I am what I am


I really, really didn’t want to be right about Lilian Dring; that she was forced into the female arena of needlework after being pushed out of the world of poster design.  But I am.  That’s exactly what happened, and I am furious.

David Bownes, of Twentieth Century Posters fame, scanned and sent over images of the (small) catalogue for what I believe is the only exhibition of her work, at the Orleans House Gallery in Richmond in 1989.

The very first paragraph sets out the stark truth.

It was never Lilian Dring’s intention to be an embroiderer.  She has not in over fifty years ceased to think like the graphic designer she was trained to be and which circumstances beyond her control prevented.

The biography gives the exact details of how this happened.  She was a very able art student, who excelled at Kingston School of Art and then got a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, as one of the first four students on the Poster Design course (has this course ever been studied, or do the archives not exist?  If anyone can tell me the answer to this, I would love to know).

Some of the pictures reproduced in the catalogue may be of her student work, although the book, I think, was published.

Lilian doing student work 1920s

She studied at the RCA for three years and, as a promising talent, was offered a fourth, but had to turn it down because of her mother’s failing health.  Men, I will note, aren’t often expected to make this kind of choice.

The next section of the catalogue is entitled ‘What Might Have Been’.

For Lilian the 1930’s were “the lean, mean years”, when all the talk was of depression, recession, dole queues and the gathering clouds of war.  It was the worst possible time for a young free-lance graphic designer to establish herself.  She had done some fine work at College and now, lugging her portfolio up and down Fleet Street, she showed her stuff to anybody who could be persuaded to look at it, but the answer was always the same: they liked her work but could not use it – at least not at present.

The catalogue seems to suggest that the only two commissions she ever received were the Youth Hostelling posters preserved at the V&A and the London Transport poster which was never produced.

So instead she got married, made toys for her friends’ children out of scraps and gradually turned this craft into a way of making a living.  (She divorced after the Second World War and so supported herself by her work all her life).

I’m not going to talk much about her needlework, because plenty of other people have and it’s not really the business of this blog.  But I would just like to show you one of her works from 1947.

Lilian Dring 1947 embroidery.

It melds together past and present, eighteenth century and twentieth.

The text on the left is by the Countess of Winchelsea and reads:

My hand delights to trace unusual things/And deviates from known and common ways/Nor will in fading silks compose/Faintly the inimitable rose.

On the right is Dring’s own response to this.

O Kindred Spirit, I do agree/Expressions should be unhampered, free/Admit few conceptions, keep less rules/Be individual, not set in schools.

On the one hand, quite literally, this is her artistic manifesto, her statement that she can do what she likes with embroidery – and she did, kettle fur and all.

But the texts can be read in more than one way; at the same time, there seems to be to be a mourning, and perhaps even a rage against her lot..  Because composing in fading silks is exactly what she did end up doing.  Her expression was never unhampered and free; instead she was put into a box marked ‘suitable artistic expression for women’  and made to stay in it.

The story is all too common: the most unusual thing about Lilian Dring was that she told the truth about what had happened to her.  And every single one of you should be as filled with feminist rage at this as I am.

  • I was interested to read your article about Lilian Dring as I had just unearthed a small booklet written/illustrated by her: The Cycle of Seasons. publ Collins and clearly in the same series as ‘A Rhyme of Time’.
    I found it in a box with some of my books when I was a child in the 1940s/50s.
    Looking through the 12pp I well remember slowly reading out the short verses to my parents and pointing out the animals etc in the drawings.
    It is what you would term a well loved little booklet.. a bit grubby but intact.
    I am loathe to send to a charity shop as it would be discarded as not appealing to modern kids.
    If you would like it as a present/memento of such a talented artist/designer, send me your address and I’ll pop it into an envelope ( foc!)
    Greta Roberts

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