An Afternoon with Wallpaper Artist Marthe Armitage

For artist and wallpaper designer Marthe Armitage, a collaboration with Jo Malone London is the latest in a unique career of flourish and panache. 

I still call myself an artist. I began my career as a painter at the Chelsea School of Art. We had won the war and it was a wonderful time to be there because all those great painters, like Picasso and Matisse, were still alive and working.

Soon after I left art school I got married, had children and moved to India for two years. After they were born it became almost impossible to paint but I never stopped being creative. I had done a bit of lino cutting and I had observed fabric printing at the art school. The thought came to me that I had always been interested in repeat pattern. I realised I could make my own blocks and print, even from home.

When my first child was only two months old we left for India. We spent two years there as my husband was an architect designing public buildings in the Punjab. On evenings we would wander down to the bazaar where you would find men printing bedspreads on long tables in the open air. Seeing them at work, printing in their hit and miss way, made me realise that you could do things yourself.

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Coming back to London, I found that I could do this when the children were at school. The first paper I created was for our own house and it looked good – so I carried on and made more prints. I found the one part of the house that wasn’t used for anything else, which was the landing and made a very makeshift studio. At the local hardware store I bought lino, lining paper, paint and a small roller. I put the paper on the floor and then had to stand on the block to create pressure to make the print.

It was a very haphazard process but I liked the effect and created a few designs. Eventually a friend convinced me it was time to get my own press. My printer friend decided that we should go to a large second-hand printing warehouse in Brixton, so off we went. It was a vast place with machines as big as houses but hidden in the corner there was this small unloved proofing press. I looked at it and said, “Well I think that will do”.

The next thing, of course, was the paper. I managed to find half a tonne of the right paper and that’s how it all began. It wasn’t planned really, somehow it just fell into place.

Plants are my vital source as they so effortlessly turn into a repeat – they flow over the walls and there is an endless variety that you can use. Walking around people’s front gardens I sometimes see a plant that will go into a pattern and sketch it straight away.

For me, the core of all visual art is drawing. To design a repeat pattern, I make a small grid of four sections and then trace everything onto it. You see what space you have, join it up and create a rhythm in the design. It’s always space filling with my design. Then I trace it onto a piece of lino and just start cutting. Once you’ve cut it, it’s irreversible!

The Summer Afternoon collection has been such a fun project. It’s a world I’ve not experienced before. Everyone has been so encouraging and supportive and it’s been lovely to work creatively together.