Celia Birtwell was born in 1941 in Bury in Lancashire, where her father was an engineer and her mother was a seamstress. After studying at Salford School of Art, she moved to London, where she shared a house with the Pop artist Pauline Boty. In 1969 she married the designer Ossie Clark (1942-1996) and together they revolutionised British fashion, bringing in a flowing, vivacious style that drew on sharp 1930s tailoring and Fauvist colour.
The clothes still startle: emerald-green trouser suits and dresses with bold flower-print patterns that anticipated the mood of late-1960s bohemian London. Birtwell and Clark were divorced in 1974, and she set up her own home furnishings shop in Westbourne Park Road. In 2001 she returned to fashion and has since designed fabrics for Cacharel, Valentino and John Lewis.
David Hockney first drew Birtwell in 1968. ‘She’s playful, funny. When I first met her, I was attracted to the fact that she could make me laugh,’ he once said. On 1 March 2023, two drawings of Birtwell by Hockney from 1973 and 1974 will be offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Sale at Christie’s in London, followed by a 1970 work in the Modern British and Irish Art Evening Sale on 21 March. Here, Birtwell recalls her time as Hockney’s muse.
‘He is a very brilliant draughtsman. You sat there very still, for however long it took. Sometimes you could tell how it was going by his facial expressions’ — Celia Birtwell
Do you remember meeting David Hockney for the first time?
‘I was in Portobello Road with my friend Pauline Boty. I asked her who this chap was — he had a certain aura about him. He didn’t have blond hair then and was wearing a maroon corduroy jacket. He was already a bit of a star, making his mark at the Royal College of Art.
‘Pauline and I shared a house on Addison Road in Kensington, which is featured in Ken Russell’s film Pop Goes the Easel. It was a very sociable place, owned by the antiques dealer Jon Manasseh. We lived there for two years and paid £2.50 a week. It looks terribly shabby in the film, but I don’t remember it like that. Jon had all these treasures, and he took me to auctions all over the country. It was a wonderful time. Then he decided he wanted to smarten the place up, so he kicked us out.
‘I didn’t get to know David properly until around 1968, when his boyfriend Peter Schlesinger became a friend. David would come over to my house in Linden Gardens to collect him.’
Did you like the way he portrayed you in pictures?
‘Of course! How could you not? He is a very brilliant draughtsman. You sat there very still, for however long it took. Sometimes you could tell how it was going by his facial expressions, and occasionally we’d stop and have a look at them halfway through. They took a long time.’
What can you tell us about the drawing made in 1970?
‘It is a relatively early one, and I think I am in his flat on Powys Terrace in Notting Hill. I am wearing one of my fabric designs, a palm-tree print chiffon blouse with a pussycat bow which is rather dishevelled, and a jersey skirt with checks which I loved very much. I like my hair: I used to sweep it up to make it look fuller because it was so thin. But here I think it looks all right. It is a very beautiful picture. I am very proud to be that person.’
And the other two drawings offered at Christie’s were made in Paris?
‘Yes, I recognise the chair. David had this fabulous studio in Paris that he had borrowed off [film director] Tony Richardson. It had once been owned by the painter Balthus. I loved those sittings because of the atmosphere of the place. It had these large windows the sunlight would filter through. Behind the building was a primary school, and every so often the children would come out to play and you would hear this cacophony of voices. It was absolutely lovely.
‘I have a vague idea that I might be wearing lingerie in the drawing from 1973. I seem to remember we had a discussion about me coming out to Paris and bringing some clothes in lovely pastel colours and some lingerie. It looks like I’m wearing half-and-half in that one.’
You look very thoughtful in them.
‘I do! They are rather tender; lovely, but a little sad. A brief pause in what was a very big moment for me. Ossie was branching out and becoming super successful, and I was very proud to be a part of it — it was the highlight of my youthful career. We had our first breakthrough in about 1967, when we made clothes in chiffon. They were not overtly sexy, but they were alluring. The response told us that we were onto something. Suddenly we were famous.’
What made you such a successful team?
‘Ossie was an architect of fashion. He was brilliant at drawing three-dimensionally and he had this very hard-edged sensibility. I think my prints softened his ideas perfectly. We spent a long time looking at 1930s fashion and used to buy a lot of second-hand clothes from Portobello Road market. Ossie loved parties and was always going out, whereas I’m a bit of a home-body really. Somehow we just hit the right note together.’
In Hockney’s painting Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, you both look very much part of bohemian aristocracy. Did you feel like that?
‘People talk about the Swinging Sixties and I never know what that expression means. It was just our youth and we were living it. Yes, it was exciting. Ossie was the first person to use music on the catwalk. Before then it was all very stiff and proper, whereas our shows were relaxed and fun. Mick Jagger and the Beatles came, and of course the girls were so glamorous.
‘I think Ossie would have liked to have been a pop star. He liked the life they led. When musicians finish an album, they go on holiday, whereas in fashion you can’t do that — you have to get started on a new collection straight away. The more famous he got, the less inclined he was to work immediately after a fashion show.’
Has the fashion industry changed much since then?
‘It has definitely got more ruthless. It is such a big business now. Back in the 1960s it was more like a cottage industry — you made what you enjoyed, and that seemed to be fine. But now everything is so financially up there. That is why when I opened my shop in the 1980s I decided to do home fabrics. I had two small sons and needed to be at home more. However, I returned to fashion in 2001, and have had some incredible commissions since then. Working with Valentino was an honour, because you could use these gorgeous fabrics and there was no expense spared.’
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There’s an exhibition in Milan about your collaboration with Ossie.
‘Yes, it opened in January at the Sozzani Foundation, curated by Federico Poletti. He rang me up out of the blue and said he wanted to do an exhibition about us. I am so pleased, because I want Ossie to be remembered.’