‘Peggy Angus was a warrior. Women weren’t supposed to be like that.’
Just a few miles east of Brighton on the A27 stands a small flint faced cottage near Firle called ‘Furlongs’. This was once the home of an extraordinary twentieth century artist, who despite a unique legacy of paintings of people and landscape – many depicting the Downs – beautiful wallpapers and tile murals, is far from being the house-hold name she deserves to be.
Margaret MacGregor ‘Peggy’ Angus was Scottish but born in Chile where her father was a railway engineer. Aged 17 and resettled with her family in London, Peggy won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art where her contemporaries included Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Edward Bawden, and where she was taught by Paul Nash (who later claimed that she was the most obstinate student he’d ever taught). With her brothers and father lost in the First World War it became apparent that, for Peggy, art would have to be a means to earn money, and fast. She trained to be an art teacher and in the early 1930s, with one of her teaching jobs bringing her to Eastbourne, she discovered ‘Furlongs’ during a walk on the Downs.
The story goes that Peggy fell instantly in love with the ramshackle and primitive stone cottage without running water and decided she must have it. When the local farmer who happened to be living in it refused, Peggy simply set up a tent and camped outside, biding her time until he changed his mind a few months later. Furlongs was initially a weekend retreat where she could immerse herself in painting. One of her closest friends and frequent visitors to Furlongs was the now well-known Eastbourne artist, Eric Ravilious. The two would pack up their equipment, take a picnic and go off onto the Downs painting together, often choosing to depict the same landscape.
Unlike Ravilious whose depictions are famously empty of people and isolated, making the landscapes of the South Downs haunting and magical, Peggy’s show a version that is full-blooded and immersed in everyday life, warts and all. ‘I like doing life, things happening,’ she said about her robust depictions of cattle, rat-catchers, threshing, and milking cows. Furlongs became something of an alternative Charleston. Not only Ravilious and his wife, the artist and engraver Tirzah Garwood, but also Herbert Read, Serge Chermayeff (co-architect of Bexhill-on-Sea’s De La Warr Pavilion), Brighton artist Percy Horton, John and Myfanwy Piper, painter and Bauhaus professor Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, among others, were frequent guests, despite the lack of electricity and running water.
A landmark exhibition of Peggy’s work at Eastbourne’s Towner Art Gallery in 2014 recreated one of Furlong’s rooms and its burst of colour, gorgeous wallpaper, murals and unmatching crockery gave a hint of the cosy welcome they received.
Peggy took her teaching seriously. She had visited the Soviet Union in 1932 for the Art Teachers Conference and been impressed by the country’s equality for women and view of the artist as a potential for good in the world. Nicknamed ‘Red Peggy’ by many of her friends for her politics, she always considered teaching and inspiring others as part of the artist’s responsibility towards society. Students remember her classes at schools in Sussex and London, and then, as Head of Art at North London Collegiate School, as innovative and fun. Peggy believed in building up her students’ confidence, if not to become artists themselves, to become people who would always appreciate art. Even in old age, Peggy could be seen with a rucksack slung over her shoulder, travelling from Furlongs to London by public transport to teach evening classes to senior citizens.
Post Second World War, when art materials were in short supply, ever practical Peggy turned to potatoes in her teaching, encouraging her students to experiment with potato printing. One evening FRS ‘Kay’ York, one of the architects involved in the nationwide post-war reconstruction of schools and public buildings, came to dinner, saw the tiles and thought they’d make good murals. Peggy went on to become a prolific and beautiful tile designer, her simple but starkly colourful geometric patterns the perfect way to soften the hard materials and angular lines of the new buildings of the 1940s and ‘50s. Her tile work embellished, among other places, schools, universities, public squares, Heathrow Airport and Heathrow Underground Station. In 1958 she created a tile mural for the British Industry Pavilion at the Brussels World Fair. Her marble design on glass cladding decorated the original Gatwick Airport but is sadly, like most of her mural work, now long demolished. A mural in Glyndwr University, Wrexham remains, its bright yellow and red dragon pattern on the walls of a staircase casting a cheerful atmosphere to this day. Peggy Angus also created wallpaper. Like her tiles, these were often wonderful geometric patterns often in two shades of the same colour. Ever practical again, she would design them in emulsion paint so clients would be able to mix and match them to their houses with ease.
There are many opinions as to why this original, innovative and talented artist and designer isn’t better known. Perhaps, some think, it was the circumstances of her life – a single, divorced mother with two children meant that, unlike many of her male contemporaries who had the luxury of slipping off to places like Paris to experiment for a few years, she had to work constantly to put food on the table. There was also her social conscience which led her to spend a lot of energy sharing her talent, nurturing, encouraging, lighting sparks in other people. Writing in The Observer in 2014 Rachel Cooke writes that it may also have been that ultimate stumbling block to female success, her refusal to conform to stereotypes: ‘For women of Angus’s generation, professional life was rarely anything less than a struggle: they were required to be tough and, as a result, often seemed difficult…Peggy Angus was a warrior. Women weren’t supposed to be like that.’
Peggy’s portraits of fellow artist, John Piper, and the family of Ramsay MacDonald can be seen today in the National Portrait Gallery. A wonderful book, ‘Peggy Angus: Designer, Teacher, Painter‘ by James Russell is an excellent read for anyone wanting to discover a fuller picture of this interesting and generous artist.
Written by social historian, Louise Peskett