Chance find led to Rugby museum exhibition

Chelsea Cefai
Chelsea Cefai

The work of a reclusive artist and textile designer threatened to fade into obscurity until a chance find at auction led a Rugby gallery professional on a journey of discovery.

nd with the opening of a new exhibition at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum, the designs of Sheila Bownas are destined to reach a wider audience and achieve the recognition her work deserves.

In 2008, while renovating her home in Rugby, Chelsea Cefai was searching on eBay for artwork to hang on her freshly painted walls.

Little did she expect to stumble upon an entire archive of original, hand-painted designs by unknown artist, Sheila Bownas.

“A complete treasure trove fell into my hands,” Chelsea said. Since finding Sheila’s work, she has founded the Sheila Bownas Archive and collaborated with artists and designers across the UK to produce a range of unique interior products which bring Sheila’s patterns back to life.

Chelsea has pieced together a detailed history of the artist’s life and work, culminating in A Life in Pattern: The Life and Works of Sheila Bownas, which opens at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum on Saturday.

Researched and curated by Chelsea, the exhibition features early paintings, textile designs spanning three decades, and photographs, private letters and research catalogues on loan from the Bownas family.

Chelsea said: “The exhibition at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum firmly shines a spotlight on a unique talent, a talent which was so nearly lost to history.

“To finally see Sheila’s work go on show for the very first time is a dream come true for me and something I am sure she would have been incredibly proud of.”

Jessica Litherland, Rugby Art Gallery and Museum’s senior exhibitions officer, said: “Chelsea has done an amazing job of bringing Sheila’s work back to life and raising the profile of a talent which seemed destined to be lost to the art world.

“It has been a life-changing labour of love for Chelsea and her family, and one we should all be grateful for as we now have access to a little piece of design history.”

Sheila Bownas was born in 1925, growing up in the small village of Linton in the Yorkshire Dales.Displaying a natural talent from an early age and with the encouragement of her art mistress at Skipton Girls’ High School, she attended Skipton Art College in the 1940s and secured a scholarship at The Slade, London’s prestigious art school, where she won a number of prizes for her work.

After graduating, Sheila forged a career as a freelance textile designer, supplying surface patterns to the likes of Liberty and Marks and Spencer throughout the 1950s and 60s.

But while her work was bought by some of the biggest and most prestigious brands, none bore her name.

By the end of the 60s Sheila had returned to the Yorkshire Dales, where she became increasingly reclusive in her later years while remaining devoted to her work.

It was only on her death in 2007 her family discovered the sheer scale of her collection of still life, landscape and portrait paintings - and the textile designs which first alerted Chelsea to Sheila’s talent.

A Life in Pattern: The Life and Works of Sheila Bownas runs from Saturday June 25 to Saturday September 3.

Free guided tours of the exhibition, led by Chelsea Cefai, take place on June 29, July 6, July 14, August 18 and August 25. The tours start at noon and places must be booked by calling (01788) 533217.