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Wallpaper History Society visit to Marthe Armitage Studio

On 9 March 2024 members of the WHS enjoyed an afternoon at the studio of Marthe Armitage, now managed by her daughter Jo Broadhurst. Both mother and daughter hosted the event, which was informal and informative, allowing plenty of time to appreciate the legacy and potential of Marthe Armitage’s career and tremendous output.



Marthe Armitage surrounded by her signature designs


Jo introduced the event by outlining the backstory to the production of wallpapers, and later fabrics, to Marthe’s designs. She explained how Marthe fell in love with print after spending time in India early in her marriage, watching local artisans block-printing onto fabric. On returning to England and feeling the white walls of her new house could be improved with some pattern, Marthe carved the original lino block for her ‘Angelica’ design, using it to print onto lining paper. What became apparent was Marthe’s ability to create designs that repeated across the width as well as up and down the length, allowing for large-scale designs that flow seamlessly and without interruption.



‘Marrow’ printing blocks and wallpaper on display in the studio


.Having mastered the printing block, Marthe acquired an old offset printing press, discovered by a friend, and adapted it to produce patterns on continuous rolls of wallpaper. The offset press, still in use in the studio, comprises an engraved block that is inked, then has the paper rolled across to become imprinted with the pattern. By moving the printed paper along and repeating the process (hundreds of times), rolls of wallpaper can be produced. To make papers of multiple colours, a whole printed roll is taken through the press again, using different colours and engraved plates. Complex and pleasing effects can be created by overlapping colours, creating new hues, whereas retaining discrete colour combinations that do not overlap gives a completely different result.Having watched Jo carry out the process, it is clear that strength and patience are required to achieve the quantity and quality of output to produce the very recognisable Armitage designs.



Jo Broadhurst applies ink to the engraved printing plate


Marthe and Jo contextualised the studio’s output in relation to recent market trends, describing how the fashion for artisan products has increased in recent years, although sometimes there is tension where clients who would like to espouse crafts are not fully comfortable with the sometimes inconsistent appearance of hand-produced artefacts. They also recognise that the production process for their wallpapers and fabrics results in a small-scale output which is not necessarily sustainable or cost-effective; this has led to an exploration of other means of production.

 

In recent years digital production has been outsourced, allowing for wide-print papers and fabrics more suited to the contract trade. Marthe’s large-scale designs lend themselves well to these full-scale digital prints, and changes in colourways are easily achieved, though there is a difference in the appearance, which is smoother and less visually tactile. Other avenues include flexo-printing using engraved rollers, which gives a traditional appearance whilst speeding up production considerably.



Rachel Winsper tries her hand at offset-printing whilst Jo Broadhurst looks on


Having taken us through the Marthe Armitage story, Jo explained how her own life-long exposure to the crafts associated with surface printing has enabled her to develop specialist skills, which she ably demonstrated in her handling of the offset printer. Members were invited to try their turn at working the press, incidentally learning the pros and cons of using different inks, and the need to register the pattern accurately to ensure a continuous print.



Richard and Lucy Aldwinckle talk to Marthe Armitage


Members also enjoyed being allowed to handle samples, view the range of blocks and supporting materials on display and discuss amongst themselves the various aspects of studio practice. It was a delight to meet in such a practical environment that exemplifies craft-working at its best. It was especially a privilege to meet the makers who have managed to establish and maintain a design studio over many years that works to high standards whilst navigating the vicissitudes of the wallpaper market.


Rowena Beighton-Dykes


Photographs by Barry Birdsall www.Barrybirdsallphotography.com

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