Sheila Bownas: A Designer’s Life

The story of Yorkshire Artist Sheila Bownas (1925 – 2007)

By Leeds Museums & Galleries

Purchased with support from the Art Fund, Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Leeds Art Fund.

Sheila Bownas (1950/1955) by UnknownLeeds Museums & Galleries

Sheila Bownas was a talented freelance designer working in Britain. Selling designs to high profile manufacturers and retailers including Liberty of London, Marks and Spencer and Crown Wallpapers, her patterns decorated the walls, floors and furniture of people's homes.

A young Sheila Bownas (1935/1940)Leeds Museums & Galleries

Early life and education

Growing up in the small picturesque village of Linton in the Yorkshire Dales, Sheila Bownas showed a natural talent from a young age. 

Homework, 'Sprig Patterns' (1942) by Sheila Catherine BownasLeeds Museums & Galleries

At her local Girls’ High School, in Skipton, she flourished as an artist and from there was encouraged to go to Skipton Art College. Her love and understanding of pattern was obvious even at this stage of her life.

Sheila Bownas painting in her studio at the Slade, London (1946/1950)Leeds Museums & Galleries

In 1946 Sheila was awarded a scholarship to study at the prestigious Slade School of Art, in London. Here she continued to thrive as an artist. She was taught a range of skills from life drawing to landscape painting and won various prizes for her work. 

Pattern design SB 215 (1950/1959) by Sheila Catherine BownasLeeds Museums & Galleries

Making her way as a pattern designer

In 1950 Sheila completed her studies and began life as an independent artist concentrating on patterns for textiles and wallpapers. For the next 25 years she was a prolific artist selling many of her pattern designs to highly regarded manufacturers.

Pattern design SB 305 (1960/1970) by Sheila Catherine BownasLeeds Museums & Galleries

After graduating Sheila’s ability in pattern design was recognised by the Council of Industrial Design - an organisation set up in 1944 by the British Government, to improve design practices and standards. The Council is still going to day but is now known as the Design Council.

Pattern design SB 214 (1950/1959) by Sheila Catherine BownasLeeds Museums & Galleries

Sheila’s work was recommended to manufacturers across Britain and Europe. This led to her designing patterns for Demide Ltd, a vinyl floor company in Britain and PW Bruck-Messel, a textile company in Germany.

Sheila Bownas (1950/1955) by UnknownLeeds Museums & Galleries

But life as a designer was hard for a young female artist in the 1950s and 1960s. After graduation Sheila spent 12 years living between London and her family home in Linton, trying to make a career for herself. 

Sheila Bownas and her Friend Betsy ToothillLeeds Museums & Galleries

Sheila’s best friend Betsy helped out by providing somewhere to stay. The friends had met as students at the Slade.

Pattern design SB 218 (1950/1959) by Sheila Catherine BownasLeeds Museums & Galleries

For a time in the late 1950s Sheila lived in a small cottage in the grounds of Betsy’s parents’ home, in Kingston upon Thames. From there she would travel in to London to show her work to prospective buyers. 

Pattern design SB 319 (1960/1970) by Sheila Catherine BownasLeeds Museums & Galleries

A letter dated 1959 reveals the difficulties Sheila faced in finding a more permanent job:


“With reference to your desire to obtain a position in our studio, the director feels that should an appointment be made at all, a male designer would be preferable.” 

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This didn’t deter Sheila’s passion for design. In 1962 she returned to Linton in the Yorkshire Dales and it is here that she lived for the rest of her life painting and successfully selling her designs from a small make-shift studio next to her cottage.

Flexatex plastic sheeting (c.1962) by Sheila Catherine BownasLeeds Museums & Galleries

The unknown designer

Sheila's success as a pattern designer did not bring her fame. Throughout history designers have rarely been credited for their work. Instead it is the manufacturer’s name, which the designs are sold under, that become the known or associated name. 

Letter from Marks and Spencer (1956) by Marks and SpencerLeeds Museums & Galleries

Letters confirm that Sheila sold her designs to well-known brands, but you will not find her name on any of the finished products sold by the companies she worked for.

Pattern design SB 497 (1960/1970) by Sheila Catherine BownasLeeds Museums & Galleries

Female designers, like Sheila, dominated the commercial textile pattern industry of this period. These talented artists designed the popular, everyday patterns which ended up in people’s homes, decorating their furniture or on their walls. Yet their names are often not known.

Pattern design SB 367 (1960/1970) by Sheila Catherine BownasLeeds Museums & Galleries

In design history Sheila's name might have been lost if it was not for the survival of this collection of designs. The designs are works which were not sold to any manufacturers but were all carefully kept, by Sheila Bownas, at her home in Linton, in the Yorkshire Dales.

Pattern design SB 1462 (1970/1975) by Sheila Catherine BownasLeeds Museums & Galleries

Rescued from obscurity

It was only after her death in 2007 that Sheila's name contribution to British design history was brought to light. In 2008 Chelsea Cefai, a gallery professional, discovered the collection being auctioned off. Recognising its importance, she bought the collection.

Pattern design SB 210 (1950/1959) by Sheila Catherine BownasLeeds Museums & Galleries

In the collection were nearly 200 hand painted designs. Many of them are signed 'S. Bownas' and have their own unique design number. Using the designs as a starting point Chelsea Cefai set about researching Sheila Bownas to find out more about her life and work. 

Sheila Bownas (1935/1945)Leeds Museums & Galleries

With help from Sheila’s family who provided family photographs, letters and documents this important story has now been pieced together and brought to life. Sheila Bownas is no longer an unknown designer.  

Pattern design SB 1478 (1970/1975) by Sheila Catherine BownasLeeds Museums & Galleries

Chelsea’s Cefai’s commitment to shining a light on the life and works of Sheila Bownas has ensured the collection has stayed together and now has a permanent home in a public museum collection. 

Credits: Story

With thanks to Chelsea Cefai and Sheila Bownas' Family.

The Sheila Bownas archive was purchased with support from the Art Fund, Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Leeds Art Fund.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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