MY CULTURAL LIFE: CELIA BIRTWELL, CBE

An arbiter of taste tells us what they’re reading, watching and more

Portrait of Celia Birtwell, dressed in black, holding a white rose
Celia Birtwell

Textile designer Celia Birtwell is a bona fide British icon. Having studied at Salford Technical College in the 1950s, she moved to London in 1961, where she worked as a costumier for the Royal Shakespeare Company, started designing fabrics for Heal’s and fell in with an arty crowd that included David Hockney (for whom she is still a muse today). The early 2000s brought a renewed appreciation of her work, with a collection for Topshop as well as collaborations with Heal’s, Habitat, John Lewis and Uniqlo. In 2017, she teamed up with interiors brand Blendworth to produce her classic textiles and wallpapers, and this spring sees the launch of her second range, drawing on work from the 1970s and motifs from her sketchbooks.

Blue and white bedlinen and patterned headboard
Textiles designed by Celia Birtwell for Blendworth
Blendworth

My favourite piece of music? It’s impossible to name just one, as your enjoyment depends so much on your present mood, where you are and what you’re doing in your life. But I find myself constantly returning to Chopin, Dvořák, Debussy and Puccini. I try to listen to an eclectic mix and make an effort to keep up to date.

The book that’s influenced me the most is one on Léon Bakst at the V&A’s National Art Library. Bakst worked with Sergei Diaghilev at the Ballets Russes, and his stylish illustrations and costumes have always inspired me. Another influence is Gazette du Bon Ton. The magazine ran at about the same time Bakst was working – it must have been a wonderful period for artists and designers.

Bakst Illustration for Ballets Russes
Bakst Illustration for Ballets Russes
V&A
Cover of Peter Kay's book, The Sound of Laughter
Arrow Books Ltd

I’m reading a biography of Edward Lear by Jenny Uglow [Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense]. My father introduced me to his rhymes when I was young. I have also just finished Peter Kay’s The Sound of Laughter. It really is very funny indeed.

My favourite film? I’ve always loved Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot. Another film that’s stayed with me is David Lean’s 1946 version of Great Expectations. I still watch it about once a year. When the grandchildren were tiny, we used to show them all of the classics – Singin’ in the Rain and The Gang’s All Here are now firm favourites.

Some Like It Hot film poster
Some Like it Hot, Billy Wilder

The motto I live by is David Hockney’s maxim. He says that an artist has to always use the eye, the hand and the heart. You can’t make do with two of them – you need the full set.

My favourite gallery has to be the V&A. If I’m struggling with a new project, I wander around there for inspiration, usually coming away with new ideas to contemplate. I have a favourite animal in there: Nandi, a stone bull calf worshipped in Shiva temples. I always say hello.

V&A Museum
V&A

My next trip will be to Amsterdam. I’m going there to see David Hockney’s new exhibition ‘Hockney – Van Gogh: The Joy of Nature’ at the Van Gogh Museum [open until 26 May]. It is always delightful to see David’s new work, and Amsterdam is a beautiful city that I love visiting.

More Felled Trees on Woldgate painting by David Hockney
More Felled Trees on Woldgate by David Hockney

This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration May 2019

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below