Ann Macbeth

by Emma Bray

Banner Image: Detail from The Nativity by Ann Macbeth

Ann Macbeth was born in Bolton, Lancashire in 1875. Her grandfather and uncle were established artists. A bout of scarlet fever as a child left her with the use of only one eye. In 1897, she went to study at Glasgow School of Art, known for its Glasgow Style – an avant-garde style of design, influenced by the arts and crafts movement and Celtic revival. She was taught embroidery by Jessie Newbury and became an assistant tutor in 1902, the same year in which she won a medal in the Turin International Exhibition of Decorative Arts. She succeeding Jessie as Head of Embroidery in 1911. As well as embroidery, Macbeth taught needlework, appliqué, book-binding, metalwork and ceramics. She lectured across the country and wrote books on teaching needlework, lace and leatherwork, rugs and children’s crafts. Her designs were commissioned by Liberty’s of London.

Ann Macbeth’s approach to teaching needlework to children was groundbreaking. She advocated the use of brightly coloured threads, encouraged children to plan their own designs using nature and ensured that each lesson led to a completed practical object. Her approach was set out in books, Educational Needlecraft and The Playwork Book. Up to a hundred teachers would sign up to her Saturday morning schools to learn her approach.

Macbeth was an active suffragette and designed banners for the movement and a quilt with the names of eighty hunger-strikers at Holloway Prison. It seems she was imprisoned and force-fed herself in 1912 and her health afterwards was so poor that she took months away from work to recuperate.

Ann Macbeth about 1914, from The Life of Ann Macbeth, with thanks to Patterdale WI

She moved to High Bield above Hartsop in 1921 and then to Wordsworth’s Cottage in Patterdale where she retired permanently in 1928. She was a striking figure in the village, wearing a long flowing cape, brightly coloured skirts and long necklaces. She fired ceramics in a kiln at the cottage, gifting pieces to local people, especially children at their Christenings. In the 1920s, she tried to ease the effects of economic depression on local farming families by advocating the production of rugs from herdwick wool. She invented a loom that could be easily constructed and taught local women how to weave rugs on it, publishing her ideas in The Country Woman’s Rug Book.

Wordsworth Cottage © Anne Clarke

She made two religious panels that have Patterdale in their background. The first, The Good Shepherd, depicts Christ as a shepherd, with the fells, village, sheep and wild flowers of Patterdale in the background. It is sewn in silk and wool which she dyed at her cottage in Patterdale. The panel hangs in St Patrick’s Church in the village. It is said that she re-worked one of the lamb’s faces because a local boy did not like the first attempt. The second panel, The Nativity, shows the infant Jesus in a cradle with the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel against a backdrop which is clearly the village of Patterdale. Macbeth was inspired by a tiny manger that she had found in a derelict barn in the valley. A copy of this work is displayed in the church. St Patrick’s also houses a panel depicting a bright bowl of flowers sewn for the Gorton family and a beautiful panel on silk with flowers and doves which states “Peace when thou comest, and when thou goest, may thy footsteps echo peace.”

Ann Macbeth died in Carlisle in 1948.

by Emma Bray

The Good Shepherd, from The Life of Ann Macbeth by Marjorie Ives, courtesy of Patterdale WI
The Nativity, from The Life of Ann Macbeth by Marjorie Ives, courtesy of Patterdale WI