FESTIVAL OF BRITAIN WALL HANGING
Michael O'Connell’s textile art produced for the Festival of Britain inspires Susan Moxley's Stained Glass window at MERL
Michael O'Connell, Textile Artist − 1898 to 1976
Michael O'Connell's work does not fall into conventional textile classifications. It is a unique combination of batik and resist dyeing techniques which he developed. His specially formulated resists and dyes were painted and piped onto mordanted fabric, and then the whole work, once dry, was dyed. Only after washing and scrubbing were the stunning colours revealed. Michael O'Connell's colour palette was at the time considered adventurous but now in retrospect typifies the look and feel of fabrics in the 1950s and 60s. He leaves a legacy of work, which reflects not only great innovation, but shows the wit and humour of the artist.
Michael O'Connell was born to Irish parents living in Dalton, then in Lancashire, now in Cumbria. Little is known of his early years other than he was sent as a lay boy to Ushaw College in County Durham, which is a Roman Catholic seminary.
When WW1 came, he joined an Irish regiment, was sent to fight and was taken prisoner. A prison guard noticed his artistic skills, and suggested he should take his talent further.
After the war, he trained in agriculture and after a short, less than fulfilling period on a north country farm, emigrated to Australia in 1920 to attend an agricultural college in Wagga Wagga. On arrival, he decided not to continue with that plan and went instead to Beaumaris, near Melbourne, bought a plot of land and built his own house in Port Phillip Bay. (This house was destroyed in a bush fire in 1947), When he ran out of money he went into the bush to paint and draw then took them to sell at the Arts and Crafts Society. He began to make pots and garden furniture and to work on fabric designs with Ella Moody.
He became a member of the Arts and Crafts Society in Melbourne, which is where he met Ella Moody, a textile artist and embroiderer, whom he married. Michael and Ella worked together and travelled widely absorbing ideas and techniques from their experiences. Their combination of techniques and ideas resulted in somewhat primitive designs, which were vibrant, lively and worked in bright colours. Some of this work is held in the collection of the Australian National Gallery, Canberra.
They returned to England in 1937 and built a house and workshop, 'The Chase', at Perry Green near Much Hadham, Hertfordshire.
Shortly before WW2, Michael and Christopher Heal (of Heal's, London) developed a close working relationship and Heal's sold much of Michael's work. Although production halted, the friendship continued through the war years. It appears that Michael used this time to develop his techniques moving into freehand drawing with the resist pastes. At the end of the war, Christopher Heal was instrumental in obtaining supplies of fabric so that work could start again and the newly developed techniques were those used to create the Festival of Britain Wall hangings.
After the Festival of Britain the popularity of Michael's work increased and he received commissions to create murals for public buildings, restaurants, factory canteens and showrooms. His work was exhibited in New York, Melbourne and London. In the 1960s, he began to travel widely and to teach his techniques in art schools. He also worked with architects, producing murals for universities and churches.
In 1970, a devastating fire destroyed his workshop, most of his notebooks and records, and badly damaged his adjoining house. With the help of students and friends the property was rebuilt, but in the following years his eyesight began to fail. In 1976, he was found dead from self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
His work lives on in museum collections in Australia and the UK. MERL holds the Festival of Britain wall hangings and the V&A museum, London has a large collection of his early work.
This highly talented and unique artist remains in the shadows, but his work reflects charismatic designs and styles of the 1950s and 60s. Perhaps one of the best descriptions of technique comes in a headline, Michael O'Connell, Painter in Dyes. (The Studio December 1950. Vol 40)
Collections of Michael O'Connell's work are held in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, The Australian National Gallery, Canberra and Sidney Powerhouse Museum, Australia.
You can listen to Iris Sheridan talking about her memories of working with Michael. To listen Click Here
To view the images: Click the first image in each group to see an enlarged version with caption. To move to the next image, move the mouse over top right section to display the Next button. To move to the previous image move the mouse cursor over the top left section of the image to display the Previous (Prev) button.
Seamus O'Connell (Son of Michael and Ella)
Betty Clarke and Iris Dedman (The Sheridan sisters)
Jill Betts. Michael O'Connell and his Festival of Britain Wall Hanging. Folk Life 1998, vol 36
Various contributors. 1977. Michael O'Connell 1898-1976. London: Crafts Advisory Council
Australian bibliography website
Sidney Powerhouse Museum Design Hub
Australian National Art Gallery, Canberra