think that it is only the few who ought to have access to art. People are largely indifferent and the factories are busy feeding that indifference under the guise of giving the people what they want.

As we know, individuals and institutions like the Design Centre have made considerable progress, but it is a drop in the ocean. The takeover bids which started in the middle 60's were largely retrogressive and they marked a triumph for the economic men, who are totally indifferent to design.

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In Sweden, I have often found it necessary in articles to define the difference in approach and function between handicraft, industrial design and the so-called fine arts. For in Sweden, as also in America and Britain, largely through the activities of the pop painters and the minimalists, one can say that most of this century's artists are in danger of assuming the role of the designer. It was due to Bomberg's influence that, when I couldn't sell paintings and when I married and had children and was forced to face the reality of earning a living, I found it possible to collaborate with my wife and her partner in making flat surface design for industry. However, I applied the same basic principles to designing, or silk screen printing, as I did to drawing and painting. But in order to do the different activities I had to establish in my mind the differences both in the activity and in the function.

We know that any mark on a flat surface splits that surface and creates a certain kind of space. This is the link between design, decoration and painting as 'fine art' - but it also indicates the difference. Different kinds of space are operating - one simple, the other complex; so complex in fact that the artist is no longer dealing with space, that is to say virtual space, but with ideas of space, and consequently with meanings, which of course becomes a form of communication, a kind of language.

Design as such has no meaning and even in the area of design we reject all anecdotes as in painting. We reject geometry, mathematics, illusions of space by tone or formal shading and even the curls and arabesques of leaves as in William Morris. But like Morris, we are careful to organize every line or point over the surface so that the termination of each motif creates a negative as well as a positive space.

However Morris tended to regard the decorative elements as ends in themselves and ignored their function. His designs for wallpaper should be looked at vertically and not in small bits as in a book. Typography stands in direct relation to the book as an object and is observed horizontally, but wallpaper acts in space vertically and must bend with or resist the pull of gravity. A good wall covering can act in such a positive way that it becomes a space developer, enhancing the spatial arrangement already started by the architect. Good surface design therefore continues and extends the function of architecture.

Question 3.5: Your commissions on a large scale have required team work and how is this worked out? Well, the fact is that often I have carried out very large projects alone. However when we started Marstrand Designers the three of us worked together. Very small designs were usually carried out by a single designer but then they were often worked on by all three of us. So, although our separate names appeared and we were credited as individuals for having made each design, nevertheless it was team work.

Mostly the actual drawing and printing and colourways were made by me and the planning of the repeats were made mostly by Lisa and Maj Nilsson. They were much cleverer than I was at measuring whereas I was better at drawing and printing and colouring. For example, I can explain how we worked together to develop one of Maj Nilsson's designs, called 'Calligraphy,' which won a prize from Sandersons and which was for many years one of their best selling designs, second only to William Morris. It was started by Maj making a squiggle, an abstract line, which I re-drew, developed, composed and printed and then I added a vertical movement of stipple against the horizontals. In fact I made so much work with it that I have always regarded it as my own design. The impulse from the original line was similar to the impulse which led Leonardo to develop an idea from observing damp stains on a wall, or the way Daumier worked by making random lines which finally evoked the form of a figure or a face.

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When I came to settle in Sweden in 1956, it seemed quite natural to collaborate with Lisa Grönwall and her partner, Maj Nilsson. At that time, they were mostly weaving textile design but I was able to introduce them to silk-screen printing and we began to design through the print medium for textiles, carpets, wallpaper and so on. At first we were sharing space and materials because it was an economic necessity, but very soon we began to collaborate very closely. One of us might start a drawing and another would do the printing or the colourways and so we parted up the activity, which relieved some of the monotony and boredom and created an intensity which, when one is alone, is very difficult to achieve. Often a design started as just a doodle or a very brief sketch from nature or as a squiggle or an elegant line and then we would develop it, draw it onto the screen, add texture and print it. Of course, the three of us came out into the public image as a unit under the name of Marstrand Designers, but with a curtain or a wallpaper we could not always have this collective name on the salvage. The various firms insisted only on their name plus the personal name of the designer, so we lost out very often on the advertising front.

In time the group activity became enlarged to include apprentices and students. I found our collaboration much easier to deal with in drawing and design and decoration than in more complex painted images, which were enveloped in mystery and which often came about through accident and hazard. Design was easier in so far as it was largely concerned with forms designed for a specific purpose. Design and structure were scientifically analyzed in terms of function so that the forms would operate in a certain way in relation to a given situation. And so here we were dealing less with the spirit and more with the environment.

I think one curious thing about my character is that I have always been an individualist and a loner, whether it has been in the activities of science, religion, philosophy or art. But at the same time, the contradiction is that I have always sought to collaborate with others. This took the form of syndicalism in politics and discussion groups in religion, whether it was with Quakers or later with Jesuits and philosophers. Thus, I was no stranger to Bomberg's collaborative ideas, especially as his ideas also coincided with my previous studies of Bishop Berkeley.

As an artist I have practically always worked in some form of team work, starting with Bomberg himself, where we would often work on the same painting. This idea astonished Michelmore and Oxlade, who never understood what was happening and were incapable of developing the image after Bomberg had worked on it. They were incapable of turning the image into their own concept. After Bomberg's death and the breakup of the Borough Group, I continued to collaborate with Dorothy Mead. We lived together for eleven years but even after our seperation we would still often work on paintings together and this continued right up until her death in 1975. We would often work from an identical motif or from the same drawing or photograph. Dorothy also worked very closely with Dennis Creffield.

As I have pointed out before, the team, Marstrand Designers, came about almost by accident, but the collaboration proved invaluable because we had to work rapidly in order to produce enough designs each day and consequently we were able to survive whereas most textile designers had to fall back on some other income for support.

In the last few years we have been assisted by our son Thomas. He is a painter in his own right. He has exhibited since he was 16 years old and we have collaborated, on and off, for many years. In fact this activity started at the age of two when he used to paint on my paintings as well as on the floor. I remember when Thomas and my daughter Isabella were still very young, I was doing a very large wall using very large flower motifs and, for some obscure reason, I couldn't get the right-hand section of this large area to function, so I asked the children

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what colour the flower should be. They both said: "Green." And so I said: "OK, go ahead, paint it"; which they did and the result was absolutely right. This incident has always been something of a mystery to me.

I have always been aware and have often said that Lisa tended to underplay in our collaboration. She put the brake on my excesses so that, in the end, it worked out about right for the general public. Thomas also tends to underplay and with him tone tends to dominate over structure. It is as though he has matured too quickly. As Bomberg used to say, the preoccupation of old men is with the bloom on the baby's bottom or the surface of an apple. But this again, the marriage of structure and tonal nuance, while sometimes engendering a certain conflict of interest, nevertheless, produces a result which is right for the job and the situation.

One of the great values of team work is that it helps to get rid of the boredom engendered during a lot of the preliminary work and, with close collaboration and a certain competitiveness, there is that stimulus as in a dialogue. Then again, of course, in some cases it is necessary to have at least a second pair of hands in the handling of the material and the setting up of the walls. After all, some of our walls are at least six or seven metres wide and some seventeen or eighteen metres high and thirty-five metres long, so it is a great physical effort just in the handling of the materials alone.

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[Page last updated: 11th January 2006]

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