Felixstowe fashion exhibition illustrates the Swinging Sixties
Suffolk-based fashion illustrator Sonya Todd is best described as a force of nature. She is a whirlwind of energy and enthusiasm that has remained undimmed since she burst onto the London fashion scene in the 1960s and talked her way into the studios of some of the nation’s leading graphic design agencies.
For many years she worked for such leading high street fashion stores as C&A and Bentalls before becoming an illustrator for TV Times. She says that much of her work was influenced by Aubrey Beardsley after she visited an exhibition at the V&A in 1966.
“I loved the simplicity of the prints – of the line drawing. My drawings were very much of the time, they are very much born of the 1960s attitude for modernising things but I found in Beardsley, work with a similar modern feeling.”
She said that the drawings of the period were very flat, with no attempt to add depth to the picture, a trait shared by Beardsley.
“They are almost two-dimensional. It was just right for the publications of the time.”
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Her other great influence was Dior’s in-house illustrator Ren� Gruau. “We all loved Gruau, all the fashion artists did because his work was so exciting. He really captured the look of the liberated woman. I took elements from both Beardsley and Gruau because my work had to be reproduced in the newspapers, so it had to look a certain way.”
Sonya Todd has pulled together an exhibition of her work for Felixstowe’s Reunion Gallery in Gainsborough Road. It’s a show designed to invoke the carefree spirit of Carnaby Street and London of the Swinging Sixties.
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It’s an exhibition drawn from Sonya’s own archive with framed original drawings on the walls along with printed work from magazines and newspapers of the era. Among the highlights are a spread of costume designs for Joanna Lumley when she appeared as Purdy in The New Avengers and a series of illustrations for Noele Gordon’s onscreen wedding clothes for Crossroads in 1975.
“They were very busy times. I never turned down any work because I was working freelance and you never knew where the next job was coming from but I was so busy that I never had any free time so after a while I became exhausted.”
You get the impression that Sonya has always been a workaholic. She talks incredibly quickly. There is still an incredible sense of urgency about her. As she takes me around the exhibition the words tumble out of her mouth, quicker than I can take them in. She fixes you with a quizzical, penetrating look. “Do you understand, Andrew?” she asks as I try and assimilate the information hurtling towards me.
I assure her I do and she whisks me off to a collection of cuttings and magazines which illustrate the breadth of her work during a decade when London was the coolest, hippest, most cutting edge place on Earth.
In addition to the original drawings Sonya has had a limited number of prints made of some of her drawings. Her work is beautiful because of the simplicity of the drawings, the economy of the lines she uses. Nothing is wasted and the viewer is encouraged to mentally fill in the detail which is only suggested by well judged lines.
It’s clear from her enthusiasm that she is justifiably proud of her work. But there is also an air of rediscovery about her almost evangelical enthusiasm. During our conversation it emerges that all her work has been tucked away in the attic and in cupboards in her Leiston home until earlier this year when she exhumed it all following a visit to London’s Design Museum.
She attended a fashion exhibition about fashion in the 1960s and was alarmed to discover that all the exhibits were French.
Her sense of outrage is still palpable as she relates the tale.
“I phoned up the curator and said: ‘What about the London designers and illustrators? London was the centre of the world back then?’ She fixes me with an earnest look and I get a brief feeling of empathy for the museum’s exhibition curator.
“It has taken until now to have an exhibition about English fashion drawing. I phoned up the Design Museum and said: ‘Your exhibition is all French, you’re terrible. You’re ignoring the contribution we made during this period. But it was all about advertising, you see, because the English illustrators didn’t have names they could put on the advertising or on the posters.”
She said that as a result of her phone call a curator from the Design Museum came to look at her work. “He visited me at my home at Leiston and he was thrilled. He thought I was Tutankhamun. I have been living in Cross Street, Leiston for ten years and had all this stuff put away in cupboards
“I had been teaching a lot before I came here. Drawing has been my life. I didn’t pass any exams but I joined the Society of Industrial Artists and went round all the colleges and as soon as they saw me and my work they said: ‘Will you come and teach our students?’ I ended up at Bournemouth, Leicester and Croydon. Leicester was very important. They brought in people like me because they wanted something fresh. They wanted people who had actually worked in the industry.
“Then my marriage broke down. My husband was a painter. He went to Poland and didn’t come back. I gave up my lovely house in Saffron Waldon, moved to Greenwich but when the work dried up, I thought ‘to hell with it’ and gave it all up. For the past 30 years I have been out of the design business and it is only now that it’s all taking off again. People are taking an interest.”
She said that she is pleased that she kept the work in storage and didn’t dispose of it.
Now she wants to pass on her drawings as a collection. “People keep telling me not to split up the drawings. I am waiting to hear what the Design Museum want to do, now that they have seen them.”
Sonya was born and brought up in South Shields. “The place was deadly and I wasn’t at all academic but I could draw. I was no good at school. I didn’t pass anything and when my family came down to London, because there was no work in the north, I went to South East Essex Technical College where I learnt about art, about the history of art. I thought it was wonderful. And by being in London I managed to get experience in studios. I went from studio to studio to studio. I was taken on at one studio to bring on their mail order fashion business. Suddenly I went from a little bit of money to quite a large salary but they wouldn’t make me a director.
“So I uprooted and established my own studio and I took the Bentalls account with me. They were the ones who told me to strike out on my own.”
She said her studio overlooked the Fullham Football Ground at Craven Cottage and in addition to working for Bentall’s, C&A also signed her up, even though a couple of years earlier they refused to raise her from a sketch artist to a design artist. “If you go away, suddenly you become more desirable,” she laughed. She worked close to David Bailey’s studio. “It was a very creative area. It was very busy, a very good address.
“For 12 years I had no free time. Job followed job. There was always a deadline. I never had a holiday. It made me quite ill in the end.”
She said that part of the problem was that she was trying to work and play too hard. “The work was brought to you in the morning and you had to get it finished but at lunchtime you dashed across the river to the National Film Theatre to see the latest art film and when you came back you were behind. I was trying to do too much.”
She added that the industry was full of characters. “The men were huge drinkers. They came in with the work and they all had huge tummies. I remember being at Studio Irwin and this young girl came by me and said: ‘They tried to drink me under the table but I showed them.’ She then collected all the dirty coffee cups and took them out to be cleaned and we then heard this terrible crash. We all laughed. It was like a comedy sketch.”
She believes it is important for museums and colleges to preserve the nation’s design and illustrative heritage. She said that having worked on her own for all those years it was refreshing to be working not only with students but with our illustrators who worked across a wide variety of different industries and with the BBC.
Looking back, she says that although they could not actually put it into words at the time, they were aware that the 1960s were special. “We knew that something special was happening. Things were changing. You might have noticed that I have an accent. Now the 1960s killed any snobbery that there had been about the north of England. The Free Cinema and the English New wave in theatre made the north part of Britain’s culture for the first time.”
Sonya Todd’s exhibition at the Reunion Gallery runs until April 23.