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New exhibition reveals the legacy of a reclusive artist

THE work of reclusive artist Sheila Bownas threatened to fade into obscurity until a chance find at auction led gallery professional Chelsea Cefai on a journey of discovery.

Now, with the opening of a new exhibition at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum, Sheila's timeless designs finally seem destined to reach a wider audience and achieve the recognition her work deserves.

Chelsea Cefai - A Life in PatternIn 2008, while renovating her home in Rugby, Chelsea Cefai was searching on eBay for artwork to hang on her freshly painted walls.

Little did she expect to stumble upon an entire archive of original, hand-painted designs by unknown artist, Sheila Bownas.

"A complete treasure trove fell into my hands," Chelsea said. "My initial impulse to buy the designs was to 'rescue' the collection and to ensure it stayed together, rather than being sold off separately.

"I could tell I had found something special and my instinct told me there was a story behind the pieces which could easily have been lost forever."

So started a journey of discovery for Chelsea. Since first finding Sheila's work, she has founded the Sheila Bownas Archive and collaborated with artists and designers across the UK to produce a range of unique interior products which bring Sheila's patterns back to life.

Through making contact with Sheila's family, Chelsea has pieced together a detailed history of the artist's life and work, culminating in A Life in Pattern: The Life and Works of Sheila Bownas, which opens at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum on Saturday.

Researched and curated by Chelsea, the exhibition features early paintings, textile designs spanning three decades, and photographs, private letters and research catalogues on loan from the Bownas family.

The exhibition also includes a series of intricate botanical studies of marshlands which Sheila produced for the Natural History Museum in 1962.

And for the exhibition's centrepiece, Chelsea has created a 'to scale' living room set showcasing wallpaper, furniture, textiles, lighting and ceramics featuring Sheila's distinctive designs.

Jessica Litherland, Rugby Art Gallery and Museum's senior exhibitions officer, said: "Chelsea has done an amazing job of bringing Sheila's work back to life and raising the profile of a talent which seemed destined to be lost to the art world.

"It has been a life-changing labour of love for Chelsea and her family, and one we should all be grateful for as we now have access to a little piece of design history."

Sheila Bownas was born in 1925, growing up in the small village of Linton in the Yorkshire Dales.

Displaying a natural talent from an early age and with the encouragement of her art mistress at Skipton Girls' High School, she attended Skipton Art College in the 1940s and secured a scholarship at The Slade, London's prestigious art school, where she won a number of prizes for her work.

After graduating, Sheila forged a career as a freelance textile designer, supplying surface patterns to the likes of Liberty and Marks and Spencer throughout the 1950s and 60s.

But while her work was bought by some of the biggest and most prestigious brands, none bore her name.

By the end of the 60s Sheila had returned to the Yorkshire Dales, where she became increasingly reclusive in her later years while remaining devoted to her work.

It was only on her death in 2007 her family discovered the sheer scale of her collection of still life, landscape and portrait paintings - and the textile designs which first alerted Chelsea to Sheila's talent.

Chelsea said: "The exhibition at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum firmly shines a spotlight on a unique talent, a talent which was so nearly lost to history.

"To finally see Sheila's work go on show for the very first time is a dream come true for me and something I am sure she would have been incredibly proud of."

A Life in Pattern: The Life and Works of Sheila Bownas runs at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum from Saturday 25 June to Saturday 3 September.

Free guided tours of the exhibition, led by Chelsea Cefai, take place on Wednesday 29 June, Wednesday 6 July, Thursday 14 July, Thursday 18 August and Thursday 25 August.

The tours start at the Art Gallery at 12 noon and places must be booked in advance by calling (01788) 533217.

For more information on the Sheila Bownas Archive, visit

For more information about events and exhibitions at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum, visit

Photo caption: Chelsea Cefai has researched and curated A Life in Pattern: The Life and Works of Sheila Bownas. (Photo by Jamie Gray Photography)

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