With inspiration sources ranging from UK prisons to the Middle East, the work of Matthew Meadows draws on a wide and varied life experience
As told to Bernadette Fallon
Growing up in Notting Hill in the ‘60s, the son of an architect father and artist mother with a genius for pattern making, it’s probably no surprise that Matthew Meadows choose to follow an artistic life. But the route he has taken is far from conventional. From teaching in the UK prison system to attempting a round-the-world cycle, he also helped to restore one of Ireland’s foremost country houses while just a teenager and now has his work featured in the V&A and Whitworth collections. A love of pattern, print, fine art, travel and music have all combined to create exciting recent work for the contemporary commercial wallpaper and textile market at surprisingly affordable prices – starting from just £450 for a feature wallpapered wall.
“I’m now absolutely clear how much of an impact my mother’s work had on me as a child growing up. She went to art school in Hull and moved to London from Yorkshire with my father after the war. After she died, I found a portfolio of work she’d done at art school, patterns and decorative work, and it was just wonderful. That was definitely an influence on my compulsion to make pattern.”
Matthew studied Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art and went on to do postgraduate print-making at Central St Martins. He combined his studies with a part-time job screen-printing for Ivo Prints, which printed for the likes of designers Gina Fratini and Celia Birtwell, working at the cutting edge of the UK design scene. It was a formative experience he says.
Just as formative was his ‘gap year’ in Ireland where he ended up working on the restoration of Castletown House in Co Kildare, built in the 1720s for the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, William Connolly. It was Ireland’s first Palladian mansion and a centre for architectural excellence, style and luxury entertaining that rivalled the vice regal court in Dublin.
Travelling over to Achill Island on the west coast of Ireland with friends Berris Boydell, nephew of Irish composer Brian Boydell, and his girlfriend Katie Craig, whose father Maurice was the renowned Irish architectural historian behind Ireland’s National Trust, they stopped off at Castletown on the way back. The Irish post-war and contemporary painter Philippa Bayliss was working on the restoration of the building and Matthew found himself halfway up a scaffold cleaning off the stuccos with acetone. “I just sort of stayed”, he says.
He ‘just sort of stayed’ for almost a year, cleaning up the stuccos originally created by the Lafranchini brothers, considered the best stuccodores in Europe at the time.He also developed a keen love of Irish music during his stay, hitch hiking around the country to listen to – and eventually play in – traditional music sessions.
“I got a lift once with a man who’d just been released from Portlaoise prison, he was ex-IRA and once he heard I was restoring a grand Anglo-Irish country house, started pointing out very proudly all of the grand Anglo-Irish country houses the IRA had burned down over the decades”.
Not all of his journeys were taken by car – he once borrowed a bike to cycle back from hearing local fiddler Tommy Peoples play in Doolin, Co Clare to his Castletown home, a small matter of 360km! And his love of the traditional music he heard around the country inspired him to take up playing the tin whistle, spoons and later the flute. Today, musical influences have made their way into his wallpaper designs, several of which have been inspired by fingering diagrams from wind instruments.
Another Irish connection inspired his next major project after art college. Reading the book Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a bicycle by Irish cyclist Dervla Murphy, an account of her ride in 1963 across Europe, through Persia and Afghanistan to Pakistan and India, he decided to cycle around the world.
He got as far as Pakistan. Working in a building site just outside Oxford to save money for the trip, the journey through Europe, across Greece and into Turkey went well, before he became ill in Afghanistan. In northern Afghanistan his gears broke, and he got a lift with travel writer Colin Thubron through part of the territory, getting them fixed in Kabul. Then, as he was running low on money, he decided to sell some of his blood.
“I got hepatitis. It was a really stupid thing to do but lots of travellers were doing it back then. At that time, I was near Lahore. I’d gone right the way through the Khyber Pass and then I ended up living in an old Sikh palace with preachers from a church missionary society and I got a job teaching in the National College of Arts in Lahore.”
He’s kept up the contact, travelling back as a guest lecturer to the college last year whilst teaching at New York University in Abu Dhabi. A research grant allowed him to revisit the National College of Arts to run presentations and workshops for the students, while a trip to nearby Oman provided rich architectural inspiration for one of his recent wallpaper designs.
Matthew’s UK teaching career began on his return from Pakistan. After taking an art teacher’s training course in the UK, he moved into a career in social and community arts, working with art and mental health projects and in the criminal justice system in prisons. He has written a book called Insider Arts, which is a survey of prison art in the UK, published by Bloomsbury.
Running his own studio alongside his teaching work, his work gradually became more focused on pattern, he explains. “In fact, I got obsessed with pattern and everything else got squeezed out”.
A key influence here was the American Pattern and Decoration Movement of the 1970s and ‘80s, largely determined by sources outside ‘fine art’ and blurring the line between art and design. He also finds inspiration in design from the Biedermeier period, in particular Spörlin & Rahn Irisé (or Rainbow) wallpapers, as well as late 18thand early 19thFrench wallpaper manufacturers such as Reveillon, Dufour and Jaquemart et Benard, and homegrown talent William Morris.
He’s kept up his Irish contacts and cites among his inspirations Irish wallpaper specialist David Skinner and Irish artist John Kindness, famous for his rendering of iconic Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne (the presenter of the world’s longest-running chat show) onto wallpaper. He also admires Alex and Naomi Bruce of Bruce Fine Papers, and Hugh Dunford Wood, disciple of lino-printing wallpaper legend Peggy Angus.
And, in these days, when it’s usual for practitioners to find their ‘niche’, he harks back to a time when artists such as Edward Bawden, Enid Marx, Eduardo Paolozzi and Josef Frank worked happily across disciplinary boundaries. Craft makers and designers like Anni Albers, Susan Bosence, Barron and Larcher, Jaqueline Groag and Shirley Craven are also up in his pantheon.
Moving from Brixton’s London Printworks Trust to establishing his own print studio near South London’s Brockwell Park, he has recently moved into textile printing as well as producing wallpaper. Working with textiles has been “an enjoyable challenge” – figuring out how pattern behaves differently when draped rather than flat.
Matthew describes his designs as predominantly geometric, with origins as varied as Portuguese and Moroccan ceramic tile design and his own urban environment – “which, after all, is filled with patterned motifs”.
And his audience? “Those who like beautiful things in their home and choose them confidently,” he explains. “Those who like design and colour, who appreciate my paper’s hand-made character and are keen to encourage and preserve traditional skills.”
It’s a discerning audience, one that’s prepared to pay for high quality artisan craft, looking for something other than mass-produced design. He also works with interior designers and architects who are providing an interesting portfolio of wallcoverings for their clients, in both public and private spaces.
His work sits in collections at the V&A and the Whitworth – his V&A piece was inspired by the razor wire traditionally used on top of prison walls – a fact that instantly caught the attention of the V&A curators. He has worked for Hamilton Weston, which produces bespoke wallpapers and historic reproductions, and sits on the committee for the Wallpaper History Society, a forum for wallcovering professionals and enthusiasts.
He is interested in “commemorative wallpaper”, produced to mark historical or cultural events ranging from the American and French Revolutions to the launch of Sputnik. And he’s produced his own designs for this genre, depicting the 2010 student protests against education cuts, a protest in which his son was seriously injured in a baton strike by police.
“I produced two commemorative papers called That Feral Mob, which is what the then Prime Minister David Cameron called the student demonstrators, despite the fact that eye-witnesses insisted the police response had been heavy-handed, as reported in the papers at the time.”
Now he’s thinking about a Brexit design, proving that even wallpaper can be politically relevant in our current climate. Using a Toile de Jouy pattern, frequently seen in narrative and commemorative papers, with small scenes repeated in a vertical half drop or offset, his forthcoming Brexit wallpaper will feature opposing groups of political characters in recognisable scenes, using flags and motifs to animate the design and illustrate the theme of division.